Manti Te’o’s story was the most compelling of the college football season.
The All-America linebacker and star of a Notre Dame team enjoying a Cinderella season was playing inspired football on the field and dealing with great mental anguish off it. Two of the most important women in his life, his grandmother and his girlfriend, were gravely ill.
Both women, Annette Santiago, Te’o’s grandmother, and Lennay Kekua, reported to be Te’o’s girlfriend, died within hours of each other Sept. 11, 2012.
Now, it appears Te’o’s inspiring story was a hoax. According to a report on Deadspin.com, a website that has broken some high-profile stories but not an outlet regarded for journalistic standards, Kekua never existed.
What remains unclear is whether Te’o was a participant in the hoax.
Te’o has denied taking part and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said the fraud was perpetrated against the linebacker.
“Nothing about what I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te’o one iota,’’ Swarbrick said Wednesday night.
Notre Dame officials said Te’o and his parents informed the school on Dec. 26 that the linebacker had been the victim of the hoax. According to the school, a person using a fictitious name “apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia.’’
Te’o, according to Swarbrick, alerted school officials after receiving a phone call from a number he believed belonged to his girlfriend, whom he labeled as an “online’’ girlfriend.
What was said — if anything — during the phone call is unknown.
An obituary in the Honolulu Advertiser confirmed Santiago’s death at age 72.
However, no obituary or death notice could be found for Kekua, who reportedly was 22 and suffered from leukemia, which was discovered after she was in a car accident last year.
Te’o released a statement saying, “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.’’
A story in the South Bend Tribune said the two met after Notre Dame’s 2009 loss at Stanford, where Kekua allegedly was a student. Deadspin said the Palo Alto, Calif., school has no record of a student by that name.
The pictures of Kekua that media outlets have used are, according to the Deadspin report, photos from the Facebook account of a 22-year-old California woman, who was unaware her pictures were being used until she was contacted by the website.
Te’o’s statement Wednesday does raise questions, considering some of his quotes during the season — which clearly give the perception that the relationship was more serious.
Hours after learning of the deaths, Te’o collected 12 tackles as he led the Fighting Irish to a 20-3 win over Michigan State, then said, “My family and my girlfriend’s family have received so much love and support from the Notre Dame family.’’
Te’o was asked about staying in South Bend and not attending his girlfriend’s service during a press conference in early October.
“You know, I really wanted to see her,’’ he said. “But I knew that she made me promise that, ‘Babe, if anything happens to me, you promise that you’ll still stay over there and that you’ll play and that you’ll honor me through the way you play, and know that I would rather have you there.’ ”
Te’o told the Globe’s Amalie Benjamin in November that the hardest part about losing his girlfriend was “every morning I wake up and my girlfriend is not on the phone it reminds that she’s gone . . . I go through it every day.’’
Benjamin said Te’o, a devout Mormon, “seemed very sincere and very emotional and affected by the death of his girlfriend.’’
Benjamin also talked to Te’o’s father, Brian, whom she described as “sincere and genuine.’’
“They could not have been nicer and seemed genuine,’’ said Benjamin. “They answered everything in a very sincere way without hesitation. There was never any indication there was anything fishy about what they said.’’
Attempts by the Globe to reach Brian Te’o were unsuccessful Wednesday night.
Deadspin said the hoax was the brainchild of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who, according to ESPN, was Te’o’s high school classmate at Punahou School in Honolulu. One unnamed source told Deadspin, “Manti and Ronaiah are family.’’
A friend of Tuiasosopo told Deadspin he was “80 percent sure [Te’o was] in on’’ the hoax.
The 6-foot-2-inch, 255-pound Te’o, a Heisman Trophy finalist and consensus first-round pick in April’s NFL draft, would seem to benefit little from participating in such a sham. If Te’o was a willing participant in the fabrication, his draft stock could plummet, as teams put more and more emphasis on character.
Prior to Wednesday’s report, Te’o was seen as a person of great character — an emotional and inspirational leader on and off the field who was the face of a Fighting Irish squad that went 12-0 before losing the BCS national title game to Alabama.
Te’o had a subpar performance against the Crimson Tide, missing several early tackles. and looked fatigued on the sideline. He appeared to lack his normal energy level.
Jim McBride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.