The history of sports is filled with hoaxes, going back to when Abner Doubleday invented baseball. This latest Manti Te’o story is crazy, and nothing exactly like it has ever happened. People, though, have been perpetrating lies and playing jokes for any number of reasons, from having fun, to gaining an advantage, to notoriety, to who knows what, for a long time. Before twitter, cell phones and facebook, there were rotary phones and telegrams and good old fashioned leg work.
Turns out, Manti Te’o isn’t the first Notre Dame Heisman candidate to be tied to a hoax involving a woman. For Paul Hornung, though, it was a real live one who claimed she received a football with a ring in it from Hornung, something he later said was a hoax. Back in 1953, fake wives were involved when it came to students trying to get extra seats for the game between Oklahoma and Notre Dame–about 100 of them. Nearly thirty years later, Gerry Faust punched an official during a Notre Dame game, except he didn’t.
The mother of all sporting hoaxes occurred in the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, when Fred Lorz caught a ride for a large portion of the race, and then came in first. He was later disqualified, and the winner Thomas Hicks actually used performance-enhancing drugs, including strychnine and some brandy. He was merely the first to win a race without winning it. Rosie Ruiz is the most famous example. Slightly funnier, a 16-year old German named Norbert Suedhans entered the Olympic Stadium in Munich ahead of the Gold Medal Marathon winner, to thunderous applause before the crowd realized it wasn’t the competitor.
The Olympics, representing a sports ideal that does not exist, are thus fertile ground for hoaxes, from those involving the Olympic torch to imposters in the Olympic Village, to a police officer who planted a bomb and then found it to play the hero.
Sometimes, hoaxes are a good way to get to travel. In 1953, a group of Canadians posed as a traveling Rugby team to get better travel rates to England. Turns out they weren’t very good at Rugby, losing their only match 44-0 before folks figured it out.
Other times, what doesn’t start out as a lie gets there because of embarrassment. In 1959, a female janitor had told friends that she had won a football pool. Turns out, she was mistaken, but couldn’t let go of it and the lie built, to a point that she opened a checking account and had a fake check presented at a ceremony for her friends.
People can be cruel and try to play on athlete’s emotions, like when someone called in that Michael Jordan’s mom was sick. The only difference between that and forty years earlier is that research is more readily available. Someone tried that on Cubs pitcher Don Kaiser, telegramming him that his mother was dying right before he took the mound. It didn’t faze him, because his mother was already dead.
Sports impostors are nothing new. We had athletes who used up eligibility posing as someone else at Texas in the 1990’s and at UCLA in the 1930’s. A real-life Enrico Palazzo appeared on the field before the 1980 World Series dressed as an umpire. Sports Illustrated gave us Sidd Finch, and Bob Knight gave us a Yugoslavian prized recruit.
Someone with the same name as Jerry Levias, Houston Oilers wide receiver, secured a tryout with the Detroit Tigers claiming to be the athlete, wanting to change sports. Kevin Hart pretended to be recruited by California and Oregon five years ago. A 19 year old soccer player planted stories of being the hero at an international soccer tournament in 1982. Ali Dia got into a Premier League game based on an imposter posing as George Weah recommending him to Graeme Souness.
Howard Cosell was once fooled by a student posing as Muhammad Ali, whom he interviewed on Monday Night Football. Penn State once spread ashes over the stadium based on a hoax claiming a large donation based on someone’s wishes.
Perhaps the best and funniest hoax was the Plainfield Teacher’s College Comets in 1941. If you think accepting a story of an athlete’s girlfriend is bad, well, at least it wasn’t publishing scores for a school that didn’t exist. Stockbroker Morris Newburger began phoning in scores for the school, coached by “Hurry Up” Hoblitzel, to the New York Times. Plainfield Teacher’s College was dominating the competition, led by star running back Johnny “The Celestial Comet” Chung, who only ate rice to keep going strong. The fictional Chung, it is noted in other papers, was the subject of at least one feature by a New York writer. So while Lennay Kekua may not be real, at least Manti Te’o is. We think.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]