POSTED: Friday, January 18, 2013 - 1:00am
UPDATED: Friday, January 18, 2013 - 1:04am
CNN — On Wednesday, Manti Te'o was a well-liked college football star. A day later, he was the butt of the latest Internet fad -- posting pictures of yourself with your arm around an imaginary girlfriend.
They call it "Te'oing."
The nation was abuzz Thursday with talk of Te'o after the sports website Deadspin reported Wednesday that the girlfriend Te'o said died as his team marched toward the BCS National Championship Game not only didn't die -- she never existed.
Te'o, 21, said Wednesday that he'd been tricked into an online relationship that ended with him being told the woman had died from leukemia. He said he'd been taken in by a "sick joke."
Notre Dame said Te'o was the victim of an "elaborate hoax."
But many fans, sports experts and media critics took to the airwaves and the Internet, questioning that someone could pull the wool over Te'o's eyes for so long, and saying he had to be in on it.
"The level of hoax would have to be so elaborate that it really would strain credulity," said Howard Kurtz, host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and Newsweek's Washington bureau chief.
The media also took its share of lumps, with Kurtz and others questioning why reporters covering Te'o's emotional tale didn't do more to check the young linebacker's story.
Meanwhile, the story became overnight social media sensation, spawning a seemingly endless discussion of the whys and hows of the baffling case.
And while none of those commenters claimed to have any inside knowledge, the Heisman Trophy was front and center in many of those theories.
Te'o was among the top candidates for the trophy, which goes to the best college football player in the United States. He did not win.
"Manti Teo faked having a girlfriend for Heisman Votes!!!!!" tweeted Cliff Harris, one of many outraged fans to voice the sentiment.
Others said such a plan would need years of impractical planning.
"He most likely didn't make it up. To make it up, he'd have to have been scheming enough to make it just elaborate enough and just the right story to get people to pay attention," said a commenter using the handle Choo on a CNN.com story.
"He'd also have to have known that he would have played really well the exact game that she "died." He'd also have to be (unfazed) by it all. He'd also have to have the ability to lie straight-faced. I just don't think he is that smart or sneaky."
Eddie George is a Heisman Trophy-winning former Ohio State running back and NFL star. He met Te'o at the Heisman ceremony and said he thought he was a good kid.
Asked to comment on the echo chamber online, George said, "I can't believe that it could be."
He added, "If it turns out that this was done for recognition and to get publicity for the Heisman, that would be despicable, deplorable."
The Heisman is a carefully choreographed mating dance.
Even before a season starts, universities erect billboards and create media strategies to announce to the world that they have an athlete worthy of the game's most prestigious trophy.
While touchdowns and tackles are still the determining factors, a good storyline helps.
And Te'o's heart-wrenching tale of determination in the face of two tragedies -- the death of his grandmother and his girlfriend within hours -- had all the elements.
It reached its apex on September 15 when he led the Fighting Irish to a 20-3 thrashing of Michigan State. He credited the deaths in propelling him in the game in which he had 12 tackles, the most he had all season.
"I will be honest, throughout the game you are still thinking about it, but football allows me to be in a little realm, a little world that I know," he said afterward. "I can honor them by the way I played. It was for them, for my girl and my grandma, and for all my loved ones who have passed on."
Sports fans lapped it up. He was a hero with a halo.
Until, that is, the article appeared on Deadspin, the same site that in 2010 published explicit pictures allegedly sent by NFL quarterback Brett Favre to a New York Jets sideline host.
Now, he's the butt of jokes and the center of swirling questions about whether he or someone else is behind the hoax.
Deadspin said it had traced the hoax to a former classmate of the woman whose face appears in the Twitter profile of Te'o's alleged girlfriend.
The woman, according to Deadspin, had no knowledge of the hoax but said she recalled the classmate asking her to send him photos of herself similar to those used in the profile.
Te'o did not answer a call to his room at a Florida training facility, where he is preparing for the NFL combine.
CNN has not been able to locate the man Deadspin named in its article as being behind the hoax.
However, Te'o tried to clear up some of the speculation with a statement Wednesday.
"This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over several months I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online," he said. "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.
"To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating."
But David Haugh, a Chicago Tribune sports columnist, said Te'o has more explaining to do.
"It doesn't add up. Obviously the explanation, it bears further explanation," Haugh said.
"I think you want to hear from Manti Te'o himself beyond the statement. Because if he is truly a victim of a cruel hoax, as Notre Dame put it, then he has nothing to hide."