It was one of the most celebrated stories of heroism in US sport: the college football star who fought through the grief over the death of his girlfriend as he helped his team get to the championship game.

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o had suffered an unthinkable double tragedy in his personal life – or so the story went. Just hours after finding out about the death of his beloved grandmother in Hawaii, Te'o learned that his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, had also died, succumbing to the leukemia she had been fighting after a near-fatal carwreck months earlier. Three days later, Te'o played the game of his life, leading the Fighting Irish to a 20-3 victory over Michigan State.

But in a dramatic and bewildering turn of events on Wednesday, it was revealed that the girlfriend and much of the tragic affair was a complete fiction, one that had taken in ESPN, Sports Illustrated and other major media outlets.

An investigation by the sports website Deadspin established that Lennay Kekua never existed, apparently outside of a fake Twitter account that used a picture stolen from an unwitting woman's Facebook page.

Te'o's sole interaction with a woman he described as his girlfriend, whom he loved and whose heartwrenching story he generously shared with a lot of reporters, appears to have been through Twitter.

As the internet reacted with astonishment to that news, Notre Dame added another twist, claiming that their star linebacker was in fact the victim of the elaborate hoax and not its perpetrator.

Before losing the BCS title game to the Alabama Crimson Tide, Notre Dame had enjoyed an undefeated season, thanks in large part to the gridiron heroics of Te'o. He was one of three finalists for this year's Heisman Trophy, which is awarded to the best player in college football. He is expected to be a top pick in the NFL draft. He brought great accolades to Notre Dame athletics.

Notre Dame responded to Deadspin's story by releasing a statement which said that Te'o, a devout Mormon of Samoan descent, had informed the university weeks ago that he been taken in.

"On Dec. 26, Notre Dame coaches were informed by Manti Te'o and his parents that Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia."

Certain details of the story Te'o told are difficult to square with the notion that he was the victim of a hoax. Sports Illustrated reported that Te'o slept with a phone, listening to his girlfriend breathe as she was convalescing on a cancer ward. Those and other excruciating details of his fictional girlfriend's painful illness and death, details Deadspin rounds up from the numerous media outlets where they were published, appear to have come from the football star and his family.

"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 obtained by ESPN. "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. …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."

Deadspin identifies a suspect behind the fake identity and fake account. His name is Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a classmate of the woman whose Facebook photo was apparently stolen. Tuiasosopo also was an acquaintance of Te'o's before the linebacker's rise to stardom.

The nature of the relationship between Tuaisosopo and Te'o, however, is unclear, leaving the question of the football prospect's complicity in the hoax, if any, an open one.

For now, Notre Dame is standing by its star.

"The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax," the Notre Dame statement said. "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." © Guardian News and Media 2013

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[Image via Neon Tommy, Creative Commons licensed]