FORT WAYNE – Manti Te'o's story of triumph over tragedy during the college football season unraveled Wednesday.
Deadspin.com was first to report as hoax the story of the death of his girlfriend, whom he knew only through phone and Internet contact.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said the former Irish linebacker was a victim in the fraudulent story and that the university used private investigators to discover how the All-American was duped into believing he had a relationship with the fictional woman.
"This was a very elaborate, very sophisticated hoax perpetrated for reasons that we can't fully understand," Swarbrick said during a news conference Wednesday. "Manti is the victim of that hoax, and he will carry that with him for a while."
In a statement released by Te'o, the Notre Dame graduate 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. It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of my grandmother's death in September were in any way deepened by what I believed to be another significant loss in my life."
Te'o's story began in the days leading up to Notre Dame's 20-3 victory at Michigan State on Sept. 15 when it was reported by numerous media outlets, including The Journal Gazette, that his grandmother, Annette Santiago, died Sept. 11 – and then, hours later, Lennay Kekua, identified as Te'o's girlfriend, died after a long battle with leukemia.
Te'o played in Notre Dame's next two games against Michigan State and Michigan before returning home to Hawaii during the Irish's bye week Sept. 23-29. He said he used the two deaths as motivation during the Irish's undefeated season and run to the Jan. 7 BCS championship game, which Notre Dame lost to Alabama.
Te'o had 12 tackles, broke up two passes and recovered a fumble against Michigan State, and he followed that with an eight-tackle, two-interception performance in a 13-6 home win over Michigan on Sept. 22. Notre Dame fans wore leis in the Laie, Hawaii, native's honor in the game against Michigan, and Te'o said Kekua was buried hours before the night game against the Wolverines.
Those performances vaulted Te'o into the Heisman Trophy conversation and spurred articles detailing his relationship with Kekua in Sports Illustrated, the South Bend Tribune – which wrote that the two met after a game at Stanford in 2009 – and numerous other publications.
Te'o was also featured in segments about his relationship with the Stanford graduate and how her death affected him on ESPN's "College GameDay" and on "CBS This Morning."
Te'o finished second in the Heisman voting to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Swarbrick said Te'o never met Kekua face to face and carried on a relationship with her through online media and phone calls. The South Bend Tribune reported Oct. 12 that the two had met face to face after a 2009 Notre Dame loss at Stanford.
Stanford spokeswomen Lisa Laplin said there is no record of Lennay Kekua or any student with a name close to that having attended the university. The Los Angeles County Department of Coroner said it had no record of a Lennay Kekua being dead.
Swarbrick said Te'o informed his coaches Dec. 26 that while he was at the ESPN awards show Dec. 6 in Orlando, Fla., he received a call from a number he associated with Kekua. A woman who sounded like Kekua told him she was not dead, he said. Swarbrick said Te'o wanted to discuss the situation with his family before approaching the Irish coaching staff.
Swarbrick said the coaching staff informed him of the incident, and the AD and Te'o met Dec. 27 and 28. Notre Dame then hired an independent firm to investigate the situation.
Notre Dame received a report from the investigators Jan. 4, and Swarbrick shared the report with Te'o's parents, Brian and Ottilia, on Jan. 5. Swarbrick said the Te'o family was going to publicize the story next week, and he also said he believes Te'o will address the matter today.
Swarbrick said Notre Dame left it up to Te'o and his family to decide how to handle the situation when the hoax was uncovered. Swarbrick said the university also didn't go public with the story because no one knew the motive for the hoax. He also said no NCAA violations were involved.
Swarbrick said the situation follows the pattern described in a documentary titled "Catfish," which also spawned an MTV show. "Catfishing" is a scheme that establishes a fake relationship that then builds slowly to a tragic event. Swarbrick said the investigation revealed the perpetrators shared online messages taking pleasure in what was happening with Te'o.
"The thing I am most sad of, sad about, is … that the single most trusting human being I've ever met will never be able to trust in the same way again in his life," Swarbrick said. "That's an incredible tragedy."
Te'o is currently training at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., as he prepares for the NFL draft.
"In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious," Te'o said. "If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was.
"Fortunately, I have many wonderful things in my life, and I'm looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me as I focus on preparing for the NFL Draft."