The Truth About Manti Te’o

Netflix documentary covers the most famous catfishing case of all time

The history of Notre Dame football is  full of colorful players and stories. Among others, there was The Gipper and Rudy.

More recently, about a decade ago, The Fighting Irish had Manti Te’o.

Unlike Rudy, Manti Te’o was more than a one-play wonder. Manti was legit. An all-American linebacker, Manti led the Irish back to national championship contention after some lean years. But Manti’s story transcended football. When his grandmother and girlfriend died just hours apart, a grieving Manti continued to tear up the gridiron. The nation cheered his strength. The Irish faithful waved leis in his honor. You might not have cared one iota about football or Notre Dame, but you desperately wanted this grieving man to win.  It was college football for the Dr. Phil set.

But Manti’s story was a lie.

Well, just like Rudy, Manti’s story wasn’t a total lie. Sadly, Manti’s grandmother did indeed pass away. However, his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, a Stanford student, did not exist. Period. Working off an anonymous tip, Deadspin, an influential website, investigated and eventually revealed that Manti’s “girlfriend” was actually a man, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who was posing as a woman, Lennay.

Manti had been catfished.

Manti and Lennay/Ronaiah communicated via social media and spoke over the phone but never met in person. Ronaiah was quite adept at imitating a woman’s voice. At one point, Ronaiah claimed that Lennay was dead. (Later, Ronaiah brought Lennay back to life.)

Back on the field, Alabama scorched Notre Dame in the national championship game. Manti didn’t win the Heisman Trophy. And after Deadspin’s story, Manti slipped to the second round of the NFL Draft, losing out on millions. In some very dark corners, more than a few opined that Manti was complicit in the hoax to hide that he was closeted. Throughout, Manti claimed that he was an innocent victim.

The elephant in all this: How could Manti be so naïve?

Well, for starters, as we all know now, Manti wouldn’t be the first catfish victim. Second, Manti – a full-time student, athlete and media personality – was one busy college kid. It wasn’t like he had a lot of spare time to play Nev Schulman, the host and executive producer of MTV’s Catfish: The TV Show. Third, Manti was a devout Mormon from Hawaii at a predominantly white, catholic school in the Midwest tundra. Simply, Manti desperately wanted a connection and for this person to exist.

Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, now airing on Netflix, interviews all of the major players, including Manti, Ronaiah (who is now a transgender woman named Naya), as well as the Deadspin reporters. Manti comes off as very sympathetic. As he was during his playing days, he’s humble and well spoken. Naya is remorseful, just not nearly enough.

Manti’s story is compelling, and Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist does a more than competent job in retelling it through the individuals who lived it. I’d wager that Nev Schulman approves.

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Jon Hart

Jon Hart is the author of Man versus Ball: One Ordinary Guy and His Extraordinary Sports Adventures. He holds the Citi Field record for hawking the most pretzels during a single game.

One thought on “The Truth About Manti Te’o

  • August 26, 2022 at 7:17 pm
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    Hart kicks another score

    Reply

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