SOUTH BEND, Ind. - At least twice after he supposedly discovered his online girlfriend of three years never existed, Notre Dame All-American linebacker Manti Te'o perpetuated the heartbreaking story about her death.
An Associated Press review of news coverage found that the Heisman Trophy runner-up talked about his doomed love in a Web interview on Dec. 8 and again in a newspaper interview published Dec. 10. He and the university said Wednesday that he learned on Dec. 6 that it was all a hoax - that not only wasn't she dead, she wasn't even real.
On Thursday, a day after the Punahou School graduate's inspiring story was exposed as a bizarre lie, he and Notre Dame faced questions about whether he really was duped, as he claimed, or whether he and the university were complicit in the hoax and misled the public, perhaps to improve his chances of winning the Heisman.
Yahoo sports columnist Dan Wet-zel said the matter has "left everyone wondering whether this was really the case of a naive football player done wrong by friends or a fabrication that has yet to play to its conclusion."
Gregg Doyel, a columnist for CBSSports.com, was more direct.
"Nothing about this story has been comprehensible, or logical, and that extends to what happens next," he wrote. "I cannot comprehend Man-ti Te'o saying anything that could make me believe he was a victim."
On Wednesday, Te'o and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said the player was drawn into a virtual romance with a woman who used the phony name Lennay Kekua, and was fooled into believing she died of leukemia in September. They said his only contact with the woman was via the Internet and telephone.
Te'o lost his grandmother - for real - the same day his girlfriend supposedly died, and his role in leading the Fighting Irish to their best season in decades endeared him to fans and put him at the center of college football's biggest feel-good story of the year.
Relying on information provided by Te'o's family members, the South Bend Tribune reported in October that Te'o and Kekua first met, in person, in 2009, and that the two had also gotten together in Hawaii.
Sports Illustrated posted a previously unpublished transcript of an interview with Te'o from Sept. 23. In it, he goes into great detail about his relationship with Kekua and her physical ailments, and mentions meeting her for the first time after a game in California.
"We met just, ummmm, just she knew my cousin. And kind of saw me there so. Just kind of regular," he told SI.
Te'o's agent, Tom Condon, said his client had no plans to make any public statements Thursday in Bradenton, Fla., where he has been training with other NFL hopefuls at the IMG Academy.
Notre Dame said Te'o found out that Kekua was not a real person through a phone call he received at an awards ceremony in Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 6. He told Notre Dame coaches about the situation on Dec. 26.
The AP's media review turned up two instances during that gap when Te'o mentioned Kekua in public.
Te'o was in New York for the Heisman presentation on Dec. 8 and, during an interview before the ceremony that ran on WSBT.com, the website for a South Bend TV station, Te'o said: "I mean, I don't like cancer at all. I lost both my grandparents and my girlfriend to cancer. So I've really tried to go to children's hospitals and see, you know, children."
In a column that first ran in The Los Angeles Times, on Dec. 10, Te'o recounted why he played a few days after he found out Kekua died in September, and the day she was supposedly buried.
"She made me promise, when it happened, that I would stay and play," he said on Dec. 9 while at a ceremony in Newport Beach, Calif., for the Lott Impact Awards.
On Wednesday, when the story was broken by Deadspin.com, Swarbrick said that Notre Dame did not go public with its findings sooner because it expected the Te'o family to come forward first.