Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o could have won the Heisman trophy, could have brought a national championship to South Bend—and could have pulled it all off despite the crushing grief caused by the mid-season death of the love of his life.
Now a month after that season concluded, it appears that Te'o did none of those things. Wednesday sports blog Deadspin broke the news that Te'o's alleged girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, was a ghost. Kekua's Twitter profile picture reportedly belonged to an unknowing California woman, and there was no evidence Kekua existed—no records at the hospital where she supposedly was treated for leukemia, no record of her supposed death, no Social Security number, no one enrolled at Stanford (where Te'o claimed she went to school) with her name, Deadspin reported.
That more than three million people over the past 24 hours have read a story about a football player's imaginary girlfriend is testament to the scale and mystery of the hoax.
Throughout this past college football season, Te'o's star rose steadily. He won publicity not only for his on-the-field highlights, but also for the heartwarming narrative promoted in nearly every interview:
That Te'o's grandmother and girlfriend had died back-to-back in the middle of the season. That Te'o played his heart out for his girlfriend, with whom he first locked eyes after a Stanford-Notre Dame football game. That Te'o would go to sleep nightly to the sound of Kekua, when she was mostly incapacitated because of leukemia, breathing into the phone. That Te'o delivered a "transcendent performance in the aftermath of Kekua's death," as Sports Illustrated wrote.
As it turns out, Te'o was either the victim of a sophisticated Internet con or a main player in a bold publicity hoax. Deadspin reports that Kekua was an online persona created by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a friend and fellow football player of Samoan descent. Tuiasosopo had asked a former high-school classmate for the photo that was later plastered across Kekua's Twitter profile.
For his part, Te'o maintains he was duped. In a statement released Wednesday night, he bemoans his lack of caution and hopes that others "will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was."
"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's statement reads. "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. To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating."
Notre Dame backed Te'o's explanation first in a statement from spokesman Dennis Brown.