The inspirational story of one of college football's best players overcoming tragedy and heartbreak is nothing more than a hoax.
Or is it?
The roller-coaster story of Manti Te'o's girlfriend -- did she die, did she even exist, what did Te'o know, if anything and when did he find out he was being duped -- if he was being duped -- took another strange twist and turn late Wednesday night shortly after Notre Dame held a news conference to reveal details of an apparent hoax.
Reagan Maui'a, a fullback with the Arizona Cardinals, says he met the woman, Lennay Kekua, who supposedly died of leukemia and inspired Te'o and Notre Dame to the BCS Championship Game. Kekua is the same woman who the sports world discovered on Wednesday never existed.
Maui'a said he met Kekua in June 2011 while doing charity work in American Samoa along with Pittsburgh Steelers star Troy Polamalu.
"This was before her and Manti. I don't think Manti was even in the picture, but she and I became good friends," Maui'a told ESPN Wednesday evening. "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."
Maui'a said he met Kekua through Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who according to the Deadspin report is believed to have created Kekua.
What is certain is that the Heisman Trophy finalist's grandmother did die in September and that hours later there were reports that Te'o's girlfriend had died of leukemia.
As details unfolded on Wednesday of a possible hoax, first on Deadspin.com, then through multiple media outlets, it seemed that Lennay Kekua, Te'o's girlfriend, never existed. And on Wednesday night, Notre Dame officials said Te'o was a victim of a hoax.
"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 school's statement read.
The Fighting Irish team captain said on Sept. 12 that his 72-year-old grandmother had died. Then he said he found out six hours later that Kekua had died from leukemia.
He said Kekua's death was his inspiration to elevate his play. He finished second in Heisman Trophy voting and helped guide the Fighting Irish to the BCS Championship Game against Alabama.
But during Wednesday night's news conference, the talk was not about football, but a what transpired in the weeks leading up to that title game when Te'o and the university discovered they had been duped.
Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame athletic director called the hoax "very elaborate, very sophisticated" and said the hoax was "perpetrated for reasons we can't fully understand but had a certain cruelty at its core."
Te'o, earlier Wednesday released a statement saying he was a victim of an online relationship that proved to be false.
"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 in the statement. "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."
An independent investigation was launched by Notre Dame after the university found out what had taken place and according to Swarbrick, the alleged perpetrators showed no remorse.
The investigation revealed online "chatter" that demonstrated "the joy they were taking, the casualness among themselves referring to what they accomplished and what they had done."
The tale of lies and deceit began to unfold for Te'o while he attended an awards banquet on Dec. 6 in Orlando, Fla., Swarbrick explain. Te'o received a call from a phone number associated with Kekua and when he answered, the voice on the other end "unnerved" him. In fact, the voice was that of the woman Te'o thought was dead.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Te'o did not contact school officials until Dec. 26, wanting first to discuss the events with his family. On Dec. 27, Swarbrick learned the details of the relationship, prompting the investigation.
"There was a place to send flowers," Swarbrick said, alluding to the funeral arrangements for Kekua. "There was no detail of the hoax left undone."
The final report was issued on Jan. 4 and Swarbrick believed Te'o and his family were prepared to release a statement sometime last week.
But they did not.
Swarbrick said Wednesday night he does not believe Te'o was involved in any kind of scheme.
"Every single thing about this, until that day in first week of December, was real to Manti," Swarbrick said. "There was no suspicion that it wasn't, no belief that it might not be. The pain was real, the grief was real, the affection was real. That's the nature of this sad, cruel game."
In its story, Deadspin confirmed the existence and death of Te'o's grandmother Annette Santiago, on Sept. 12. However, the site could not verify the life or death of Kekua, who supposedly attended Stanford. The site checked, among other sources, the Social Security Administration records in Nexis and also could not find records of her at Stanford, where she supposedly attended.
ESPN reported that Te'o was vetted heavily by Notre Dame officials when the scam was revealed. When the school learned in December that Kekua was a hoax, citing sources, said they did not believe he was involved. However, another source claimed Te'o was involved in the hoax.
Te'o said he often talked to Kekua while she was in a hospital bed and they had met after a game against Stanford.
Also, Kekua's photo, which was circulated soon after her reported death, was that of another 22-year-old woman, Deadspin reported. That photo was also was attached to a Twitter account under Kekua's name. Deadspin reported it might have been created by a family friend named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.
Te'o, a senior, is currently working out in preparation for the NFL Draft. He is the No. 1 ranked linebacker by NFLDraftScout.com and is expected to be a sure first-round pick.
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