Notre Dame believes former star linebacker Manti Te'o was the victim of an elaborate hoax involving a girlfriend that he never met face-to-face and supposedly died of leukemia in September, a tragedy that became part of the All-American's Heisman Trophy campaign narrative.
On Wednesday that story was left in tatters following a report on Deadspin.com that Lennay Kekua never existed and her death was fabricated. Hours after the report's publication, Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick detailed Notre Dame's own investigation into the Kekua story, which began to unravel a full month before the BCS National Championship Game.
Swarbrick said Te'o received a call while in Orlando, Fla., for the Dec. 6 Home Depot College Football Awards show from a phone number Te'o recognized as Kekua. Swarbrick said Te'o believed the voice to be Kekua, who then attempted to restart the relationship.
"When he answered it, the person sounded like the same voice he had talked to, who told him that she was in fact not dead," Swarbrick said. "Manti was very unnerved as you might imagine."
Te'o did not inform Notre Dame of the revelation for another three weeks, calling head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco on Dec. 26. Swarbrick attributed the delay in alerting the University to Te'o wanting to speak with his parents over Christmas break. Brian and Ottilla Te'o attended the ESPN Awards show on Dec. 6.
"I want to stress, as someone who has been engaged in this as anyone the past couple weeks, that nothing I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te'o one iota," Swarbrick said. "The same great young man, great student and great athlete that we have been so proud to have as a member of our family is the same guy tonight, unchanged in any way except for, as he indicated in the statement, his release, the embarrassment of being a victim in this case."
Swarbrick spent nearly two hours discussing the revelation with Te'o on Dec. 27 and then again a day later. Swarbrick said he did not speak with other members of the Notre Dame football team, many of whom had interactions with Kekua over the phone.
Despite a report in the South Bend Tribune detailing a face-to-face meeting with Te'o and Kekua after a game at Stanford during the linebacker's freshman year, Swarbrick was adamant that Te'o and Kekua never met in person.
"In many ways, Manti was the perfect mark, because he is a guy who is so willing to believe in others and so ready to help, that as this hoax played out in a way that called upon those tendencies of Manti, it roped him more and more into the trap," Swarbrick said. "He was not a person who would have a second thought about offering his assistance and help."
Swarbrick, who became emotional during the hastily called press conference while fighting back tears, said the University hired an independent investigative firm to deal with the Kekua hoax. The final report was issued on Jan. 4 with no known motives other than "sport." Swarbrick met with Te'o's parents the following day in Miami.
Swarbrick said the family had planned to make the story public next week.
The Irish athletics director said the University was unsure how to proceed initially but did not contact law enforcement or the NCAA. Swarbrick said there was no extortion attempt made on Te'o, although the school believed one could come in the future.
Te'o, who signed with agent Tom Condon, is training for the NFL Combine in Florida. He issued the following statement.
"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.
"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."
Swarbrick said Te'o would address the story, although it is not known when or how the former Notre Dame linebacker plans to speak out.
"There's a lot of tragedy here," Swarbrick said. "There's a lot of sorrow here. But the thing I am most sad of, sad about is that the single most trusting human being I've ever met will never be able to trust in the same way again in his life. That's an incredible tragedy."