SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame says a story about Manti Te'o's girlfriend dying, which he said inspired him to play better as he helped the Fighting Irish get to the BCS National Championship, turned out to be a hoax apparently perpetrated against the linebacker.
The university issued a news release Wednesday after Deadspin.com reported it could find no record of Lennay Kekua existing.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said in a news conference Wednesday night that coaches were informed by Te'o and his parents on Dec. 26 that Te'o had been the victim of what appeared to be a hoax. Someone using a fictitious name "apparently ingratiated herself" with Te'o, the school said, then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had died of leukemia.
"On the morning of Dec. 26, very early morning, Manti called his coaches to inform them that while he was in attendance at the ESPN awards show in Orlando, he received a phone call from a number he recognized as having been that he associated with Lennay Kekua," Swarbrick said. "When he answered it, it was a person whose voice sounded like the same person he had talked to, who told him that she was, in fact, not dead. Manti was very unnerved by that, as you might imagine."
Swarbrick said that, based on a report from an investigative firm hired by the school, he believes Te'o was duped into an online relationship with a woman whose death was then faked by the perpetrators of the hoax.
"I want to stress, as someone who has probably been as engaged in this as anyone in the past couple of weeks, that nothing about what I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te'o one iota," Swarbrick said Wednesday night.
On Sept. 12, Te'o learned his 72-year-old grandmother, Annette Santiago, had died. Te'o said he was told just six hours later that Kekua had lost her battle with leukemia.
After Notre Dame's 20-3 win over Michigan State on Sept. 15, Teo said:
"My family and my girlfriend's family have received so much love and support from the Notre Dame family. Michigan State fans showed some love. And it goes to show that people understand that football is just a game, and it's a game that we play, and we have fun doing it. But at the end of the day, what matters is the people who are around you, and family. I appreciate all the love and support that everybody's given my family and my girlfriend's family."
He was asked again about his girlfriend on Jan. 3 prior to the BCS title game, saying: "This team is very special to me, and the guys on it have always been there for me, through the good times and the bad times. I rarely have a quiet time to myself because I always have somebody calling me, asking, 'Do you want to go to the movies?' Coach is always calling me asking me, 'Are you OK? Do you need anything?' "
According to Deadspin, the only photos that have been found online that identified Kekua are actually pictures of another 22-year-old woman. That woman, not named in the report, told Deadspin one of those photos likely was shared by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.
Friends and relatives of Tuiasosopo, a high school classmate of the 22-year-old woman, told Deadspin they believe Tuiasosopo created Kekua. Kekua does not have a death certificate, Deadspin reported. Stanford, where she reportedly went to school, has no record of anybody by that name.
Swarbrick said he met with Te'o on Dec. 27, the day after Te'o notified the school, on the Notre Dame campus for "about an hour and 45 minutes." The two met again on Dec. 28 before Swarbrick took the information and "shared it with other leaders in the university for a deliberation as to next steps, what we should do."
"The decision was made to engage an independent investigative firm to see if they could determine what was the nature of what increasingly appeared to us to be a sophisticated (case)," Swarbrick said Wednesday.
A friend of Tuiasosopo told Deadspin he was "80 percent sure" that Te'o participated and did so with publicity in mind.
According to the Deadspin report, Te'o and Tuiasosopo have been in contact via Twitter, including exchanging several friendly messages last summer.
Te'o issued a statement Wednesday afternoon:
"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."
Te'o was a Heisman Trophy finalist, finishing second in the voting, and led Notre Dame to its first appearance in the BCS championship.
In an interview with ESPN for "College GameDay" on Oct. 2, Te'o said Kekua's last words to him were "I love you." He also said that she was "the most beautiful girl I've ever met."
Swarbrick said Te'o never met Kekua in person.
"What I will tell you, this was exclusively an online relationship," he said.
He said that he would leave it to Te'o to explain how his father Brian Te'o came to say that his son and Kekua met in person a number of times.
The South Bend Tribune reported that on Oct. 10 during a taped interview with Brian Te'o and Manti Te'o's mother Ottillia, the father said that his son and Kekua met in person after a Notre Dame-Stanford game in 2009 in Palo Alto, Calif.
"They started out as just friends," Brian Teo said, according to the newspaper. "Every once in a while, she would travel to Hawaii, and that happened to be the time Manti was home, so he would meet with her there. But within the last year, they became a couple.
"And we came to the realization that she could be our daughter-in-law. Sadly, it won't happen now."
Reagan Mauia, an Arizona Cardinals fullback, said he believes Kekua existed because he met her in person when he and other Polynesian teammates and Pittsburgh Steelers star Troy Polamalu went to do charity work in American Samoa in June 2011.
"This was before her and Manti," Mauia said Wednesday evening. "I don't think Manti was even in the picture, but she and I became good friends. We would talk off and on, just checking up on each other kind of thing. I am close to her family. When she was going through the loss of her father, I was -- I offered a comforting shoulder and just someone to bounce her emotions off. That was just from meeting her in Samoa."
Mauia said Tuiasosopo -- whom Mauia believes is Kekua's cousin -- introduced the two. After the initial meeting, Mauia said he met her at an "after-party" for all of the athletes involved in the camp.
"She was tall," he said. "Volleyball-type of physique. She was athletic, tall, beautiful. Long hair. Polynesian. She looked like a model ... "
Another former NFL player on the trip to American Samoa told ESPN.com Thursday that he has no recollection of meeting Kekua.
When reached by ESPN.com on Wednesday night, former University of Washington and NFL quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo acknowledged that he is a cousin of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo but said he never had met or heard of Kekua.
Mauia said it is his understanding that Kekua's mother is operating her Twitter account. He said he'd never met her mother. When told by a reporter that she apparently might not have existed, Mauia said: "No, she is real."
Te'o is training in preparation for the NFL draft at the IMG Institute in Bradenton, Fla. He is No. 8 on Mel Kiper's latest draft board.
Information from The Associated Press, ESPN.com's Gene Wojciechowski, Matt Fortuna, Ted Miller and Mike Fish was included in this report.