Manti Te'o, a star linebacker at Notre Dame, made headlines when he led the Fighting Irish to a 20-3 upset of Michigan State hours after learning that both his grandmother and his girlfriend had died.
Except that part of the story was a hoax.
The heartbreaking tale, which captivated and inspired college football fans and the media for weeks, was proven false on Wednesday by the sports site Deadspin, whose investigative report found that Te'o's girlfriend not only hadn't died — she never existed.
In what appears to be a hoax worthy of the film "Catfish," Te'o engaged in an online relationship with a woman he believed to be Lennay Marie Kekua. He later learned, through a proxy, that the woman had died.
The football player's grandmother had died, according to Social Security Administration records obtained by Deadspin. But photographs of a woman identified as his girlfriend Kekua, were actually images of a 22-year-old California woman with a different name.
"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 NFL hopeful said in a statement to Deadspin. "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."
The University of Notre Dame said the college is investigating the fake online persona that Te'o believed was his cyber girlfriend.
"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," university spokesman Dennis Brown said Wednesday. "The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax. 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."