SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The wrenching story of Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o's girlfriend dying of leukemia -- a loss he said inspired him to play his best all the way to the BCS championship -- was dismissed by the school as a hoax perpetrated against the linebacker.
Notre Dame said Wednesday night it believes Te'o was duped into an online relationship with a woman whose "death" was then faked by the perpetrators of the hoax. The school made the statement following a lengthy story by Deadspin.com, saying it could find no record that Lennay Kekua, alleged to have been a Stanford graduate, ever existed.
The website story suggests a friend of Te'o may have carried out the hoax and that the football player may have been in on it -- a stunning claim against a widely admired All-American.
"This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online," Te'o said in a statement. "We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her."
However, he stopped short of saying he had ever met her in person or correcting reports that said he had. It had been reported that the pair first met after Stanford's 45-38 victory over Notre Dame in Palo Alto in 2009.
"To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's
Adding to the intrigue Wednesday night was Reagan Mauia, an Arizona Cardinals fullback, telling ESPN.com he believes Kekua existed because he met her when he and other Polynesian teammates and Pittsburgh Steelers star Troy Polamalu went to do charity work in American Samoa in June 2011.
Word of the hoax spread quickly and raised questions about whether the school somehow played a role in pushing the tale. Kekua's purported passing came within 48 hours of the real death of Te'o's grandmother. That double loss -- and his performance in a 20-3 win at Michigan State -- vaulted Te'o onto the cover of Sports Illustrated and into the Heisman Trophy mix. His playing through heartache became a prominent theme during the Irish's undefeated regular season.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said at a news conference that Te'o told coaches on Dec. 26 he had received a call while at an awards ceremony earlier in the month from Kekua's phone number -- more than three months after her supposed death. The woman on the other end -- in a voice he recognized as Kekua's -- told him that she wasn't dead. She later tried to rekindle the relationship, Swarbrick said.
Swarbrick said the school hired investigators and their report indicated those behind the hoax were in contact with each other, discussing what they were doing.
Friends and relatives of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo told Deadspin they believe he created Kekua. She does not have a death certificate, and there is no record of her birth in the news, Deadspin reported. Stanford has no record of anybody by that name, the website said.
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 website reported that a friend of Tuiasosopo said he was "80 percent sure" that Manti Te'o was "in on it," and that the two perpetrated Lennay Kekua's death with publicity in mind.
Still, Swarbrick said, "Nothing about what I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te'o one iota."
The Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.