SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It was one of the heartwarming subplots of the BCS Championship Game that filled Sun Life Stadium and captivated the nation. Manti Teo, charismatic star of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, had led the team to an undefeated regular season despite the wrenching loss of his girlfriend, who died of leukemia.
The story was woven into TV and print profiles of the student-athlete, burnishing the legend of the linebacker who was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, awarded to college footballs best player.
The story was a hoax.
The dead girl didnt exist.
The charade was revealed Wednesday by the online sports site Deadspin in a lengthy story.
Image-conscious Notre Dame responded swiftly, saying the girlfriend was indeed concocted but that Teo was the innocent victim not the perpetrator.
Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said an investigation by a firm the school hired had convinced him that Teo was duped into an online relationship with a nonexistent woman whose death was then faked by those behind the hoax.
By Teos own account, she was an online girlfriend. Swarbrick said they also talked by phone.
Nothing about what I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Teo one iota, Swarbrick said at a news conference Wednesday night.
Teo said in a statement: 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 someones sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating, he said.
Timothy Burke, who broke the story with Jack Dickey on the Deadspin site, isnt totally swayed by Notre Dames response to the story.
He got suckered online. It happens to people all the time, Burke said in a Wednesday interview with The Miami Heralds Dan Le Batard on 790 The Ticket. Whats curious, he said, was the level of detail in some of the stories.
Among those details: That she was a student at Stanford and they met at the Stanford-Notre Dame game in 2009. We know that didnt happen because the girlfriend never existed. We know she never went out to Hawaii to visit him because she never existed. How did we come to know those stories?
Deadspin reported that there was no record of a Lennay Marie Kekua, the woman named in the stories, dying with the Social Security Administration, that a record search produced no obituary or funeral announcement. She supposedly attended Stanford but there is no mention of her death in the Stanford student newspaper.
The website reported the Stanford registrars office had no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There is no record of her birth in the news.
There are a few Twitter and Instagram accounts registered to Lennay Kekua, but the website reported photographs identified as Kekua online and in TV news reports are pictures from the social-media accounts of a 22-year-old woman who is not named Lennay Kekua.
Burke said the authors tracked down the woman in the photos in California.
She is, he said, very much alive and does not have leukemia and has never met Manti Teo. ... From there we were able to weave the web.
The week before Notre Dame played Michigan State on Sept. 15, coach Brian Kelly told reporters that Teos grandmother and a friend had both died. Teo didnt miss the game. The linebacker explained Kekua had told him not to miss a game if she died. Teo turned in one of his best performances of the season in the 20-3 victory in East Lansing, and his playing through heartache became a prominent theme during the Irishs undefeated regular season.
Burke told Le Batard: When you look at the reporting of the story [around the country] you see how many discrepancies are in the reporting... Some articles said that Manti Teos grandmother died first. Some said his girlfriend died first. Some of them said that his girlfriend sent a condolence text to Brian Teo [Manti Teos father] on the death of Mantis grandmother at a time where she was about to die. When you look at the list of discrepancies you say, Oh its obviously a made-up story. No one ever asked.
Information from The Associated Press and from radio station 790 The Ticket was used in this report.