Manti Te’o on Netflix’s Untold Documentary
Last Saturday Manti Te’o watched the new Netflix documentary Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, He was surrounded by his family at home in Utah. On Tuesday, the film was made public and covers the catfishing scandal in America that occurred nearly a decade back. Te’o, a Heisman trophy finalist during his senior year at Notre Dame, enjoyed what appeared to be a storybook season, leading Notre Dame to the national championship game after overcoming twin traumas: the deaths of his grandmother and his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, in September of 2012. Kekua didn’t exist. Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, nicknamed Naya, had developed an online identity as Kekua and carried on a relationship with T’eo, who found out about the hoax in December of that year. Deadspin revealed it to the public via an explosive investigation published in January of 2013, following Notre Dame’s 42-14 loss to Alabama in the title game.
The film Tuiasosopo explains the tricks she used to deceive. Te’o describes how the embarrassment caused bouts of anxiety once he joined the NFL. Te’o really teared up when the film showed highlights of his Notre Dame years, before everything unraveled. “Just remembering those years and just being who I was at that time, the people that were around me, the love, the support, it was definitely an emotional experience,” Te’o, wearing a white Notre Dame zip-up jacket, told TIME in a Zoom interview Wednesday. “It was a healing experience.”
This film resonates. Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, was listed as Netflix’s No. 2 movie on Aug. 17. Te’o talked to TIME about lessons learned from the documentary, his biggest regret, and what the future may hold.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
TIME: What’s the point of telling your story right now?
Te’o: When I first got approached, right when it happened, I was still not in the space to do anything. I felt ashamed. It was embarrassing. So I knew that, one, I don’t want to say anything and two, if I were to say something, it wouldn’t be the truth because I’m still ashamed of it.
2017. [New Orleans Saints defensive end]Cam Jordan took us along to a Jay-Z concert. And Jay-Z said, “You cannot heal what you don’t reveal.” And so from that point on, I told myself, “I want to have these hard conversations with people that want to have them.” I just got to the Saints. There were many questions from my new team members, so I was excited to be able to help them. As it was happening, I noticed a slight increase in my strength. Although it wasn’t necessarily easy to adjust, I just started getting comfortable with the process. Most importantly, I felt that the people who were asking me for help had some compassion, empathy, and support. So I suddenly was like, “Man, I’m stronger now.”
Now fast-forward to three years later [The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist co-director] Tony Vainuku reaches out. He and I spoke the same thing and he listened. He said, “Bro, you’re ready. You’ve got to tell it.” I am ready to tell it because I’m at peace with everything. I’m not ashamed. If Netflix and Tony Vainuku are interested in my work, [co-director] Ryan Duffy are willing to tell the story, the whole story, I’ll do it.
Manti T’eo speaks out in “Untold”
Netflix – Courtesy
What’s has been some of the feedback, good and bad, since the film’s release?
It’s been all positive. It’s been amazing, bro, because it’s been global. There are people from France and Germany as well as people living in Africa. I’ve gotten messages in different languages. I don’t know what they mean. But I can tell by the emojis it’s all love.
So many people have said, “Hey man, similar things happened to me,” whether it be a catfishing incident or a trial within a family, divorce, a loss of a loved one. The documentary helped people see things from a different angle. That’s all I could hope for, is to help people go through what they go through by seeing how my life went.
Everyone, I challenge you to love your family. Don’t wait. We live in a society where funerals are the place where the most “I love yous” are said. If you’re walking on a street and you can help somebody, do it. It’s not going to cost you anything. However, it is a life-changing experience for that individual.
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What was your most shocking revelation from the documentary?
Deadspin was the most shocking for me honestly..Deadspin was the leaker of it. However, I was able to see the intent of their actions and gain a greater understanding. It was like, “OK, you were just trying to report facts.” And I respect that. You’re just trying to do your job the best way you could. I don’t hold that against you.
That’s really interesting, because I’ve seen some social media vitriol directed at Timothy Burke Jack Dickey, the former Deadspin reporters who wrote the piece, since the film’s release. The basic idea blaming them for ruining your life. But after the documentary, you don’t hold those sentiments?
I don’t think there’s one person or one thing that was a sole person or company that ruined everything. It was all a tsunami of people, events and other individuals. For me, to see [the Deadspin reporting process]I found it uncomfortable. But I was like, “OK, I can see that you’re just trying to do your job.”
