Manti Te'o, Notre Dame's star linebacker, was one of the feel-good stories of the 2012 college football season, excelling on the field despite the deaths of his grandmother and his girlfriend, he said, within hours of each other.
On Wednesday, that story fell apart when the website Deadspin published a report saying Te'o's girlfriend never existed.
Notre Dame said in a statement that Te'o was the victim of "what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had died of leukemia."
Te'o released his own statement, saying he was the target "of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies," calling the situation "painful and humiliating."
At a news conference Wednesday night, Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame's athletic director, said Te'o received a phone call in early December from a number that he thought to be Kekua's. The voice on the phone was one he had believed to be hers, Swarbrick said, and the person was telling Te'o that she was not dead. Te'o and his family told the university about the situation on Dec. 26, Swarbrick said, at which point Notre Dame asked an independent investigative company to look into the matter.
Much remains unclear about whether Te'o was duped or if he somehow perpetrated the fictitious story of having a girlfriend who died during the season. It is clear, however, that both Te'o and the university were well aware of the situation during the onslaught of news media coverage during the lead-up to the Bowl Championship Series title game on Jan. 7. Neither corrected the record until the Deadspin article was published Wednesday.
Swarbrick said it was his understanding that, until the Deadspin article was published, Te'o and his family planned to make a public statement about the situation next week. He said there was no attempt to conceal the story: "This story was coming out. There was too much online chatter about it."
Swarbrick said the university investigation found that the motive for creating a fake persona to trick Te'o had simply been the sport of it.
"Nothing about what I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te'o one iota," he said.
Te'o said that over an extended period of time he had developed an emotional relationship with a woman he met online. He did not say whether they had met in person, but he did say that they had maintained a relationship online — and on the phone, "and I grew to care deeply about her." He said he hoped "people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been." Swarbrick said Te'o told him that he had never met Kekua in person.
In October, a month after Kekua was said to have died, an article in the South Bend Tribune described the initial meeting between her and Te'o in California in 2009, without attributing the details.
"Lennay Kekua was a Stanford student and Cardinal football fan when the two exchanged glances, handshakes and phone numbers that fateful weekend three seasons ago," the story said.
Te'o's father, Brian, was quoted in the article saying that, every once in a while, she would travel to Hawaii, when his son happened to be home, "so he would meet with her there." He said they started as friends but had become a couple within the past year.
"And we came to the realization that she could be our daughter-in-law," Brian Te'o was quoted as saying. "Sadly, it won't happen now."
It was around the time the two supposedly became a couple that Kekua was injured in a serious car crash. And during the long recovery from the crash, it was discovered that she had leukemia, which ultimately killed her, the article said.
A Sports Illustrated article in October told more of the story, reporting that in the months leading up to her death, Te'o "developed a nightly ritual in which he would go to sleep while on the phone."
"When he woke up in the morning, his phone would show an eight-hour call, and he would hear Lennay breathing on the other end of the line. Her relatives told him that at her lowest points, as she fought to emerge from a coma, her breathing rate would increase at the sound of his voice," the article said.
Deadspin reported that there was no Social Security Administration record of Lennay Marie Kekua dying, that a record search produced no obituary or funeral announcement. She supposedly attended Stanford, but there is no mention of her death in the Stanford student newspaper. The website reported that the Stanford registrar's office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled.
There are a few Twitter and Instagram accounts registered to Lennay Kekua, but the website reported photographs identified as Kekua online and in TV news reports are pictures from the social-media accounts of a 22-year-old California woman who is not named Lennay Kekua.
The week before Notre Dame played Michigan State on Sept. 15, coach Brian Kelly told reporters that Te'o's grandmother and a friend had died. Te'o didn't miss the game. He said Kekua had told him not to miss a game if she died. Te'o turned in one of his best performances of the season in the 20-3 victory in East Lansing, and his playing through heartache became a prominent theme during the Irish's undefeated regular season. Te'o went on to become a Heisman Trophy finalist, finishing second in the voting, and leading Notre Dame to its first appearance in the BCS championship.
Te'o and the Irish lost the title game to Alabama, 42-14 on Jan. 7. He has graduated and was set to begin preparing for the NFL combine and draft at the IMG Academy in Bradenton this week.
"Fortunately, I have many wonderful things in my life," he said in his statement, "and I'm looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me as I focus on preparing for the NFL Draft."
Information from the New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.