One of America's most promising young footballers is at the centre of hoax claims after Notre Dame university revealed the girlfriend he said was dying of leukaemia did not exist.
Manti Te'o, currently preparing for this week's NFL draft, had claimed his online girlfriend Lennay Kekua's illness had inspired him as he lead the university team to their first appearance in the Bowl Championship Series title game.
But following a report in the US that there was no record of the woman existing, the university said it believes the Heisman Trophy finalist had been duped into an online relationship with a woman whose "death" was then faked by the perpetrators of the hoax.
Someone using a fictitious name "apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukaemia," the university said.
Jack Swarbrick, athletics director at Notre Dame, said the university had not taken the matter to the police. It had carried out its own investigations after being alerted to the situation on Boxing day by Te'o and his family.
"We had no idea of motive, and that was really significant to us. ... Was somebody trying to create an NCAA violation at the core of this? Was there somebody trying to effect the outcome of football games by manipulating the emotions of a key player? Was there an extortion request coming? When you match the lack of sort of detail we lacked until we got some help investigating it with the risk involved, it was clear to me until we knew more we had to just to continue to work to try to gather the facts," Swarbrick said.
Te'o had talked about losing his grandmother and his girlfriend during the course of the season, but in a statement today admitted he had been the victim of a 'sick joke'
"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. `'
However, he stopped short of saying he had ever met her in person or correcting reports that said he had, though he did on numerous occasions talk about how special the relationship was to him.
"To realise that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating," he said.
"In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was."
The week before Notre Dame played Michigan State last September, his coach had told reporters that Te'o's grandmother and a friend had died, although the player did not miss the game and went on to turn in one of his best performances of the season.
His playing through heartache became a prominent theme during the Irish's undefeated regular season, with Te'o going on to become a Heisman Trophy finalist, finishing second in the voting, and leading Notre Dame to its first appearance in the BCS championship.
Te'o and the Irish lost the title game to Alabama, 42-14 on Jan. 7. He has graduated and was set to begin preparing for the NFL combine and draft at the IMG Academy this week.
He added in his statement: "Fortunately, I have many wonderful things in my life and I'm looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me as I focus on preparing for the NFL Draft."