SOUTH BEND, Indiana - Manti Te'o, a star linebacker at Notre Dame University who will be a top prospect in this year's NFL draft, says he's embarrassed that he fell for a fabricated girlfriend.
Te'o, who finished runner-up to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel in voting for the coveted Heisman Trophy, helped Notre Dame complete a 12-0 regular season.
During the campaign, which put Notre Dame into the Bowl Championship Series National Championship game, Te'o told reporters he'd been inspired by the death from leukemia in September of Lennay Kekua, who he described as his girlfriend.
"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 in a statement.
"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."
A Sports Illustrated story published in October stated that Kekua died less than 24 hours after the death of Te'o's grandmother, Annette Santiago, who died on September 11.
But the website Deadspin.com reported on Wednesday that the girlfriend, in fact, apparently never existed.
According to the site, there are no Social Security Administration records confirming that a Lennay Marie Kekua, previously reported to be a 22-year-old Stanford student, actually died -- or was ever enrolled at Stanford.
Notre Dame released a statement on Wednesday, saying the university was informed by Te'o and his family on December 26 that the player had been deceived by someone claiming to be Kekua and misled to believe she had died.
"The university immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax," it said.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick stressed that he believed Te'o was a victim in the strange story.
"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.
"Every single thing about this, until that day in the first week of December, was real to Manti," he added.
"There was no suspicion it wasn't. No belief it might not be. The pain was real. The grief was real. The affection was real. That's the nature of this sad, cruel game."
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