All she wanted were white roses.
Lennay Kekua, the longtime girlfriend of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, passed away on September 11, 2012 after losing an extended battle with leukemia.
Prior to her passing, the 22-year-old Stanford student made her boyfriend promise two things: that he wouldn’t miss any football because of her condition, and that he give her a bouquet of white roses after she was gone.
The news of Kekua’s death was one of two staggering emotional blows the talented linebacker and Heisman Trophy candidate experienced this season, and both of them occurred on the exact same day in September within the span of a few hours.
Six hours after hearing his grandmother Annette Santiago had died of cancer, Te’o was hammered with the news that Kekua had also passed, knocking out yet another pillar of strength for an already emotionally devastated young man.
How It Began: Kekua met Te’o during her freshman year at Stanford, and within a year the two were steadily dating and vacationing together in Hawaii, where Te’o was raised. Both were unaware of Kekua’s condition until she was involved in a serious car accident her sophomore year, and testing during her recuperation period in the hospital spotted cancerous cells in her blood.
Devastated but not destroyed, Te’o drew on the strength and courage Kekua had shown in her final months and continued to play on through his period of mourning—keeping his final promise to her and taking the field against Michigan on September 22, the day of Kekua’s funeral. Te’o told reporters:
I knew when they were going to close the casket, It was during walkthrough. I remember I asked Coach [Bob] Diaco, "Coach, what time is it?" And he said "It’s 12:01."
That would be 9:01 California time, and nine o’clock is when they closed the casket for my girlfriend. So I had a moment then.
Te’o would go on to make eight tackles and snag two interceptions against the Wolverines in front of a crowd of Notre Dame fans, many of whom wore Hawaiian leis in support of their star player whose whole life had been turned upside down in the past week.
Te’o “sent” his two interceptions to Kekua, along with a single bouquet of white flowers he had placed on her grave.
“It was possibly the hardest thing I’ve had to do so far,” said Te’o. “To be able to operate and continue with my daily routine while knowing I just lost two women who I truly love.”
Te’o’s continued excellence at linebacker this season established him as a Heisman frontrunner and helped elevate Notre Dame’s football team to a 12-0 record and the No. 1 ranking in the land.
Tonight Te’o and the Fighting Irish look to extend that record to a perfect 13-0 and beat the Alabama Crimson Tide for the program’s first national title since 1988.
Win or lose, I think we all know Lennay Kekua will be smiling down on the Irish tonight, and Te’o will do his very best to honor her for his last time in the blue and gold of Notre Dame.