(CNN) — Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o said Wednesday he was the victim of a “sick joke” that resulted in the creation of an inspirational story that had him overcoming the deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend as the team marched toward the BCS National Championship Game.
Te’o and the university released statements after the sports website Deadspin published an article that called the girlfriend story a “hoax.”
Last September and October, Te’o told interviewers the losses of the women inspired him to honor them with sterling play on the field.
“I miss ’em, but I know that I’ll see them again one day,” he told ESPN.
That and other media reports led to a gripping human interest story of determination.
Deadspin’s article raised questions as to whether the girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, ever existed, prompting Notre Dame to issue a statement.
“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 Notre Dame statement said. “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.”
Te’o’s grandmother did die in September, according to Deadspin, but there is no Social Security Administration record of the death of the athlete’s supposed girlfriend, described as a Stanford University student. Stanford University told CNN that it has never had a student registered by that name.
“Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there’s no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed,” Deadspin contends.
Related: Gullible Society? Manti Te’o + Lennay
After Notre Dame upset No. 10 Michigan State on September 15, Te’o told ABC about his grandmother and girlfriend, who reportedly died the same week.
“They were with me. I couldn’t do it without them,” Te’o said. “I couldn’t do it without the support of my family and my girlfriend’s family.”
“I’m so happy that I had a chance to honor my grandma and my family and my girlfriend,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about, family.”
Timothy Burke, co-author of the Deadspin article, told Miami sports radio host Dan Le Batard, “We got an e-mail last week saying something isn’t right” with the girlfriend story.
Te’o, the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, said Wednesday he “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.”
In his statement reported by ESPN, the star said, “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.”