Manti T’eo on the Strength of Forgiveness and Sharing His Story in a New Netflix Documentary
In his Utah home on Saturday, Manti Te’o watched the brand-new Netflix documentary Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist. The documentary, which was made public on Tuesday, examines the catfishing crisis that shook the United States about ten years ago. Te’o led Notre Dame to the national championship game after enduring twin traumas: the deaths of his grandmother and his lover, Lennay Kekua, in September 2012. Te’o was a Heisman Trophy finalist during his senior year at Notre Dame. One issue: Kekua didn’t actually exist. In order to maintain a relationship with T’eo, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, also known by the alias Naya, created the online persona of Kekua. T’eo learned about the hoax in December of the same year. Following Notre Dame’s 42-14 loss to Alabama in the championship game, Deadspin made it public through an explosive investigation that was released in January 2013.
Tuiasosopo, who is now a transsexual woman, describes how she pulled off the ruse in the movie. Te’o talks about how the embarrassment led to anxiety attacks after he entered the NFL. Te’o shed a lot of tears as the movie featured moments from his time at Notre Dame before things went wrong. In a Zoom interview with TIME on Wednesday, Te’o said, “Simply recalling 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. It was a cathartic experience,
The movie has resonance. On August 17, Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist was ranked as Netflix’s second-most popular film. Te’o spoke with TIME about the documentary’s lessons learned, his biggest regret, and what the future might bring.
Time: Why are you telling your tale at this time?
Te’o: I wasn’t in a position to act when I was first approached and at the time of the incident. I still felt humiliated. I was still feeling ashamed. Because I’m still ashamed of it, I realised that, first, I don’t want to say anything, and second, if I did, it wouldn’t be the truth.
We attended a Jay-Z performance in New Orleans in 2017 thanks to defensive end for the New Orleans Saints, Cam Jordan. “You cannot cure what you do not reveal,” Jay-Z added. So I began telling myself, “I want to have these difficult talks with people who want to have them,” ever since. I’ve just arrived at the Saints. It was a fantastic opportunity to share because I had a lot of new teammates who had lots of questions. As it turned out, I started to feel a little bit stronger. Not particularly cosy, but I was growing used to it. More significantly, there was some love, empathy, and support for the folks who were asking. I thought, “Man, I’m stronger now,” all of a sudden.
Fast-forward When Tony Vainuku, the co-director of “The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist,” contacts you three years later. I was talking to him, and he was just listening. “Bro, you’re ready,” he said. You must convey it. I’m at peace with everything, so I’m ready to share it. I have no shame. And I’ll do it if Netflix, Tony Vainuku, and [co-director] Ryan Duffy are ready to convey the complete narrative.
What have some of the reviews—both positive and negative—been since the movie’s debut?
It’s all been good. Because it was international, it’s been wonderful, bro. individuals from Germany, France, and Africa. I’ve received messages in several languages. I have no idea what they imply. However, I can see it’s all love from the emoticons.
Hey buddy, similar things happened to me, so many people have mentioned, whether it be a catfishing incidence or a trial inside a family, divorce, or the passing of a loved one. And that certain segments of the documentary actually enabled them to view things from a different angle. All I could aspire for was to use my life as an example to assist others deal with their own struggles.
I’m going to issue a challenge to everyone: tell someone you love them. Stop waiting. In our culture, people express their affection for one another most often at funerals. If you can help someone when you’re out on the street, do it. You won’t pay anything for it. But it means everything to that person.
What did you find to be the documentary’s most unexpected revelation?
For me, Deadspin was the most unexpected. Simply put, I’ve always known Deadspin to be the source of the leak. However, I could comprehend some of what they were trying to accomplish when I saw them. “OK, you were only trying to relay facts,” was the response. And I honour that. Simply attempting to carry out your duties to the best of your ability. That doesn’t bother me at all.
That’s extremely intriguing because, since the movie’s premiere, there has been significant online animosity directed against Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, the former Deadspin writers who wrote the essay. essentially accusing them of destroying your life. You no longer feel that way, though, after watching the documentary?
There wasn’t, in my opinion, a single individual, item, or organisation that was responsible for ruining everything. It was like a tidal surge of various individuals and activities. So it was hard for me to observe [the Deadspin reporting procedure]. “OK, I can see that you’re simply trying to do your job,” I said.
