One of the most high-profile personal stories of the recently concluded college football season turns out to be a hoax. Deadspin.com reports that the heartbreaking story about Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o playing while his girlfriend suffered from leukemia and then died turns out to be fiction, as the woman never existed.
In the wake of the report, speculation has swirled around Te’o, with one of the biggest questions being whether he helped perpetrate the hoax or was a victim of it — as he has indicated in a statement.
The story gained attention during the football season as Te’o emerged as the defensive player of the year and a contender for the Heisman Trophy, while Notre Dame went undefeated en route to the BCS Championship Game before losing to Alabama. Te’o ultimately finished second in the Heisman voting to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
The story of his suffering girlfriend, who supposedly died in September, played out in reports on ABC and ESPN and in a story in Sports Illustrated, The Hollywood Reporter notes. Te’o’s grandmother, meanwhile, had also died, which was an actual event that became a part of the story.
After Notre Dame scored an upset victory over Michigan State, Te’o told ABC that he "couldn’t do without the support of my family and my girlfriend’s family. … "I miss them. I miss them. But I know that I’ll see them again one day."
Deadspin got in contact with the woman whose photo was used to portray Te’o’s fictional girlfriend, who was called Lennay Kekua. The woman, whose name wasn’t released, was "horrified to find that she had become the face of a dead woman." She said the photo was from her Facebook account, and she had emailed it to a high school classmate, who told her he wanted to cheer up a cousin in the hospital.
The classmate is a former high school quarterback who apparently has a connection to Te’o, although it’s not clear what their relationship was.
Te’o released a statement explaining that the situation was "incredibly embarrassing."
"I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online," Te’o said in the 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. To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating."
The statement continues: "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."