(NEW YORK) — The star of Notre Dame’s championship football team has admitted that the widely-reported death of his girlfriend from leukemia during the 2012 football season was apparently a hoax, and said he was duped by it as well.

Manti Te’o, who led the Fighting Irish to the BCS championship game this year and finished second for the Heisman Trophy, said in a statement Wednesday that he fell in love with a girl online last year who turned out not to be real.

He said during the season that his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, died of leukemia in September on the same day Te’o's grandmother died, triggering an outpouring of support for Te’o at Notre Dame and in the media.

“While my grandma passed away and you take, you know, the love of my life [Kekua]. The last thing she said to me was, ‘I love you,’” Te’o said at the time, noting that he had talked to Kekua on the phone and by text message until her death.

Now, responding to a story first reported by the sports website Deadspin, Te’o has acknowledged that Kekua never existed. The website reported Wednesday that there were no records of a woman named Lennay Kekua anywhere.

Te’o denied that he was in on the hoax.

“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 released Wednesday afternoon. “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.”

Deadspin reported that the image attached to Kekua’s social media profiles, through which the pair interacted, was of another woman who has said she did not even know Te’o or know that her picture was being used, according to Deadspin. The website reported that it traced the profiles to a California man who is an acquaintance of Te’o and of the woman whose photo was stolen.

“To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating,” Te’o said.

According to Notre Dame, Te’o and his family came forward to the university with concerns that Te’o had been the victim of a hoax in December 2012.

“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,” the university said in a statement released Wednesday.

The university said that it has referred the matter to authorities.

“The university immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax,” it 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.”

Te’o is currently preparing for the NFL draft, according to his statement.

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