He led the Fighting Irish, amassing double-digit tackle games and becoming the face of one of the best defenses in the nation.
In September and October, Te'o told interviewers that his girlfriend and grandmother had died within hours of each other. The girlfriend, a 22-year-old Stanford University student, died of leukemia, he said.
The twin losses inspired him to honor them with sterling play on the field, Te'o said. He led his team to a 20-3 routing of Michigan State after he heard the news.
"I miss 'em, but I know that I'll see them again one day," he told ESPN.
It was indeed a gripping interest story of determination. And the media ran with it.
No one bothered to seek out Kekua's family until Deadspin, acting on an anonymous e-mail received last week, started poking around.
"What do you do when you first want to know something? You Google it, right?" Burke said on CNN. "And Google searches for 'Lennay Kekua' only showed up articles about her dying, and inspiring Manti Te'o.
"There's no evidence of her existing in any way, other than, you know, after she had allegedly died. And we thought that was a little weird."
Te'o's grandmother died in September, Deadspin said.
But there was no Social Security Administration record of Kekua's death. The Birth and Death Registration Office in Orange County, California, told CNN it had no record of Kekua, nor does the county coroner.
Deadspin called mortuaries and funeral homes in Carson, California, where Kekua was reportedly buried -- but came up empty.
The website sought out the person whose picture had been presented as that of Kekua and tracked her down.
She was alive, didn't have leukemia and had never met Te'o.
"That sort of opened everything up," Burke said.
The revelation prompted the Notre Dame athletics director to call a news conference Wednesday. There was no way for Te'o to know the relationship was a hoax because it had been conducted strictly online and on the phone, said director Jack Swarbrick.
The pair had set up several meetings, including in Hawaii, where Te'o grew up -- but Kekua never showed, Swarbrick said.
The university said it did not know how many people were in on the ruse.
According to Swarbrick, Te'o received a call from a woman claiming to be his girlfriend on December 6, telling him she was not dead. Those calls continued, but Te'o did not answer, he said.
The Heisman Trophy was awarded two days later, and Te'o made comments about losing relatives to cancer before he finished second in the award voting to quarterback Johnny Manziel of Texas A & M.
The Stanford University registrar's office told CNN that it has never had a student registered in Kekua's name or using an alternate spelling.