Star linebacker Manti Te'o, whose relationship with a deceased girlfriend was central to the narrative of his Heisman Trophy campaign and Notre Dame's unbeaten regular season, was the victim of an elaborate hoax, the school said Wednesday after a Deadspin story alleged the woman never existed.
In a statement provided by Creative Artists Agency, which signed him as a client last week, Te'o said he had developed an emotional relationship a woman he had met online and was "the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke."
According to a Notre Dame statement, Te'o and his parents informed the school's coaching staff on Dec. 26 - nearly two weeks before the Fighting Irish lost to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game - that he had been the victim of a "sad and very cruel deception."
Te'o had talked openly during the season about his supposed relationship with a former Stanford student named Lennay Kekua, whom he claimed in a
South Bend Tribune
article to have met in 2009 after a football game. Kekua was said to have lost her battle with leukemia on Sept. 12, just hours after Te'o learned that his 72-year old grandmother had passed away.
The story of how Te'o dealt with massive personal tragedy became front and center in his rise to national consciousness. In interviews with Sports Illustrated and on the Jim Rome radio show, Te'o described talking to her by phone through the night as she dealt with the pain of chemotherapy treatments.
"That has to be the hardest thing that I've had to do so far; to be able to operate, and to be able to try to continue with my daily routine, but knowing that I just lost two women that I truly loved," Te'o said at a news conference on Oct. 4. "That was the hardest thing. And the other hardest thing was my girlfriend's service was the day of Michigan's game. And I remember when I found out I knew when they were going to close the casket and all that stuff, and it was during walk thru."
Deadspin's report, however, showed that there were no records of Kekua's death, nor any records that she was a student at Stanford. According to Deadspin, the photos on Kekua's Twitter account belonged to another woman, who was not named.
Te'o's statement contradicted the suggestion by Deadspin that he may have been in on the hoax along with Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a friend of Teo's who had allegedly provided the picture of the woman.
At minimum, Te'o acknowledged Wednesday that he had never met Kekua in person.
"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," Te'o said. "To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating."
Te'o played poorly in Notre Dame's 42-14 loss to Alabama, uncharacteristically missing several tackles. He is currently preparing for the NFL Draft but will not participate at next week's Senior Bowl.
"We know it's a hoax... The only question out there is exactly what Manti knew about it," Timothy Burke, one of the authors of the piece on Deadspin, said during an appearance Wednesday on CBS Radio.
Deadspin traces back the first national mention of Kekua to an article in the Nov. 28, 2009 edition of the South Bend Tribune.
The article quotes a friend of Tuiasosopo's as saying he was "80 percent sure" that Te'o was "in on it," and that "the two perpetrated Lennay Kekua's death with publicity in mind."
"Mostly, though," the articles continues, "the friend simply couldn't believe that Te'o would be stupid enough - or Ronaiah Tuiasosopo clever enough - to sustain the relationship for nearly a year."