POSTED: 12:34 p.m. HST, Jan 16, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 07:41 p.m. HST, Jan 16, 2013
Notre Dame's athletic director said the school is supporting Manti Te'o, its star linebacker from Laie, who today said that he was the embarrassed victim of "someone's sick joke" concerning a fictional girlfriend who drew national attention and sympathy this past football season.
Athletic director Jack Swarbrick said the school has investigated the case of the fictitious girlfriend and "nothing I have learned has shaken my belief in Manti Te'o one iota."
At a South Bend, Ind., press conference, Swarbrick said "Manti was the victim of that hoax. Manti is the victim of that hoax. He will carry it with him for a while."
Swarbrick said Te'o first told his coaches of the situation Dec. 26. Swarbrick said Te'o became aware of the alleged hoax weeks earlier while in Florida for ESPN's college football awards show. Swarbrick said Te'o said "he received a phone call from a number that he recognized as having been associated with Lennay Kekua. When he answered it it was a person whose voice sounded like the same person that he had talked to who told him she was, in fact, not dead."
"Manti was very unnerved as you might imagine," he said.
Swarbrick said the school engaged an independent investigative firm and received a report from it on Jan. 4. He said he shared the findings with Te'o's parents the next day and that the Te'o family was planning to make an announcement about the situation next week.
Swarbrick said he expects Te'o to answer questions Thursday.
In a statement released today, Te'o said he was a victim of a "humiliating" hoax.
His statement came soon after the website deadspin.com reported that Te'o's purported girlfriend, who was said to have died in September, never existed. The website ran the story today under the headline "Blarney."
In a statement issued by his representatives, Te'o said: "This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over a period (of) months 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."
Te'o, a 2009 Punahou School graduate, was much celebrated for playing through the announced deaths of a grandmother and girlfriend in a 24-hour period in September and performing well in Notre Dame's 20-3 upset of then-10th ranked Michigan State.
Days before the game, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly told the media Sept. 13 that Te'o "lost some people very close to him and it's obviously taken a toll on him."
"Our players have been there for him and have been a great support. We'll support him," Kelly said. "He'll be with us. He practiced. He'll be playing Saturday against Michigan State. Unfortunately, he's gone through a very rough 24, 48 hours."
Kelly added: "But his support and his family at home have been great, and all of the coaches and players have been there for him. He wants to be with his teammates, he wants to be with the people that care about him. He's a strong man and he's going through a tough time, but he'll rise to the occasion."
His grandmother, Annette Santiago, died Sept. 11, 2012, at age 72.
But the alleged girlfriend, Lennay Marie Kekua, who was reported to be a Stanford student, does not exist, Deadspin said.
Deadspin.com reported that an investigation shows "there is no Social Security record of the death of Lennay Marie Kekua, that day or any other. Her passing, recounted so many times in the national media, produces no obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis and no mention in the Stanford student newspaper."
The website said the photo on the Facebook page that represented Kekua was of a different women who had no knowledge of the situation.
The heartwarming story was reported on ESPN, Sports Illustrated, in the Star-Advertiser and many media outlets and helped boost Teo's stock for a runner-up Heisman Trophy finish and seven major awards.
Today's Deadspin.com story and its immediate aftermath created an instant media blitz of online coverage, with ESPN, CNN and most other major news agencies jumping on the story.
In his statement today, Manti said, "To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painfully humiliating."
Online romance scams are commonly known as "catfishing."
"It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of 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 and less foolish. If anything good comes from this, I hope that it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online then I was. Fortunately, I have many wonderful things in my life, and I'm looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me and I focus on preparing for the NFL draft."
In a statement posted on its Facebook page, Notre Dame said, "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 University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax. 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."