SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame said a story that star Manti Te'o's girlfriend had died of leukemia -- a loss he said inspired him all season and helped him lead the Irish to the BCS title game -- turned out to be a hoax apparently perpetrated against the linebacker.
The university issued a statement about a hoax Wednesday after Deadspin.com said it could find no record that Lennay Kekua ever existed.
By Te'o's own account, she was an "online" girlfriend.
"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," he said in statement.
"To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating."
"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 university said its 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 Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia," the school said.
The university said "the proper authorities" are investigating a "very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators.
The week before Notre Dame played Michigan State on Sept. 15, coach Brian Kelly told reporters that Te'o's grandmother and a friend had died. Te'o didn't miss the game. He said Kekua had told him not to miss a game if she died. Te'o turned in one of his best performances of the season in the 20-3 victory in East Lansing, and his playing through heartache became a prominent theme during the Irish's undefeated regular season.
The linebacker's father, Brian Te'o, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press in early October that he and his wife had never met Kekua, saying they were hoping to meet her at the Wake Forest game in November. The father said he believed the relationship was just beginning to get serious when she died.
Te'o went on the 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 in Bradenton, Fla., this week.
Te'o's statement also said: "It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of my grandmother's death in September were in any way deepened by what I believed to be another significant loss in my life.
"I am enormously grateful for the support of my family, friends and Notre Dame fans throughout this year. To think that I shared with them my happiness about my relationship and details that I thought to be true about her just makes me sick. I hope that people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been."