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SALT LAKE CITY — Four months after Sports Illustrated wrote a poignant piece about Manti Te'o, a linebacker for Notre Dame who finished second in the Heisman voting last year, the story of the player's girlfriend dying from cancer unravelled.
Deadspin reported Wednesday that Te'o's tragic tale of his girlfriend, Lennay Marie Kekua, 22, dying of leukemia, was false. They could not find any evidence that the woman existed, and her online profile pictures belong to a 22-year-old California woman who has never met Te'o.
Te'o denies involvement with the hoax. The player released a statement after Deadspin broke the story saying he developed an emotion relationship with a woman he met online and maintained a relationship with her through telephone and online communication.
"To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating," he wrote.
As the story goes, Te'o met Stanford student Kekua after Notre Dame played Stanford in Palo Alto in 2009. Over the course of the next year, the two became friends, and by early 2012, they were a couple, talking over the phone each night.
Sometime in 2012, Kekua was badly injured in a car accident. Later that year, in June, doctors discover she had leukemia and she underwent a bone marrow transplant. Her condition improved over the summer. She graduated. Her cancer worsened.
Then, on Sept. 11, Teo's grandmother, Annette Santiago dies at age 72 after suffering from a long illness. This is true. An obituary in the Honolulu Star says she was buried Sept. 29.
Hours after learning of his grandmother's passing, Te'o finds out his girlfriend has passed away as well. According to Sports Illustrated, she had insisted he not miss a game for her, so he played that evening against Michigan State, helping his team with the game with 12 tackles.
Notre Dame released a statement Wednesday also calling Te'o a victim, and said they are investigating the hoax.
"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," they wrote.
After Deadspin found the woman in the photo's identity using a reverse Google image search, they say she began to help them piece the story together. She had no knowledge her photo had been used outside of her personal social media accounts, and offered some insight.
According to Deadspin, the woman was alarmed by one photo in particular, as it had been sent directly via text to an old acquaintance and she had never put it online. That acquaintance, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, had asked her to take a picture for his cousin, who had supposedly been in a serious car accident. He specifically asked her to hold a sign with the letters "MSMK" for a slideshow. @LoveMSMK is the Twitter handle of the fake Lennay Kekua.
Tuiasosopo and Te'o are friends, or at least family friends, according to Deadspin's source. But "they definitely know each other" and have interacted on Twitter.