Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o answered questions about his fictitious girlfriend just prior to this month’s BCS National Championship game — more than a week after he told university officials he was the victim of a “sick” joke.
Te'o, a Heisman finalist and likely first-round pick in April’s NFL draft, claims he was tricked by someone into thinking he was in a long-distance relationship with a woman he never met. The story of the woman’s supposed death of leukemia became his team’s most dramatic storyline as the Fighting Irish went undefeated through the regular season.
But questions are swirling about whether Te'o was privy to the hoax all along, or instead learned of after the joke became national news and went to school officials. At a press conference leading up to the Jan. 7 BCS Championship Game — in which Notre Dame was trounced 42-14 by Alabama — Te'o was asked by a reporter how football helped him with the "turmoil” he faced with the passing of his grandmother and girlfriend during the grueling season.
"I think whenever you're in football, it takes your mind off a lot of things,” Te'o said. “You know, 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?' I have three roommates: Zeke [Motta], Carlo [Calabrese] and Robby Toma, who are always yelling at each other, 'Who's going to play ‘Call of Duty?' I'm rarely by myself, and that's how I like it. I'm always around my guys, always around my family."
Te'o was portrayed ahead of college's national championship as a young man who persevered in the face of tragedy after the two women died on the same day in September.
It now seems that the supposed girlfriend's death was some sort of hoax, as the university put out a statement late Wednesday saying that Te'o and his family had been victimized by "someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua [who] apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia."
The apparent hoax was first reported by sports website Deadspin.com, which said one of its sources claimed to be "80 percent sure" that Te'o was "in on it" as some sort of publicity stunt.
It remains unclear how Te'o could have been unaware of the truth about Kekua. The college star put out a statement Wednesday saying the matter was "incredibly embarrassing to talk about," but he claimed he had been tricked and he suggested the relationship was primarily pursued from a distance.
"I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online," he said in a statement cited by ESPN.com. "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. ...
"In retrospect, I obviously should have been more cautious. If anything good of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was."
Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown confirmed that the school's coaches were informed of the hoax on Dec. 26.
"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," Brown said in a statement posted on the football program's website.
In a Dec. 20 Sports Illustrated story that was published just days before Te'o notified Notre Dame officials, Kekua was characterized as inspiration for a "season for the ages" by Te'o and his teammates.
"Before she died from leukemia in September, Kekua wrote a handful of letters to Te'o for him to read as inspiration before football games," the Sports Illustrated profile read. "The letters became part of a ritual that Te'o clung to during a season of extremes — private pain and soaring success. Lennay's brother, Kainoa, and sister, U'ilani, would read the letters to Manti and then e-mail them to him to savor.
"It's given me a sense of strength and perseverance," Te'o told the magazine.
But Deadspin reports that most of the back story about Kekua, including her first meeting Te'o in 2009 after a Stanford game, was a lie. The website said its sources suggested an old friend of the linebacker had created "Lennay Kekua" as a fake Twitter persona, one snowballed out of control last year as Te'o's celebrity grew.
Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick forcefully shot down such speculation Wednesday night in a quickly arranged news conference.
"This was a very elaborate, very sophisticated hoax perpetrated for reasons we can’t fully understand that had a certain cruelty at its core," Swarbrick said " ... Manti is the victim of that hoax and he will carry that with him for a while.
"I want to stress as someone who has probably been as engaged in this as anyone in the past couple weeks that nothing about what I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te'o one iota."
Swarbrick said he met with Te'o on Dec. 27 and decisions were made to hire an independent investigative firm to investigate the matter.
Te'o had pursued the relationship with the woman only online and by phone, and the person on the other end "roped him more and more into the trap," Swarbrick said.
The week before Notre Dame played Michigan State on Sept. 15, coach Brian Kelly told reporters that Te'o's grandmother and a friend had died. Te'o didn't miss the game. He said Kekua had told him not to miss a game if she died.
Te'o 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 Irish's undefeated regular season.
Four days ago, Te'o posted on his Twitter account: "Can't wait to start training with the guys! Workin to be the best! The grind continues! #Future"
Te'o's mother did not immediately return a call from the Associated Press seeking comment.
Swarbrick said Te'o had intended to go public with the story next week, but that timeline was expedited by publication of Deadpsin's article on Wednesday.
"At the end of the day, this is Manti's story to tell, and we believe he should have the right to tell it," Swarbrick said.
Manti, according to his profile on Notre Dame's website, is one of the university's "highest regarded and most-decorated defensive recruits" in recent memory. The 6-foot, 2-inch inside linebacker totaled 324 tackles, 28.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and two forced fumbles in his collegiate career, during which he boasted a 3.2 grade-point average. He also graduated from the same high school as President Obama.
Further complicating the still-unfolding story was a report that an NFL player is insisting Teo's girlfriend is real.
Reagan Mauia, who played in two games for the Arizona Cardinals last season, said he met Kekua in person during an outreach trip with Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers and others in June 2011.
“This was before her and Manti,” Mauia said Wednesday, according to ESPN. “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.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.