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.
"On Dec. 26, Notre Dame coaches were informed by Manti Te'o and his parents that Manti had been 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 tragically died of leukemia," the statement reads. "While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators."
Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick elaborated on what the school knew in a press conference soon after.
"On the morning of December 26th, very early morning, Manti called his coaches to inform them that, while he was in attendance at the ESPN awards show in Orlando, he received a phone call from a number he recognized as having been that he associated with Lennay Kekua. When he answered it, it was a person whose voice sounded like the same voice he had talked to, who told him that she was, in fact, not dead," Swarbrick said. "Manti is the victim of that hoax, and he will carry that with him for a while."
In an interview Dec. 8, two days after Te'o allegedly received the phone call exposing the hoax, Te'o spoke about losing "my girlfriend" to cancer in an interview with a local television station.
The story's details have led many to believe Te'o was not a victim, but a perpetrator of the hoax. Te'o's conflicting statements seem to indicate that he stretched the truth at the very least—if there was no Kekua, whom did he speak with on the phone every night and with whom did he lock eyes after the Stanford game?
A friend of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the person allegedly behind Kekua's online presence, told Deadspin he was "80 percent sure" that Manti Te'o was "in on it," for publicity purposes. The story also claims that friends of Tuiasosopo believe he not only created Kekua, but also that Te'o was not the only victim to be duped by her existence. Tuiasosopo's friend Reagan Maui'a, a fullback for the Arizona Cardinals, responded to the news of the Kekua hoax by saying "No, she is real."
"I don't think Manti was even in the picture, but she and I became good friends. We would talk off and on, just checking up on each other kind of thing. I am close to her family," he told ESPN. "When she was going through the loss of her father, I offered a comforting shoulder and just someone to bounce her emotions off. That was just from meeting her in Samoa."
Maui'a described Kekua's appearance as well.
"She was tall," he said. "Volleyball-type of physique. She was athletic, tall, beautiful. Long hair. Polynesian. She looked like a model."
Te'o originally agreed to an interview with ESPN on Thursday, but has since backed out, according to SB Nation.