(CNN) — Manti Te’o was on the cusp of something historic.
Had he won the Heisman Trophy in December, it would have made him the first exclusively defensive player to raise the trophy.
But he lost out to Texas A&M freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel. And now the Heisman has become part of heated speculation about whether Te’o was a victim or a participant in a hoax.
To be sure, opinions are split on whether the Notre Dame linebacker was involved in a ruse that sports website Deadspin later unearthed: that Te’o’s girlfriend — whom he said died while his team marched toward the BCS National Championship Game — did not exist.
Notre Dame said Te’o was the victim of an “elaborate hoax.” He said he’d been taken in by a “sick joke.”
But callers to sports talk radio and fans on social media offered up their take on what might have happened. And the Heisman was front and center in many of those theories.
“Manti Teo faked having a girlfriend for Heisman Votes!!!!! #WhereTheyDoThatAT,” Cliff Harris tweeted, one of many outraged fans to voice the sentiment. None of these commenters claimed they had any firsthand information.
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 user 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 a 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 factor, a good storyline helps for a hopeful.
And Te’o’s heart-wrenching tale of determination on the face of two tragedies — the death of his grandmother and girlfriend — 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.
But perceptions turn on a dime. And they did for some fans after the sports website Deadspin published a piece dismissing the existence of the girlfriend as a hoax.
And the knives came out.
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.”