The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Manti Te’o, victim of a catfishing hoax, hopes he’s still an inspiration

Manti Te'o played with the New Orleans Saints from 2017-19 after a four-year stint with the San Diego Chargers. He finished his career with the Chicago Bears. (Bob Leverone/AP)

In 2012, Manti Te’o was a star linebacker for Notre Dame, a Heisman Trophy candidate with a bright future ahead in the NFL. But it wasn’t just his talent that attracted attention. He had a heart-wrenching, inspirational story about a girlfriend who had died of leukemia.

It was all perfect, until it spectacularly fell apart.

Deadspin blew the lid off the story, writing that Te’o had been the victim of catfishing — employing a social media account designed to lure someone into a relationship using a false identity. The girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, was the social media creation of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who has since come out as a trans woman and goes by Naya Tuiasosopo.

Now, in a two-part Netflix documentary called “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist” that came out Tuesday, Te’o and Tuiasosopo explain their sides of how a story that began so sweetly took such a bizarre turn, making Te’o the butt of jokes and besmirching major outlets such as Sports Illustrated, ESPN and the New York Times.

Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey laid bare the story on Deadspin, along with a headline calling the story a hoax. “The opportunity to make ESPN look stupid?” Dickey said in the documentary. “That’s what we were there for.”

Te’o went on to have a seven-year NFL career spent with the San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears despite dealing with anxiety and being the subject of jokes on a national stage. To deal with that anxiety, he consulted a therapist, who advised him to forgive himself. In the documentary Te’o said his therapist told him: “You have to forgive that kid. What happened to you is not your fault. It’s okay. Forgive that kid.”

Te’o, now a 31-year-old free agent, said he takes heart from the support he received.

“You’re going to have hundreds and thousands and millions of people that tell you, ‘You ain’t worth nothing, man,’ ” he said, “but there’s going to be the one that’s going to say, ‘You’re worth the world to me,’ and I play for that person. 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.”

In September 2012, Te’o was a talented player from a Honolulu family that emphasized faith and football. His breakout season at Notre Dame made him a national star with an inspirational backstory of how, in a six-hour span, he learned of the death of his grandmother and then Kekua.

Te’o helped lead the Fighting Irish to a 20-3 upset of Michigan State that week. He appeared on ESPN’s “College GameDay” to talk about letters he had received from Kekua, and the South Bend Tribune described how the couple had met after a football game outside Palo Alto, where Kekua attended Stanford.

Sports Illustrated described how the relationship intensified, with Te’o saying he responded to Kekua’s values. When she was purportedly hospitalized with leukemia, Te’o said she would respond to his voice over the phone and he would stay on the line with her through the night.

They mainly exchanged texts, phone calls and messages. But there were no records, according to Te’o’s family and friends in the documentary, that Kekua existed, let alone attended Stanford, and the story crumbled. They had met on social media, with Tuiasosopo using a photo of a woman from Facebook and sending a friend request to Te’o. Te’o said in the documentary that he verified her through mutual acquaintances, and catfishing wasn’t as well-known back then.

Te’o’s explanation at the time was that he was in a modern relationship. “This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online,” he said in a statement. “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.”

Tuiasosopo explains in the documentary that she created Kekua partly because she was “hurting” and struggling with her identity. “It was a black hole that consumed my life,” Tuiasosopo said. “I didn’t care who I was hurting.”

Now Tuiasosopo still feels “horrible” and wishes “everything had been undone. But then also another part of me was like, I learned so much about who I am today and who I want to become because of the lessons I learned through the life of Lennay.”