The player, linebacker Manti Te'o, led the University of Notre Dame to 12 straight wins and a spot in college football's national championship game earlier this month.
But there was one problem, it was learned this week: Te'o's girlfriend never existed.
A fictional tragedy
On Wednesday, the sports website Deadspin reported that the whole story was fiction. Notre Dame called it a "sophisticated hoax," and Te'o said he was the victim of a "sick joke."
The revelation has gone viral in the U.S., where major media outlets such as NBC and CNN have speculated on the motive behind the fictitious story, and whether Te'o perpetrated it himself or was the target of a joke.
Even White House spokesman Jay Carney was asked in his daily press conference Thursday whether he had spoken to President Barack Obama about the Te'o story. Carney called the story "fascinating" but said he had not discussed it with the president.
The story is rooted in remarks made by Te'o during the 2012 football season, when he said his play was inspired by the leukemia-related death of Lennay Marie Kekua, a woman he described as his girlfriend.
He said Kekua and his grandmother died within hours of each other on the same day in September and vowed to honor both with dominating play on the field. Leading American media, including The New York Times and Sports Illustrated magazine, commented on the death of Te'o's girlfriend and grandmother during the most recent football season.
A national championship star
Te'o, who is of Samoan descent, helped propel Notre Dame to its first college football national championship game in nearly a quarter-century. He was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, the award presented annually to the best college football player in the United States. His team's only defeat came on Jan. 7, when the University of Alabama beat Notre Dame, 42-14, to win the national title.
Sports fans were stunned by the Deadspin report, which claimed that Kekua was a fictitious person invented by a friend of Te'o.
The website said it was unable to find any U.S. government record confirming the death of anyone named Lennay Marie Kekua, or confirming prior media reports that she had been a 22-year-old student at Stanford University in California. The website did verify that Te'o's real grandmother, Annette Santiago, died on September 11, 2012, at age 72.
Deadspin also found the woman whose picture had been presented as that of Kekua. It revealed that the photo was that of a living 22-year-old California woman who did not have leukemia and had never met Te'o.
In a news conference following the release of the Deadspin report, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Te'o had told the university about the hoax on December 26. Swarbrick said a private investigation authorized by the university pointed to Te'o being the victim.
A "sophisticated hoax"
"This was a very elaborate, very sophisticated hoax perpetrated for reasons we can't fully understand, but Manti was the perfect mark because he's a guy who is so willing to believe in others," Swarbrick said.
In a statement Wednesday, Te'o said he had met Kekua through the Internet. He said he developed and "maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone." It's unclear whether he ever indicated to anyone that he had met her in person.
He said, "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 will soon attend an off-season program aimed at allowing players to audition for the upcoming draft held by the professional National Football League. He is expected to be a first-round pick.