Notre Dame star football player Manti Te'o says he is the victim of a "sick joke". The university calls it a "very elaborate, very sophisticated hoax."
The linebacker claims that he was duped into an "emotional" relationship with a woman he met online who he believed died of leukemia in the fall. Despite calling Lennay Kekua his girlfriend, he says that they never met in person and she insisted he skip her funeral because it fell on a game day.
But the woman doesn't exist and a host of unanswered questions linger in the gaps between the bizarre story and the official response.
How could Te'o never have met the woman in person?
In a press conference Wednesday night, Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame's athletics director, said the couple's relationship "began with an online reaching out" to Te'o and that the pair spoke on the phone. Several in-person meet-ups were planned, he said, but the woman never showed up.
Te'o has said he "truly loved" Kekua and that he "really wanted" to attend her funeral, but that she made him promise to play football instead.
"One day she made me promise that, she said, 'Babe, if anything happens to me, you promise that you'll still stay over there and that you'll play and that you'll honour me through the way you play, and know that I would rather have you there'," he told reporters on Oct. 4.
However, the claim that Te'o and his girlfriend had never locked eyes contradicts previous reports – including from the player's father – saying that the pair had met several times.
According to one media report, the pair first met in Palo Alto, Calif., in 2009, where Kekua was a student at Stanford. "Their stares got pleasantly tangled, then Manti Te'o extended his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes," the South Bend Tribune said last October.
That same article also quoted Te'o's father saying the couple had spent time together in Hawaii, where the 21-year-old player grew up in a Mormon family of Samoan descent.
"They started out as just friends," Brian Te'o said. "Every once in a while, she would travel to Hawaii, and that happened to be the time Manti was home, so he would meet with her there. But within the last year, they became a couple."
Is this truly a hoax?
Back in September, Te'o seemed to be a powerful example of an athlete who overcame personal grief on the field. Not only had his girlfriend passed away, but Te'o also told journalists that Kekua and his grandmother had died within hours of each other.
On the day of Kekua's apparent funeral, Te'o helped lead his team to a 20-3 victory over Michigan State.
Soon after, Te'o appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated under the headline "The Full Manti". He was also the subject of a campaign for the prestigious Heisman Trophy, which is awarded annually to the best college football player. In the end, Te'o was runner-up for the award. As well, before this scandal broke, he was widely considered to be one of the top players in the upcoming NFL draft.
Deadspin, the sports website that revealed that Kekua doesn't exist, identifies Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, an apparent friend of Te'o's, as one of the people behind the sham. The site also quotes an anonymous friend of Tuiasosopo saying he is "80 per cent sure" that Te'o was in on the hoax and that it was done for publicity.
However, Notre Dame's Swarbrick said Te'o has consistently said he was the victim of a hoax and the university hired independent investigators who found "online chatter among the perpetrators that is sort of the ultimate proof of this". A post on SB Nation, a network of sports blogs, compiled a series of tweets that would seem to back up that contention.
"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 and roped him more and more into the trap," Swarbrick said.
Did other football players meet Kekua?
Strangely, Reagan Mauia, a player with the NFL's Arizona Cardinals, said that he believes that he met Kekua in person, ESPN reported Wednesday. The meeting happened when he and other Polynesian teammates, along with Pittsburgh Steelers star Troy Polamalu, did charity work in American Samoa in June, 2011.
"This was before her and Manti," Mauia told the sports network. "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."
Mauia said Tuiasosopo – whom he thinks is Kekua's cousin – introduced them, ESPN said. "She was tall," he said. "Volleyball-type of physique. She was athletic, tall, beautiful. Long hair. Polynesian. She looked like a model."
Tuiasosopo is a cousin of NFL quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, who says he has never heard of Kekua, ESPN reported.
Will the full truth come out?
Swarbrick says that Te'o will explain what happened.
"At the end of the day, this is Manti's story to tell and we believe he should have the right to tell it, which he is going to do."