The inspirational play of Notre Dame's Manti Te'o in the weeks following his girlfriend's death and funeral in September publicized the linebacker's off-field back story in time to heat up his Heisman Trophy campaign, which began in earnest during the season's first month. The story grew through the end of the regular season and into bowl play, including a three-minute piece on CBS This Morning on the day of the BCS championship game on Jan. 7.
The story was also entirely false, according to an article by Deadspin.com, and confirmed by a release from the school. According to Deadspin, not only did Te'o's girlfriend not die in the days leading up the Michigan State game, she didn't exist.
In what Deadspin is describing as an elaborate hoax, Te'o's girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, was an online persona created by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a friend of Te'o's and a pastor at a church in Palmdale, Calif. Says the Deadspin article:
"We spoke with friends and relatives of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo who asserted that Ronaiah was the man behind Lennay. He created Lennay in 2008, one source said, and Te'o wasn't the first person to have an online 'relationship' with her. One mark who had been 'introduced' to Lennay by Tuiasosopo lasted about a month before family members grew suspicious that Lennay could never be found on the telephone, and that wherever one expected Lennay to be, Ronaiah was there instead. Two sources discounted Ronaiah's stunt as a prank that only metastasized because of Te'o's rise to national celebrity this past season."
"We know it's a hoax. … The only question out there is exactly what Manti knew about it," Timothy Burke, one of the authors of the piece on Deadspin, said during an appearance Wednesday on CBS Radio.
In articles in Sports Illustrated and the South Bend Tribune and in interviews on ESPN, Te'o would recount how Kekua requested that he send white flowers to her funeral. Te'o said that the last words he shared with Kekua were "I love you."
"They were with me," Te'o said after Notre Dame's win over Michigan State in an on-field interview with ABC's Heather Cox. "I couldn't do without the support of my family and my girlfriend's family. I'm so grateful for all the love and support that all the fans, both Michigan State and Notre Dame, and fans around the world for supporting me and my family and my girlfriend's family. I miss them. I miss them. But I know that I'll see them again one day."
In a statement issued by CAA, which represents Te'o, he called himself a victim of "someone's sick joke."
"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. "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. 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.
"I am enormously grateful for the support of my family, friends and Notre Dame fans throughout this year. To think that I shared with them my happiness about my relationship and details that I thought to be true about her just makes me sick. I hope that people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been.
"In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. 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."
Notre Dame said in a statement that the coaching staff was first informed on Dec. 26 of what the university calls a "sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators."
"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," read the statement.
"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."
Deadspin traces back the first national mention of Kekua to an article in the Nov. 28, 2009 edition of the South Bend Tribune, which said that the two met after Stanford's 45-38 victory over the Irish. Kekua was reportedly a student at Stanford; Deadspin writes that Stanford has no record of anyone by that name attending the university.
The article quotes a friend of Tuiasosopo's as saying he was "80 percent sure" that Te'o was "in on it," and that "the two perpetrated Lennay Kekua's death with publicity in mind."
"Mostly, though," the articles continues, "the friend simply couldn't believe that Te'o would be stupid enough or Ronaiah Tuiasosopo clever enough to sustain the relationship for nearly a year."