Notre Dame's athletic director and the star of its near-championship football team said the widely-reported death of the star's girlfriend from leukemia during the 2012 football season was apparently a hoax, and the player said he was duped by it as well.
Manti Te'o, who led the Fighting Irish to the BCS championship game this year and finished second for the Heisman Trophy, said in a statement today that he fell in love with a girl online last year who turned out not to be real.
The university's athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, said it has been investigating the "cruel hoax" since Te'o approached officials in late December to say he believed he had been tricked.
Private investigators hired by the university subsequently monitored online chatter by the alleged perpetrators, Swarbrick said, adding that he was shocked by the "casual cruelty" it revealed.
"They enjoyed the joke," Swarbrick said, comparing the ruse to the popular film "Catfish," in which filmmakers revealed a person at the other end of an online relationship was not who they said they were.
"While we still don't know all of the dimensions of this ... there are certain things that I feel confident we do know," Swarbrick said. "The first is that this was a very elaborate, very sophisticated hoax, perpetrated for reasons we don't understand."
Te'o said during the season that his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, died of leukemia in September on the same day Te'o's grandmother died, triggering an outpouring of support for Te'o at Notre Dame and in the media.
"While my grandma passed away and you take, you know, the love of my life [Kekua]. The last thing she said to me was, 'I love you,'" Te'o said at the time, noting that he had talked to Kekua on the phone and by text message until her death.
Now, responding to a story first reported by the sports website Deadspin, Te'o has acknowledged that Kekua never existed. The website reported today that there were no records of a woman named Lennay Kekua anywhere.
Te'o denied that he was in on the hoax.
"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 said in a statement released this afternoon. "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."
Swarbrick said he expected Te'o to give his version of events at a public event soon, perhaps Thursday, and that he believed Te'o's representatives were planning to disclose the truth next week until today's story broke.
Deadspin reported that the image attached to Kekua's social media profiles, through which the pair interacted, was of another woman who has said she did not even know Te'o or know that her picture was being used. The website reported that it traced the profiles to a California man who is an acquaintance of Te'o and of the woman whose photo was stolen.
"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.
According to Notre Dame, Te'o and his family came forward to the university with concerns that Te'o had been the victim of a hoax in December 2012.
"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 university said in a statement released today.
"The university immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax," it said. "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."
Though the university's statement may have implied that it referred the matter to outside authorities, Swarbrick later said that the university had only hired a private investigator and not notified the NCAA or law enforcement.
"There's no factual predicate for an NCAA violation that we could find," he said.
"And no, we did not refer this to criminal authorities," he added. "We believe it's the victim's decision to make."
Te'o is currently preparing for the NFL draft, according to his statement.
"There's a lot of tragedy here, there's a lot of sorrow here," Swarbrick said.
"But the thing I am most sad of is--" he added, pausing to apologize and wipe away tears, is "that the single most trusting human being I have ever met will never be able to trust in the same way ever again."