When star college footballer Manti Te'o received a phone call from his "dead girlfriend", he knew something was desperately wrong.
It was during an awards show presentation in Orlando, Florida, in December that the Notre Dame linebacker's mobile phone rang, displaying the number of Lennay Kekua, the girlfriend who he believed had died of leukaemia three months earlier.
Deadspin explains unraveling T'eo Story
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Deadspin explains unraveling T'eo Story
Tim Burke of Deadspin.com explains how he and colleagues discovered that the elaborate story of Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o's girlfriend was a hoax.
When he answered, the voice on the other end was hers. And staggeringly, she told him that she was very much alive.
"He became startled, shocked," said Jack Swarbrick, director of athletics at the University of Notre Dame, of the baffling saga surrounding the golden child of college football who claims to have been the victim of a gobsmacking and cruel online hoax.
The story of the apparent death of Te'o's girlfriend and his remarkable on-field performance in the face of adversity shot to mythical proportions in the United States.
But it has now been revealed that Lennay Kekua never existed.
Te'o claims that someone using the fictitious online name of Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with him and then conspired with others to lead him to believe that she had tragically died of cancer.
Photos of her on social media were taken from the accounts of a Californian woman who, when contacted, was said to be horrified to find that she had become "the face of a dead woman".
Te'o, a devout Mormon who spoke publicly about Lennay in the past, now says he never physically met the woman he knew as Lennay and who he believed was his girlfriend, but had a relationship with her online and spoke daily to her on the phone.
It remains unclear about whether Te'o, 21, was duped, as he claims, or whether he played any part in fabricating the fictitious story of having a girlfriend who died in September for publicity.
Te'o Hoax a 'sad, cruel game'
A story that US football star Manti Te'o's girlfriend had died of leukaemia has been dismissed as a hoax perpetrated against him.
But his university, which rode on the back of Te'o's talent to the Bowl Championship Series title game on January 7, is standing by their star player.
Mr Swarbrick said Te'o was "the single most trusting human being I've ever met".
Manti is the victim of that hoax, and he will carry that with him for a while.
"Manti is the victim of that hoax, and he will carry that with him for a while," Mr Swarbrick said in a press conference.
"In many ways, Manti was the perfect mark because he is a guy who is so willing to believe in others and so ready to help that, as this hoax played out, in a way that called upon those tendencies of Manti and roped him more and more into the trap.
"He was not a person who would have a second thought about offering his assistance and help in engaging fully."
Remarkably, Mr Swarbrick said the woman who Te'o believed to be his girlfriend, and who called him in Orlando, tried to rekindle their relationship, but her requests were denied.
There had been no demands for money from the perpetrator, whom private investigators were tracking down, he said.
Te'o first told his university about the situation on December 26, and had given a detailed account of his "relationship" with the woman and how it had come about, Mr Swarbrick said, adding that "nothing about what I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te'o one iota".
He said he was with Te'o on the day in September when he was told that Lennay had died, and he believed Te'o's grief was real.
"There was no suspicion that it wasn't, no belief that it might not be. And so the pain was real. The grief was real. The affection was real. And that's the nature of this sad, cruel game," he said.
One baffling piece of the saga were numerous media reports, including a cover story on Sports Illustrated last year, that stated Te'o and Lennay had "met".
But Mr Swarbrick said Te'o had explained that he had used the verb to refer to an online meeting.
"He responded to an online inquiry. That was the first time he met her. And as part of the hoax, several meetings were set up where Lennay never showed, including some in [Te'o's home state of] Hawaii," Mr Swarbrick said.
The senior journalist who wrote the Sports Illustrated cover story, Pete Thamel, said he had re-listened to his earlier interviews with Te'o in the wake of the startling revelation.
"He never specified that he'd met her in person, and I didn't ask. Why would you ask someone if he'd actually met his girlfriend who recently died?," Thamel said.
Mr Swarbrick said the hoax played out much like the 2010 documentary “Catfish,” in which a woman built a fake online persona in an attempt to create a deceptive online relationship with 24-year-old New Yorker Nev Schulman.
Mr Schulman has since reached out to Te'o via Twitter, offering his sympathy.
"I know how you feel. It happened 2 me. I want 2 help tell ur story & prevent this from happening to others in the future. Lets talk," he tweeted to Te'o.
Meantime, the bizarre story has inspired a new Tumblr of people "Te'oing", in which men pose with their imaginary girlfriends.
One photo says Clint Eastwood was the first person to "Te'o", when he famously spoke to an empty chair at the Republican National Convention last year.
Other photos show men with their arms wrapped around nothing, and hopeful husbands down on one knee proposing to an empty space.