Legend of Manti Te'o's girlfriend: a tall tale everyone wanted to believe

"Manti, describe your girlfriend to me."

I knew nothing about Lennay Kekua. Was she pretty? Smart? Funny? Blonde? Brunette? Did she like football? The only thing I thought I knew was that she had died, and that Manti Te'o, the best linebacker in college football and her boyfriend, had dominated a football game for Notre Dame a couple days later.

What I didn't know, and what Te'o apparently didn't know, either, is that Lennay Kekua wasn't pretty or smart or funny or blonde or brunette or a football fan or a far-too-young leukemia victim. She didn't exist.

That much came to light Wednesday courtesy of a Deadspin.com report. Te'o claims he became aware in December, and then says he realized he was the subject of a hoax after Notre Dame hired private investigators and computer forensic experts to figure out exactly who, or whom, Lennay Kekua was and why she pretended to die – and later come back to life.

The narrative whipsaw of a sad story turning into something far worse – a morbid, twisted tale of an Internet prank gone excessive – ignited the sports world Wednesday, and left everyone wondering whether this was really the case of a naïve football player done wrong by friends or a fabrication that has yet to play to its conclusion.

[Related: Notre Dame stands by Manti Te'o, says he was 'perfect mark' for hoax ]

Confused? Everyone is. And maybe Manti Te'o was also that September night outside Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich., the night the legend of a dead girlfriend who never existed was truly born.

Te'o's Fighting Irish had just beaten Michigan State 20-3 to move to 3-0, a landmark victory on their way to an undefeated regular season. Te'o was the star, with 12 tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery.

He was also an inspirational story. That week, his grandmother back in Hawaii passed away. That much is undeniably true. Then the story filtered out that just hours later, he'd lost Kekua. Newspapers and the ESPN broadcast were all over it. After the game, Te'o stood in one end zone and triumphantly pointed to the heavens.

"I lost two, you know, women that I truly love," Te'o said after the game. "But I had my family around me, I had my football family around me, I had my girlfriend's football family around me. And at the end of the day families are forever. I'm going to see them again and it's going to be a very happy day when I do."

This was the start of the snowball that has now humiliated the 22-year-old.

I'm going to see them again, he said, which implies he saw both grandma and girlfriend before. In fact, he hadn't. It appears to be the precise moment that, publicly, at least, when Te'o inflated the relationship.

It got bigger. Much bigger. He later painted the picture of their first face-to-face meeting to the South Bend Tribune, Te'o "extend[ing] his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes."

[Pat Forde: I believe Manti Te'o was victim]

That didn't happen, either. There have been quotes from Te'o's father, who claimed Kekua visited Hawaii, which also wasn't true, because, of course, she didn't exist. There was talk of the colorful flowers sent to her funeral, which never occurred. Throughout the fall, as the media asked, Te'o gave the impression it was a traditional relationship, not one limited to online chats and phone calls.

Maybe he was embarrassed about that, and it motivated what he thought were white lies. Who wants to admit it was just chats and calls? Maybe once he spun it a little forward, he couldn't go back. Maybe we don't know. Te'o is expected to answer those questions this week, perhaps Thursday. In a statement, Te'o, currently training in Florida for the NFL draft, expressed disappointment at the entire ordeal.

"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."

The story is beyond bizarre.

"I don't want to confuse this at all," Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Wednesday at a lengthy and open news conference in South Bend. "Manti Te'o is the victim of this scam."

While the original Deadspin story framed Te'o as a participant in the scam – something to draw positive publicity to a Heisman Trophy campaign – Notre Dame and its investigators are adamant that isn't the case.

In the end, Te'o may have done nothing wrong beyond perpetuating a lie that was far worse for him than anyone he told. I can certainly envision a 22-year-old getting duped, yet also embellishing tales about his girlfriend – especially to a media eager to glorify it all. It seems more common than hatching this plan as a way to win the Heisman.

Swarbrick said the Notre Dame investigators have identified the perpetrators of the trick and said they did it out of enjoyment. The school was initially wary that this was an extortion attempt, or gamblers, or someone bent on drawing Te'o into an NCAA violation. Notre Dame now doesn't believe that.

"It was a cruel, cruel hoax," Swarbrick said. Later, he choked up in emotion over watching one of his favorite players – "the single most trusting human being I've met" – get conned.

How trusting is Te'o? At one point in December, he got a phone call from the number he thought belonged to Kekua, who he believed was dead. He answered and was greeted by the female voice that he thought was Kekua.

[Also: Hoax leaves Manti Te'o's NFL draft stock in doubt]

On that September night after beating Michigan State, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly hailed Te'o's courage for playing while in mourning – for his grandmother, with whom he was close, and Kekua, with whom he believed he was close. Wide receiver John Goodman said he had the "ultimate respect" for Te'o. Nose guard Louis Nix called it "a family tragedy." And wide receiver Robby Toma, a fellow Hawaiian who lived with Te'o, discussed their emotional talks that week. "He told me he needed me," Toma said. "I've known him since he was 5 years old."

At one point, I talked to Swarbrick about Te'o, about this Hawaiian Mormon who chose to play for the Irish Catholics, who turned down the NFL draft to return and lead Notre Dame back to glory, who demonstrated such obvious leadership.

"The perfect Notre Dame football player," Swarbrick said.

Then I asked the athletic director about whether the girlfriend's long battle with leukemia, as it had been described, had worn Te'o down. That's a slow, emotional way to die. It's especially tough on the survivor when you're off in Indiana, helpless and incapable of getting back to help or hug.

Swarbrick hesitated, maybe surprised at the thought. He acknowledged he hadn't noticed anything.

[Related: 'Incredible tragedy,' says Notre Dame AD]

"I don't think [it was wearing on him]," he said. "But in typical fashion it was not something he was sharing or using as a crutch at the time. He was just being Manti."

I finally went back to where Te'o was finishing up, with a Notre Dame athletic administrator about to pull him away. The buses were waiting. Media access to athletes is always brief.

"Manti, describe your girlfriend to me."

I thought he heard me. Maybe he didn't. Either way, he didn't answer. I assumed it was because it was time to leave. At the moment, there was no reason to wonder if he couldn't describe her or was wary of going into greater detail or had just realized that he'd already started the embellishments. Soon he was gone, off to finish his perfect regular season and wind up second in the Heisman voting – a season he dedicated to his grandma and his girlfriend.

The story seemed too good to be true.

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