While not saying that Manti Te'o participated in or knew about the hoax that his girlfriend did not exist, a former teammate told ESPN's Bob Holtzman on Wednesday that players knew the woman wasn't really his girlfriend even though Te'o played that up as his tragic story was being told.
In September, the grandmother of Te'o died, and it was widely reported that his girlfriend died hours later. Media outlets pounced on the story as Notre Dame began its march to the title game. After Deadspin.com broke the hoax story, however, multiple media reports have said players thought that Te'o had only met Lennay Kekua once and that it wasn't really accurate to call her his girlfriend. But as condolences poured in, Te'o "played along," according to the teammate, who wished to remain anonymous.
The teammate portrayed the move as part of the All-American's personality, telling ESPN that Te'o liked attention so much that he would sometimes point himself out to friends when he was on television.Notre Dame acknowledged Tuesday that a story about Te'o's girlfriend dying, which he said inspired him to play better as he helped the Fighting Irish get to the Discover BCS National Championship, turned out to be a hoax apparently perpetrated against the linebacker.
The university issued a news release Wednesday after Deadspin reported it could find no record of Kekua existing.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said in a news conference Wednesday night that coaches were informed by Te'o and his parents on Dec. 26 that Te'o had been the victim of what appeared to be a hoax. Someone using a fictitious name "apparently ingratiated herself" with Te'o, the school said, then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had died of leukemia.
"On the morning of Dec. 26, very early morning, Manti called his coaches to inform them that while he was in attendance at the ESPN awards show in Orlando, he received a phone call from a number he recognized as having been that he associated with Lennay Kekua," Swarbrick said. "When he answered it, it was a person whose voice sounded like the same person he had talked to, who told him that she was, in fact, not dead. Manti was very unnerved by that, as you might imagine."
Swarbrick said that, based on a report from an investigative firm hired by the school, he believes Te'o was duped into an online relationship with a woman whose death was then faked by the perpetrators of the hoax.
"I want to stress, as someone who has probably been as engaged in this as anyone in the past couple of weeks, that nothing about what I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te'o one iota," Swarbrick said Wednesday night.
The scam is far-reaching and involves many people, says Nev Schulman, creator and executive producer of the documentary "Catfish" and the MTV show of the same name, which helps people uncover if their online relationships are legitimate.
While acknowledging there are unanswered questions in Teo's narrative, Schulman said this isn't the most elaborate "Catfish" hoax he's seen -- and Schulman is inclined to believe Teo's version of events. Schulman is investigating the Te'o case and is in touch with the woman whose pictures were used in Kekua's Twitter account.
Asked if the NCAA was monitoring the Te'o story for possible rules violations, NCAA president Mark Emmert said: "We don't know anything more than you do. We're learning about this through the stories just the same as you are. But we have to wait and see what really transpired there. It's obviously (a) very disturbing story and it's hard to tell where the facts lie at this point.
"But Notre Dame is obviously looking into it and there will be a lot more to come forward. Right now, it just looks ... well, we don't know what the facts are, so I shouldn't comment beyond that."
On Sept. 12, Te'o learned his 72-year-old grandmother, Annette Santiago, had died. Te'o said he was told just six hours later that Kekua had lost her battle with leukemia.
After Notre Dame's 20-3 win over Michigan State on Sept. 15, Teo said:
"My family and my girlfriend's family have received so much love and support from the Notre Dame family. Michigan State fans showed some love. And it goes to show that people understand that football is just a game, and it's a game that we play, and we have fun doing it. But at the end of the day, what matters is the people who are around you, and family. I appreciate all the love and support that everybody's given my family and my girlfriend's family."
He was asked again about his girlfriend on Jan. 3 prior to the BCS title game, saying: "This team is very special to me, and the guys on it have always been there for me, through the good times and the bad times. I rarely have a quiet time to myself because I always have somebody calling me, asking, 'Do you want to go to the movies?' Coach is always calling me asking me, 'Are you OK? Do you need anything?' "
According to Deadspin, the only photos that have been found online that identified Kekua are actually pictures of another 22-year-old woman. That woman, not named in the report, told Deadspin one of those photos likely was shared by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.
Friends and relatives of Tuiasosopo, a high school classmate of the 22-year-old woman, told Deadspin they believe Tuiasosopo created Kekua. Kekua does not have a death certificate, Deadspin reported. Stanford, where she reportedly went to school, has no record of anybody by that name.
A friend of Tuiasosopo told Deadspin he was "80 percent sure" that Te'o participated and did so with publicity in mind.
According to the Deadspin report, Te'o and Tuiasosopo have been in contact via Twitter, including exchanging several friendly messages last summer.
One person, who spoke to ESPN on the condition of anonymity, said she also believes Tuiasosopo is a participant in the hoax because he showed up at a Notre Dame game where the woman was supposed to meet Kekua's alleged sister.
