Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o, whose on-field excellence after his grandmother and online girlfriend purportedly died made him a hero in the sports media, was the victim of a hoax because the girl never existed, the university said on Wednesday.
School spokesman Dennis Brown said on the football team's Facebook page that the girlfriend, a Stanford graduate who called herself Lennay Kekua, was merely an online persona who "ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia."
The university said it had learned of the hoax from Te'o and his parents on Dec. 26 and had "immediately initiated an investigation." It said the probe was being handled by "the proper authorities," which it did not identify.
The statement came after the website Deadspin.com published a long expose under the headline "Blarney," alleging that Kekua was a hoax dreamed up by a friend of Te'o's.
"Manti Te'o did lose his grandmother this past fall. Annette Santiago died on Sept. 11, 2012, at the age of 72, according to Social Security Administration records in Nexis," the website said.
"But there is no SSA record there of the death of Lennay Marie Kekua, that day or any other. Her passing, recounted so many times in the national media, produces no obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis, and no mention in the Stanford student newspaper."
Deadspin said photographs identified as Kekua and shown in online tributes and on TV news reports belonged to a living 22-year-old California woman of a different name who is not a Stanford graduate, has never had leukemia and has not met Te'o.
In a statement by ESPN.com and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Te'o, an All-American linebacker and finalist for the Heisman Trophy, college football's top individual honor, acknowledged he had never met Kekua in person.
But he said he had developed an emotional relationship with her and "maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone," according to the statement.
"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 said.
On Sept. 15, Notre Dame upset Michigan State 20-3 in a lopsided game where Te'o racked up 12 tackles - a considerable number.
It was a remarkable performance by the senior. But Te'o told his coach his grandmother and girlfriend had died just a few days before the game. The coach told reporters and Te'o's excellence became even more celebrated by the media.
Notre Dame reached the national collegiate championship game, where they lost to Alabama 42-14 on Jan. 7. Te'o is expected to be a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft.