Lon Saturday Manti Te’o watched the new Netflix documentary Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist surrounded by his family at his home in Utah. The film, which was released publicly on Tuesday, covers a catfish fishing scandal that rocked the US nearly a decade ago. Te’o, a Heisman Trophy finalist during his senior year at Notre Dame, enjoyed what appeared to be a storybook seasonleading Notre Dame to the national championship game after overcoming twin injuries: deaths to his grandmother and girlfriend Lenai Kekua in September 2012. One problem: Kekua didn’t exist. Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, nicknamed Naya, had developed an online identity as Kekua and was in a relationship with T’eo, who found out about the scam in December of that year. Dead spin revealed publicized it in an explosive investigation released in January 2013, following Notre Dame’s 42-14 loss to Alabama in the title game.
In the film, Tuiasosopo, who now identifies as a transgender woman, explains how she carried out the scam. Te’o described how the disturbance caused anxiety attacks after he joined the NFL. Te’o did tear up when the film showed highlights from his years at Notre Dame before it all unraveled. “Just looking back on those years and just who I was at the 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 on Wednesday. “It was a healing experience.”
The film resonates. Untold: The girlfriend who didn’t exist was listed as the #2 movie on Netflix on August 17. Te’o spoke with TIME about the lessons learned from the documentary, his biggest regret and what the future might hold.
(This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity)
TIME: Why are you telling your story now?
Te’o: When I was first called, right when it happened, I still wasn’t able to do anything. I was still ashamed. I was still ashamed. I knew that one, I didn’t want to say anything, and two, if I had to say something, it wouldn’t be the truth, because I’m still ashamed of it.
in 2017 [New Orleans Saints defensive end] Cam Jordan took us to a Jay-Z concert in New Orleans. And Jay-Z said, “You can’t heal what you don’t reveal.” And so from that point on, I was like, “I want to have these tough conversations with people who want to have them.” I just got to Saints. I had a lot of new teammates and they had a lot of questions and it was a great opportunity to share. I realized as it happened, I started to get a little more strength. Not necessarily comfortable, but I was just getting used to it. More importantly, there was some love, some empathy and some support from the people asking. So all of a sudden I was like, “Man, I’m stronger now.”
Fast forward three years later when [The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist co-director] Tony Wainuku reaches out. He and I were having the same conversation and he was just listening. He said, “Brother, you are ready. You have to tell it.” I’m ready to tell it because I’m at peace with everything. I am not ashamed. And if Netflix and Tony Vainuku and [co-director] Ryan Duffy are ready to tell the story, the whole story, I will.
Manti T’eo Speaks on ‘Untold’
Courtesy of Netflix
What have been the reviews, good and bad, since the release of the film?
Everything was positive. It was amazing bro because it was global. People in France, people in Germany, people in Africa. I received messages in different languages. I don’t know what they mean. But I can tell by the emojis that it’s all love.
So many people have said, “Hey man, stuff like this has happened to me,” whether it’s a catfishing accident or a family trial, a divorce, the loss of a loved one. And that different parts of the documentary really helped them have a different perspective. That’s all I can hope for is to help people get through what they’re going through by seeing how my life went.
I want to challenge everyone to tell people you love them. don’t wait We live in a society where funerals are where most “I love you” are said. If you’re walking down the street and you can help someone, do it. It won’t cost you anything. But to this man, it means the world.
And what was the most surprising revelation in the documentary for you?
The most surprising to me, to be honest, was Deadspin. I’ve just always known Deadspin as the people who leaked it. But when I look at what they were trying to do, there was a level of understanding for me. It was like, “Okay, you were just trying to report facts.” And I respect that. You’re just trying to do your job the best you can. I don’t blame you for that.
It’s really interesting because I’ve seen some malice on social media directed at Timothy Burke and jack dickey, the former Deadspin reporters who wrote the story after the movie came out. Generally blaming them for ruining your life. But after the documentary, you don’t hold those feelings?
I don’t think there was one person or one thing that was a single person or company that ruined everything. It was just a whole tidal wave of different people, different events. So let me see [the Deadspin reporting process], it was awkward. But I was like, “Okay, I see you’re just trying to do your job.”
Journalist Jack Dickey, who helped break the catfishing story for Deadspin
Courtesy of Netflix
In the film, Burke and Dickey noted that they felt their story would serve as a condemnation of the mainstream media’s inability to do basic fact-checking. To find out, for example, that no Lenai Kekua graduated from Stanford. But instead, people focused on things like whether you participated in the scam or speculation about your sexual orientation. Looking back, were you surprised by that result?
yes As an athlete, you say to yourself, “I’m probably going to end up on ESPN. Maybe the local news. That is all. But that applied to everyone. It was surprising to say the least. I thought, “Where do you get these facts?” But I can’t control what they say. I’ll control what I can control, and then we’ll make the best of it.
What is your message for Naya Tuiasosopo?
forgiveness To me, forgiveness is powerful because, first, you don’t just forgive the person. It’s also about yourself. It’s not like Naya reached out to me and said, “Please forgive me.” Naya never asked me to forgive Naya. It was already a given because I knew this was what I had to do. And the next part is that forgiveness is unconditional. There is so much strength and peace that comes with that. If you want to have peace in your life and take control of your life again, forgive.
Naya Tuiasosopo, in a still from ‘Untold’. Tuiasosopo develops an online identity as Kekua and maintains a relationship with T’eo
Courtesy of Netflix
While you have done a nice life during your seven-year NFL career, it’s pretty clear from the film that the catfishing incident kept you from being a first-round draft pick and caused anxiety in your early years with the San Diego Chargers. It’s reasonable to imagine that you do millions more if this had never happened. You also talked about an incident where Naya, speaking as Lenai Kekua, said your name between breaths on the other end of the phone line, leading you to believe that you were essentially helping to prolong her life. There’s a lot of trauma there. How did you get over that hump to where you can forgive?
During this time, I carry this anger with me. It was choking me. My whole world was just a spinning hurricane. And I was desperate for peace. I’ve exhausted all I can do bro to try and rediscover who I am. I would put quotes on the mirror in my apartment. I did this book called Dear Manti. Whenever my siblings and parents came to visit, I gave it to them. I would say, “Hey guys, before you go, write me a letter.” Because I would have to remember. I would watch an old movie about me in high school. I tried to remember how it felt, the confidence. I realized that the only way you can find peace is to let go of anger, to forgive. People who harness this feeling of hatred, anger, or revenge, you are giving someone else power over your life to dictate how you live your life. And what a dear price that is.
Would you ever get in a room with Naya to talk about what happened with the catfishing incident? To smooth things over?
I am not very sure.
Well, because at the end of the day, you still did this to me. Everything I wanted to say to Naya, I managed to say it in the most honest way possible for me. “Hey, listen, I forgive you. And I hope you and your family are well. And I’m fine. And we can, we can go our ways. I have no ill will. Everything I wanted to say, everything I wanted to do, I think the documentary covers it all.
What’s next for you?
I do not know. The only thing I know for sure is that there’s a little girl right next to me—she’s sleeping. My wife is here. We are expecting a son. My wife is in nursing school. I support her in her nursing school. She wants to open a medical spa. I’m all for it. So if someone wants a job at a spa in about four years, I think my wife will be fine.
But honestly, bro, I just want to raise good human beings. When they go to school. I want them to take care of the child who is sitting alone in the cafeteria and sit next to him. I want them to help a child who drops his books pick them up.
You last played for the Chicago Bears practice squad in 2020 and are listed as an NFL free agent. Is football something you still pursue? Or are you ready?
Yeah, I’m done bro. This life got me. I’m addicted to it. I want to be here to raise my children. I give credit to so many of my teammates who have families, and their wives even more. The time we spent away from our families, I can’t imagine being away from my children for that long.
If you had one regret through it all, one thing you would have done differently, what would it be?
My only regret is that there are many people after 2013 who genuinely loved me. There were many people who came to support me and offered their help. But being in a dark place, I could not get that help. I didn’t appreciate that help. So there are a lot of people who were genuinely there to help me, but I didn’t appreciate it the way I should have. I wish I had been more considerate of that love and that help.
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 have much doubt about this decision.
I mean, I wish this whole thing never happened. But my biggest regret, personally, is that I and my actions affected someone else in a negative way.
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