The woman said she had started a Twitter correspondence with someone she had been told was Kekua's sister. Ultimately, the two decided to meet at the Notre Dame-USC football game. Instead, the woman was met by a person introduced as Kekua's brother and a child.
The brother, the woman said, was actually Tuiasosopo. She said she realized it was Tuiasosopo after the hoax reports came out and she saw a picture of him, and that his image matched a picture she had taken of him at the game.
She was told by the alleged sister later she couldn't meet up with her at the stadium because of familial commitments.
Te'o's great uncle, Alema Te'o, runs a football camp in Utah. He told Salt Lake City radio station 1280 The Zone he met Tuiasosopo in Los Angeles before the USC game. Alema Te'o said Tuiasosopo claimed he had helped set up a football camp in American Samoa -- which Alema Te'o runs.
"If he's telling me that he was doing my job, then where the hell was I?" Alema Te'o said.
Alema Te'o said Tuiasosopo "stole that moment" when the Te'o family was supposed to be grieving for Santiago.
"Ranaiah Tuiasosopo is a liar, he concocted the whole thing, he misrepresented whatever program that he was trying to get across to Manti, and shoot, he lied every step of the way," Alema Te'o said. "I don't feel it's beyond him to hire somebody or bring somebody in to play the role of Lennay to get Manti to buy into this deal."
Te'o issued a statement Wednesday afternoon:
"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. 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."
Te'o was a Heisman Trophy finalist, finishing second in the voting, and led Notre Dame to its first appearance in the BCS championship.
In an interview with ESPN for "College GameDay" on Oct. 2, Te'o said Kekua's last words to him were "I love you." He also said that she was "the most beautiful girl I've ever met."
Swarbrick said Te'o never met Kekua in person.
"What I will tell you, this was exclusively an online relationship," he said.
He said that he would leave it to Te'o to explain how his father, Brian Te'o, came to say that his son and Kekua met in person a number of times.
The South Bend Tribune reported that on Oct. 10 during a taped interview with Brian Te'o and Manti Te'o's mother Ottillia, the father said that his son and Kekua met in person after a Notre Dame-Stanford game in 2009 in Palo Alto, Calif.
"They started out as just friends," Brian Teo said, according to the newspaper. "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.
"And we came to the realization that she could be our daughter-in-law. Sadly, it won't happen now."
The revelation of the hoax has been far-reaching. A Notre Dame graduate who launched a campaign to raise money for a cancer research group in memory of Te'o's girlfriend says he is "shell-shocked" to learn the woman didn't exist.
Dan Tudesco, a 2006 graduate who now works in public relations in New York, set up an online account at fundraising website indiegogo.com on Jan. 9 to solicit $5,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Inc. The initial pitch said donations would go to the society in memory of Lennay Kekua and in honor of Te'o, "two individuals who have been an inspiration to us through an iconic season."
Tudesco said he and three friends got the fundraising idea after seeing a video that went viral of Te'o holding his head in dismay during the Irish's 42-14 loss to Alabama in the national championship game.
The goal was to turn the loss -- and the player's sudden popularity -- into something positive.
"I think we were all kind of disappointed in the result of the game ... and the Manti story was very inspirational," Tudesco told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Notre Dame took notice of Tudesco's tweets about the fund drive and sent a university videographer to shoot an interview with him. The video was posted on the Notre Dame athletics YouTube channel Tuesday.
Tudesco said he didn't believe Notre Dame was aware of the hoax when it promoted his fundraiser.
"It would surprise me that Notre Dame would want to promote this if they knew something like this was going on," Tudesco said.
However, Notre Dame officials said Wednesday that they became aware of the hoax on Dec. 26, nearly two weeks before the championship game. University spokesman Dennis Brown didn't immediately respond to a request seeking comment Thursday.
People in Te'o's small Hawaiian hometown of Laie are offering support for the Notre Dame linebacker.
I just don't see something like that being made up from him or having any part of that because they're not those kind of people. Everybody's kind of like, 'What is going on?'” -- Te'o family friend Lokelani Kaiahua
No one answered the door Wednesday evening and no one appeared to be inside the modest, single-story wood home of Te'o's parents in the small coastal town on Oahu's northern shore where Manti Te'o was born.
But members of the mostly Mormon community said they were dumbfounded, and didn't believe he would have knowingly perpetrated such a story. The town of about 6,000 people, roughly an hour's drive from Honolulu, is home to a small Hawaii satellite campus of Brigham Young University.
Lokelani Kaiahua, 42, said Te'o's parents were her classmates, and she knew them to have strong family values they instilled in their children.
"I just don't see something like that being made up from him or having any part of that because they're not those kind of people," she said while sitting and talking with friends a few doors down from the Te'o family home. "Everybody's kind of like, 'What is going on?' "
Information from The Associated Press, ESPN.com's Gene Wojciechowski, Paula Lavigne, Matt Fortuna, Ted Miller and Mike Fish was included in this report.