SOUTH BEND, Ind. (BVM) – Manti Te’o has a story unlike any other. The native Hawaiian moved across the country from his island home to the University of Notre Dame, a college in the American Midwest housed in South Bend, Indiana. Despite the difficult transition, Te’o was able to excel on the football field, becoming one of the most recognizable college players in the country in the early 2010s while helping the Fighting Irish become one of the best programs in the nation. However, despite his success on the field, Te’o will forever be tied to the story of his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, who didn’t actually exist as she was a catfish creation of Ronaiah “Naya” Tuiasosopo, who was revealed to be a man at the time and now a transgender woman.
Te’o discussed this relationship in a new Netflix documentary episode of the streaming service’s series “Untold” in an episode titled “The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist.” In the two-episode grouping, Te’o discussed how he met Kekua through Facebook and how the relationship began to form.
“After the first encounter with Lennay, once every blue moon she’d hit me up saying, ‘What’s up’ but it really wasn’t anything that led to anything else,” Te’o told the show. “My junior year I got a text from Lennay saying that her dad wasn’t doing well. I felt for her so the frequency of the conversations increased. I would check up on her just to try to be a good friend.”
“I remember I felt really numb and I needed someone to talk to,” Tuiasosopo said. “And the person I reached out to was Manti.”
As he was developing his relationship off the field, Te’o was excelling on it. Through his first three years, he played in 38 games registering 324 tackles, 29.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and two forced fumbles.
“When I stepped onto that field there were no doubts, there’s no anxiety, there’s no nothing,” Te’o said in the show.
While his game was growing on the field, the relationship between Kekua and Te’o grew as well. Though the two never met, they talked over the phone and through social media which allowed them to keep their long–distance relationship intact.
“I mean what’s not to like in somebody that you have those similarities with?” Te’o said. “Like we’re the same person.”
“I started to realize it was getting heavier,” Tuiasosopo said. “Those conversations were more ones you’d have with somebody you see longevity with.”
However, Te’o was persistent in his desire to meet Kekua face-to-face, but she would always find ways to avoid the plan. Tuiasosopo was up against a wall.
“I knew what needed to be done but at the same time I could never say this is it this is who I am,” Tuiasosopo said. “I couldn’t buy more time but I also couldn’t end it. I was stuck.”
Instead, Tuiasosopo told Te’o that Kekua had been in a terrible car accident that put her on life support. On Sept. 12, 2012, Te’o found out his grandmother passed and hours later, he would be told by Tuiasosopo that Kekua had passed as well.
“I’m telling you I’m not proud and I am not happy with the decisions that I made at that time,” Tuiasosopo told the show.
Dedicating his senior campaign to the two women who meant so much to him, Te’o became one of the best players in all of college football as a senior registering 113 tackles, seven interceptions and 1.5 sacks on his way to becoming the Bronko Nagurski Award winner, given to the most outstanding defensive player in the country, and finishing second in the Heisman Trophy voting behind eventual winner Johnny Manziel.
After the team’s final game against USC in November, Tuiasosopo couldn’t resist returning to Te’o’s life as Kekua and thus problems arose.
“At this point, I got a call two days earlier that the girl I thought was dead was now alive and I’m at the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York and I have a national championship game I got to play in,” Te’o said. “I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to do, what’s true, what’s not true. I can’t tell anybody what’s going on…so I just stuck to the script.”
Later that December, Te’o told his parents about Kekua’s return, but they were skeptical. When talking about the situation to his uncle, who was a lawyer, the uncle brought up that Te’o may have been catfished.
“My uncle immediately said ‘I think you’re being catfished’ and that was the first time that somebody ever brought up the term catfish,” Te’o told the show. “I didn’t know what catfishing was and even when he explained what it was I still couldn’t understand what that even entails.”
On Dec. 26, Te’o told the Notre Dame athletics department about his discovery and the school decided to dig deep into the story. However, at this same time Deadspin was working on an article revealing that Te’o’s girlfriend was an elaborate hoax.
After the national championship game, on Jan. 16, the article was published and Te’o and Tuiasosopo’s story was revealed.
“I get a call from my agent and he says, ‘I need you to go to your apartment and lock yourself in there and I’ll call you,’” Te’o said. “I said, ‘Wait, what’s going on?’ and he said, ‘It’s going to be a long ride bro.”
The story caused a media firestorm putting the spotlight on both Te’o and Tuiasosopo wondering if the two were in on the hoax together. Both came out and did national interviews to clear the air, but it was still impacting them even after the apologies.
“Which once was ‘That’s Manti Te’o’ now was, ‘That’s Manti Te’o. That’s the guy that got catfished,’” Te’o said. “Your whole world changes.”
Te’o slipped in the draft, falling out of the first round to the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft when the San Diego Chargers selected him with the No. 38 overall pick. He went on to play eight years in the NFL, four in San Diego, three with the New Orleans Saints and one with the Chicago Bears. Tuiasosopo also moved forward, moving to American Somoa and coming out as a transgender woman in the years that followed.
The linebacker in his time after the incident has learned to embrace who he is and to forgive Tuiasosopo, something he did at the end of the program.
Today, Te’o is married to his wife, Jovi Nicole, whom he married in 2020, and the couple welcomed their first child into the world when their daughter, Hiro, was born on Aug. 12, 2021. Te’o is currently an unsigned NFL free agent, last playing for the Bears in Jan. 2021.