The world of US college football has been rocked after it emerged that the tragic story of a Notre Dame player's girlfriend who died of leukaemia was an elaborate hoax.
Manti Te'o, a key player at the University of Notre Dame, was lauded by both fans and opponents for leading his team to a critical victory just days after the death of his long-term girlfriend.
The young woman, Lennay Kekua, had become part of the Hawaiian linebacker's mystique and in interviews he described how he would speak to her every night by phone from her hospital bed, praying and urging her back to health.
But last night, a sports blog Deadspin revealed that she had never existed except on fake online profiles decorated with pictures of a woman from California who had never met Te'o and knew nothing of the scam.
The 21-year-old, who is a devout Mormon, claimed that he was never involved and said he was "the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies".
"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," he said in a statement.
"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".
Sceptics questioned his claim, pointing out that despite repeated references to Kekua in interviews he had never once mentioned that he had met her in person. Deadspin reported that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a friend of Te'o's from Hawaii, appeared to be linked to the hoax.
Notre Dame, the Catholic university in Indiana known for its football prowess, last night stood by Te'o, saying that the young player was "the perfect mark" for a hoax.
Jack Swarbrick, the university's athletic director, told a press conference: "I want to stress, as someone who has been engaged in this as anyone the past couple weeks, that nothing I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te’o one iota."
Te'o reportedly learned of Kekua's death on September 12 last year, just hours after he was told that his beloved grandmother had died.
She was reportedly buried 10 days later in California, but Te'o did not attend the funeral because he had sworn to her that he would not miss a game.
Mr Swarbrick said that on December 6, two months after she had reportedly died, Te'o received a phone call from her number. A voice he recognised as Kekua's told him she wasn't dead.
"Manti was very unnerved by that, as you might imagine," Mr Swarbrick said.
Te'o reportedly informed the university on December 26 that he believed he was the victim of a hoax, and in the ensuing weeks university officials found nothing to discredit the claim.
The player is expected to speak publicly in coming days, giving the media a chance to probe his claims.
While the episode is deeply embarrassing for Te'o and Notre Dame it also raises serious questions for the media outlets that repeatedly told the fairy tale story of the relationship between the two young people.
One local paper in Indiana even described how when the pair met in California in 2009 "their stares got pleasantly tangled, then Manti Te'o extended his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes".
Raf Sanchez, Telegraph.co.uk