Burke and Dickey made the claim in the movie that they believed their tale would serve as a criticism of the mainstream media’s incapacity to conduct basic fact-checking. realising, for instance, that no Lennay Kekua had earned a Stanford degree However, attention was diverted to issues like whether you were complicit in the scam or rumours about your sexual orientation. Were you shocked by the outcome, looking back?
Yeah. You think to yourself as an athlete, “I’m probably going to hit ESPN. possibly the local news I think that’s it. But everyone received this. To put it mildly, that was unexpected. Where are you obtaining these facts from, I questioned. But I have no power over what people say. We’ll make the most of what we have once I take care of what I can.
What advice would you give Naya Tuiasosopo?
Forgiveness. Forgiveness, in my opinion, has great power since it extends beyond the person you are forgiving. Additionally, it’s for you. It’s not like Naya contacted me and begged for my forgiveness. Naya has never asked me to extend her my forgiveness. I already knew it was what I needed to do because I was aware of the situation. The third point is that forgiveness is a free gift. That carries with it a tremendous amount of power and peace. Forgiveness is the key to finding peace and regaining control over your life.
Although you had a successful seven-year NFL career, it’s very obvious from the movie that the catfishing episode kept you from being selected in the first round and gave you stress during your first years with the San Diego Chargers. It’s conceivable that you might have amassed millions more if this hadn’t taken place. You also mentioned an instance where Lennay Kekua, speaking as Naya, called your name while she was on the phone, giving you the impression that you were essentially extending her life. There has been much trauma there. How did you overcome your obstacles to be able to forgive?
I carried this fury with me at the moment. I was drowning under that. My entire universe was just a hurricane that was swirling. And I was frantically looking for tranquilly. I tried to relearn who I was, dude, and I did everything I could. I used to write quotes on my apartment’s mirror. Dear Manti is a book I wrote. I would always give it to my parents, siblings, and any visitors. Hey, send me a letter before you guys depart, I’d tell them. I would have to remember because. I used to watch old videos of myself from high school. I made an effort to recall my feelings of confidence. I came to understand that letting go of your resentment and forgiving is the only way to find serenity. If you allow someone else to control your life and decide how you should live it, you are giving them power over your life. And what a steep price that is as well.
Would you ever meet Naya in a room to discuss the events surrounding the catfishing incident? to wrangle things out?
It’s unclear to me.
Because you still did this to me at the end of the day. I was able to express what I wanted to Naya in the most sincere way that was possible for me. Hey, listen, I’m sorry. Additionally, I wish you and your family well. I’m fine too. And we are free to follow our own paths. I don’t mean any harm. The documentary, in my opinion, covers everything that I intended to say and do.
What is ahead for you?
I’m not sure. The only thing I can be certain of is that there is a sleeping baby girl right next to me. My spouse is here. We are having a son. My wife is a student nurse. She has my support as she attends nursing school. She desires to start a medical spa. That has my support. Therefore, I believe my wife will be available in four years if anyone is interested in working at a medical spa.
But in all honesty, I just want to raise decent people. when they attend class. I want them to go sit beside the child who is alone in the cafeteria and watch out for him. They must assist a child who drops their books in picking them up.
You last participated in a practise squad game with the Chicago Bears in 2020, and now you’re a free agent in the NFL. Are you still playing football, or what? Or have you finished?
I’m through, bro. Life caught me. It’s my addiction. To raise my children, I want to be here. Many of my teammates who have families deserve recognition, and their wives deserve even more. I find it difficult to comprehend being away from my children for as long as we were from families.
What would you change if you could only look back on one regret from the whole thing?
The only thing I regret is that I lost touch with many people who actually liked me after 2013. Many individuals showed up to support me and to give their assistance. But I couldn’t get that aid since I was in a dark place. I didn’t value that assistance. So many people who were sincerely trying to help me went unappreciated, despite their presence. I wished I had been more careful with how I handled that love and that help.
It’s amusing that you asked because the simple response would be, “I wish I hadn’t started chatting to Lennay Kakua.” If I’m wrong, please correct me, but it doesn’t sound like you gave that choice any thought.
I mean, I wish the entire situation hadn’t occurred. However, the thing I regret most about myself personally is that I hurt someone else with my actions.