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Lennay Kekua, the dead girlfriend of star Notre Dame football player Manti Te'o, was the subject of an elaborate hoax that was "a sad and very cruel deception" and was completely fictitious, according to a statement released by the University of Notre Dame on Wednesday.
The University says that Notre Dame coaches were informed by Te'o and his parents the day after Christmas that someone using the name Lennay Kekua "ingratiaed herself" with Manti and then "conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of Leukemia" on September 12, 2012, the same day his also grandmother died.
"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," reads the statement from the school.
The statement from Notre Dame was released nearly 40 minutes after journalists from the sports site Deadspin released a report that claimed Kekua was fictitious, saying photographs that have been identified as Kekua in the national media are believed to be pictures from the social-media accounts of a 22-year-old woman from California who has never met Te'o.
The article claims that Kekua was a fictitious character created by a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who apparently created her in 2008, according to one source. The source also said that Te'o wasn't the first person to have an online "relationship" with her.
In November, when Hawaii News Now visited Te'o in South Bend ahead of his final home game at Notre Dame, he recounted his emotions during the phone conversation where he found out that Kekua had supposedly passed away.
"Her older brother called me, and he was crying and crying and crying," Manti recalled at the time. "That's when he told me, he said, ‘She's gone.' I broke."
Te'o said in November that the woman he believed to be Kekua made him promise that if anything happened to her, he would stay with the team and honor her with his play on the field. The weekend after Kekua had supposedly died, when the Fighting Irish played Michigan State, he totaled 12 tackles in a 20-3 win.
When the Irish returned to South Bend after the game, fans and members of the Notre Dame community embraced Te'o, chanting his name and, in an ode to his jersey number, raising five fingers in the air during a pre-game pep rally the following Friday night.
It appears now that at least some part of the tragedy that endeared Te'o to so many fans and Irish faithful may have been manufactured.
In a statement released to ESPN on Wednesday, Te'o said that he was saddened and embarrassed by the hoax and that he believed that he had maintained an authentic relationship with Kekua.
"To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating," said Te'o. "To think that I shared with (fans) my happiness about my relationship and details that I thought to be true about her just makes me sick."
Te'o also says that he was "sickened" by the manner in which Kekua supposedly died just hours after his grandmother had passed away.
"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," said Te'o.
Notre Dame Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick, during a press conference at the school late Wednesday afternoon, called Te'o's interaction with his supposed girlfriend a "very elaborate, very sophisticated hoax."
Swarbrick says that Te'o first became aware of the hoax during the ESPN College Football Awards on December 6, when he received a phone call from the number he had associated with Lennay, answered it, and heard the voice he believed was hers. It was at that point, Swarbrick said, that he was informed he had been duped.
Te'o reportedly waited until he returned home to Hawaii for the Christmas break to tell his parents, with Swarbrick saying Manti had wanted to wait to have a face-to-face conversation with them at home before he revealed anything. After discussing the matter with his parents, he called Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to tell them about the hoax.
"Every single thing about this, until the first week in December, was real to Manti," said Swarbrick. "The pain was real, the grief was real, the affection was real, and that's the nature of this sad cruel game."
Swarbrick says he was told by Te'o that he and Kekua had maintained an "exclusively online and telephonic" relationship and that the two had never met in person.
Despite questions from the media referencing the Deadspin article, which suggests Te'o knew the perpetrators of the hoax, Swarbrick says a private investigation revealed an "elaborate hoax" involving online transmissions from several people, referring to what they had accomplished and what they had done.
"I want to stress that nothing about what I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te'o," said Swarbrick, who became visibly emotional while he discussed the emotional effect that the entire hoax might have on Te'o.
"The single most trusting human being I have ever met will never be able to trust again in his life," said Swarbrick.
The following is a statement released by the University of Notre Dame, attributable to Dennis Brown, University Spokesman and Assistant Vice President:
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 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.
Manti Te'o's official statement to ESPN regarding 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. 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.