By Renita D. Young
SOUTH BEND, Indiana (Reuters) - Notre Dame students on Thursday said they were eager to hear directly from football star Manti Te'o, a day after he and university officials announced Te'o had been duped into believing he had an online relationship with a woman who subsequently died of leukemia.
The dramatic story of Te'o playing through the trauma of the death of his girlfriend and grandmother became a prominent theme driving sports coverage of Notre Dame's season. His grandmother did die, but the girlfriend never existed. Notre Dame's athletic director said Te'o was the victim of a cruel hoax.
"Everyone felt something magical this season, and that added to it," Notre Dame sophomore Ted Korolyshun said of Te'o and the story of his fighting through personal losses to lead Notre Dame to victory. "It just kind of hurts to have it taken away like that."
Korolyshun, 19, said he was with his boxing club on Wednesday when the news spread across the campus.
"It just exploded immediately after everyone found out last night, and nobody really knew what to think, so it was more shock, confusion, surprise than anything," said Christian Knight, 20, a civil engineering student.
Notre Dame officials said Te'o had told them on December 26 that the All-American linebacker appeared to have been the victim of a hoax, and that he had been planning to go public with the incident soon.
But online sports blog Deadspin.com broke the news on Wednesday that his girlfriend was fiction, and the story erupted in the online world where she was apparently created. Many expressed skepticism at Te'o's response that he was duped.
The Twitter hashtag MantiTeo had a steady stream of comments, including "My sister says her imaginary boyfriend plays for Notre Dame" and, in a possible reference to the upcoming National Football League player draft, "All I know is Manti Te'o is already an unbelievable fantasy football player."
Te'o, who was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, college football's highest individual honor, has been expected to be a high pick in the draft.
Students interviewed at the campus on Thursday said they did not believe the incident has tarnished the university's reputation.
"Absolutely not," T.J. O'Brien said, adding that the big question was whether people believed Te'o had been tricked.
Notre Dame officials and Te'o said on Wednesday that the relationship had been conducted exclusively online and through phone calls.
Nicole Vasquez, 20, a Notre Dame junior, called the situation involving an online relationship in which the people have never met "bizarre," and said she wanted to hear Te'o speak.
"I'm still waiting to hear what he has to say, because I, honestly, have no idea what to believe now," Vasquez said. "Everyone loves Manti Te'o here, so I don't think anyone wants to see him as being a part of it."
Teresa Lester, 19, a sophomore, said she uses Skype for video chats online all the time for her long-distance relationship and found it "kind of weird" that Te'o and his girlfriend had not done the same.
"I guess there are probably ways that whoever was fooling around with him probably got around that," Lester said, adding that she wanted to hear what Te'o had to say.
Ryan Williams, 20, a sophomore studying mechanical engineering, said creating relationships online had become commonplace with online dating sites and Facebook.
"I guess it's just ingrained in our culture, so I don't find it too strange," Williams said. "It sounds like a prank that was pulled on him and he was the victim of it. I want to believe that, but I don't have all the facts."
(Writing by David Bailey; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Xavier Briand)