Jack Dickey is a journalist who broke the story of catfishing for Deadspin.
Netflix – Courtesy
In the film, Burke and Dickey made the point that they thought their story would serve as a condemnation of the mainstream media’s inability to do basic fact-checking. For example, it was shocking to learn that Stanford had not produced a Lennay-Kekua. People instead focused on speculations and hoaxes, as well as your sexual orientation. Did you find that surprising?
Yeah. As an athlete, you’re like, “I’m probably going to hit ESPN. Maybe the local news.” That’s about it. This was a surprise to everyone. To put it mildly, it was quite shocking. I was like, “Where are you getting these facts from?” But I can’t control what they say. I’m going to control what I can control, and then we’ll do the best with that.
Your message to Naya Tuiasosopo
Forgiveness. For me, forgiveness is powerful because, one, it’s not only for the person that you’re forgiving. It’s also for yourself. It’s not like Naya reached out to me and said, “Please forgive me.” Never have I been asked by Naya to forgive Naya. It was given already, because I knew that’s what I needed to do. The next thing is that forgiveness can be unconditional. There’s so much power and peace that comes with that. Forgiveness is the best way to find peace and take back control of your own life.
Naya Tuiasosopo (in a still taken from ‘Untold. Tuiasopo, in a still from ‘Untold.’
Netflix – Courtesy
While you made a nice living during your seven-year NFL career, it’s pretty clear from the film that the catfishing incident prevented you from becoming a first round draft pick, and caused anxiety in your initial years with the San Diego Chargers. It’s reasonable to imagine you making millions more if this had never happened. Also, you talked about the incident when Naya (also known as Lennay Kkua), said your name in between the breaths while she spoke on the other end. This led to you believing that you were helping her live longer. There’s a lot of trauma there. What did it take to get past that hump and forgive others?
I was carrying this anger around with me at that moment. It was all that drowned me. The whole of my world seemed like one big spinning storm. And I desperately wanted peace. Bro, I tried everything to find my true self. In my apartment, I used to put quotes on the mirror. Dear Manti was the name of my book. It was my duty to give the book to my siblings and parents every time they came over. I’d say, “Hey, before you guys leave, write write me a letter.” Because I would need to remember. Watching old footage of me from high school was something I did. It was difficult for me to recall how I felt and how confident I felt. It was only by letting go of my anger and allowing myself to forgive that I could find peace. If you allow hatred, anger, or revenge to control your life, then you give someone else the power to make your decisions. That is an extremely high price.
You would like to have a conversation with Naya about the catfishing case. You want to sort of have a chat about it?
I’m not too sure.
You did, at the end. All that I had to say to Naya, I was able say in the most sincere way for me. “Hey, listen, I forgive you. And I hope you and your family are OK. And I’m OK. And we can we can go our own ways.” I have no ill will. The documentary has everything I wanted, and I believe it covers every detail.
What’s next for you?
I don’t know. The one thing I know for sure is that there’s this little baby girl right next to me—she’s asleep. My wife’s here. We’re expecting a son. My wife’s in nursing school. I’m supporting her in her nursing school. She is interested in opening a med spa. I’m all for that. If anyone is interested in a med spa job, it will be for about four years.
Sincere, bro. I want them to be good humans. I want them to be happy when they get back from school. I want them to look out for the kid that’s sitting by themselves at the cafeteria and go sit by him. To help someone who has dropped their book, I ask them to grab them.
In 2020, you last played on the Chicago Bears practice squad. Is football something you’re still pursuing? Are you finished?
Yeah, I’m done, bro. It was my passion. I’m addicted to it. My goal is to stay here and raise my children. Many of my colleagues have wonderful families. I also give credit to their wives. The amount of time that we spent away from from families, I can’t imagine being away from my kids that long.
What would you do differently if you had one regret in all of this?
One regret that I do not have is the fact that there were many people after 2013 who genuinely cared about me. Many people came out to help me, and offered their support. But because I was in a dark place, I couldn’t receive that help. I didn’t appreciate that help.. So there are a lot of people that were genuinely there to help me that I didn’t appreciate the way that I should have. It was something I wish I had done better with the love and assistance.
That’s interesting, because the easy answer to that question would be, I wish I didn’t start talking to Lennay Kakua. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it doesn’t sound like you second-guessed that decision a ton.
I mean, I wish this whole thing didn’t happen. My biggest regret is, for myself, that my actions and I have affected someone else negatively.
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