Netflix’s “Untold” series released its latest installment Tuesday, this time profiling former NFL linebacker Manti Te’o, who, during his time at Notre Dame, was catfished by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, leading to the embarrassing revelation that his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, never actually existed. The two-part documentary chronicles both the scandal and its aftermath, exploring the damage it did to both Teo and Tuiasosopo, a transgender woman who now goes by Naya.
While Te’o enjoyed a moderately successful pro career, appearing in 62 games including 48 starts for the Chargers and Saints over seven NFL seasons, he’s still scarred from his experiences, mocked and humiliated by fans who still most identify him with his lowest moment.
“There’s always going to be that little kid that’s going to come up to you because he loves you. But if you look at that little kid like the way that this dude has treated you, you’re going to ruin that little kid,” said Te’o, fighting back tears. “That is my challenge every day. That when somebody comes up to me and says, ‘Manti, man I’m a big fan of you,” that I don’t think of the hundreds of people that said, ‘Manti, I’m a big fan of you, let me take a picture,’ and they made fun of me.”
As a senior in 2012, Te’o was widely recognized as the best defensive player in college football, finishing runner-up to Johnny Manziel in that year’s Heisman voting while leading Notre Dame to the BCS National Championship, where the Irish would ultimately lose to Alabama. Te’o dedicated the season to his late girlfriend’s memory, believing she’d been killed in a fatal car accident. Responding to an anonymous tip, Deadspin reporters Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey eventually discovered Te’o’s girlfriend had been a hoax, a false identity concocted by Tuiasosopo using pictures of a former classmate. Te’o would later appear on national television, giving his side of the story in a revealing interview with ABC’s Katie Couric. Now happily married with a one-year-old daughter, Te’o says he forgives Tuiasosopo, but first, he had to forgive himself.
“Treat them nice, in a world that’s just spit on you. Remember all those people in the stands that had the leis on,” said Te’o, alluding to his Hawaiian heritage. “Because you’re going to have hundreds and thousands and millions of people that tell you, ‘You ain’t worth nothing, man.’ But there’s going to be one that says, ‘You’re worth the world to me.’ And I play for that person.”
A decade later, Te’o seems to have arrived at a much healthier place, learning to love himself again after years of self-flagellation. But it didn’t happen overnight. Te’o recalls being crippled by anxiety early in his NFL career, desperately wanting to succeed in hopes it would finally get people to stop talking about a chapter of his life he’d rather not revisit.
“I’m going to rise above all that, bro. No matter how hard it is for me. I’m going to look at all these people who made fun of me and the people who actually believed in me. I have to take a second to be like, ‘They actually love me, man. They love you. They don’t want to make fun of you, bro,’” said Te’o. “I’ll take all this crap. I’ll take all the jokes. I’ll take all the memes, so I can be an inspiration to the one who needs me to be. That’s the whole reason why I’m doing this.”
Reliving his humiliating past, though therapeutic on a certain level, couldn’t have been easy for Te’o, showing remarkable resilience in overcoming a cruelty no one should ever have to face.