The documentary series “Untold” has been bringing to the fore untold stories of athletes and the sports world in general, and in this installation, it presents the bizarre story of American football player Manti Te’o. Despite being hailed as the best young linebacker in the country during his high school and college football days, and being projected as a solid first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Te’o failed to live up to any of these predictions. What played a central role in this failure was the exceptionally strange story of Manti Te’o’s girlfriend, who apparently died and then came back to life after some days. “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist” nicely brings these happenings to the table, presenting both sides of the story with effect.
Who Is Manti Te’o?
Manti Te’o was born into a Samoan family living in Laie, Hawaii, that considered its three strongest pillars to be faith, family, and football (the American kind), much like many other Polynesian families. Ever since Manti, at a very young age, told his parents about his wish to become a professional football player, his father, Brian, trained and helped him towards his dream in every way. It was very clear to the Te’os that the only way they could afford Manti’s higher education at a college was through the football programs, and this further pushed Manti towards the sport. Playing regular football for his high-school team, Manti quickly stood out from the crowd as a top prospect linebacker in the country, and all awaited to see which college the young man decided to pick. Manti admits that there were almost fifty offers that he had received during this time period, and he wanted to pick the USC Trojans, having been a fan of them since childhood, but faith played an inadvertent role in this. Much like all other citizens of Laie, the Te’os are staunch followers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormon religion.
Manti recalls going over to the church with his pick in mind and asking for God’s blessings and also signs if He wanted the young man to pick some other college, and just after, a man who was almost like a father to Manti expressed his belief that the University of Notre Dame would be the best pick for Manti. The athlete took this as a God-sent message, and finally chose to pursue his education at Notre Dame, representing the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team. Moving to South Bend, Indiana, had its own set of discomforts for Manti, though, as he found it terribly difficult to fit in with the weather as well as the culture. Both the cold, snowy weather of Indianapolis and the predominantly Catholic campus were new and uncharted territory for Manti, who had spent all his life in a tropical environment amidst a strong-knit Mormon community. However, he tried very hard to not let this uneasiness impact his on-field performance, as there was a big reputation he already had to live up to. Manti was already a popular football player even before his college career had begun, and he won the support of Notre Dame fans from his very first tackle for the team.
Gradually, as his performances on the field got better from here on, Manti Te’o was integrated into the college’s off-field programs like community service, as he was seen as the ideal fit for Notre Dame’s Christian principles. During this time, around 2009, the internet and social media, particularly Facebook, were getting more popular and accessible, and it was here that Manti one day received a friend request from a woman named Lennay Kekua. Immediately drawn to the woman’s Samoan and religious attributes, which were all evident from her profile, Manti accepted the request and started talking to her. Lennay said that she knew a cousin of Manti’s too, and when the athlete cross-checked with him, he felt her to be even more genuine.
The two gradually became friends and then started to share the difficulties of each other’s lives. Although Manti expressed his desire to meet Lennay, who was a student at Stanford University in California, the woman would avoid any such meeting plans; the athlete also could not leave South Bend owing to his busy schedule. The two decided to start a romantic relationship over the internet and phone calls, and over time, Lennay also introduced her boyfriend to some of her family members. Manti grew close to these family members as well, including Lennay’s sister, her young niece, and Lennay’s cousin brother Ronaiah Tuiasosopo; the athlete seemed to grow friends with Ronaiah, as they exchanged tweets, and Manti also promoted Ronaiah’s music channel on social media. However, these happy times came crashing down when one day, Manti received a call from Ronaiah, who said that Lennay had been gravely injured in a horrible car crash and she had also been diagnosed with leukemia. It was really this accident that brought the two lovers even closer, as Manti admits to having done all that he could to help his girlfriend recover. Almost every day, Ronaiah would hold the phone to Lennay’s ears, who was still on life support, while Manti would talk to her and tell her words of inspiration. After a month or so of this, Manti’s efforts and prayers seemed to pay off, as Lennay recovered and talked to him on the phone. More than ever, Manti wanted to go over to meet his girlfriend now, but Lennay still avoided such plans, saying that she did not want her boyfriend to see her for the first time while she was in such an ailing state.
By this time, Manti’s parents were also aware of his relationship with Lennay, and they seemed fine with it, especially because her culture and religious beliefs matched theirs. Manti had lied to his father at the time that he had met Lennay, because he felt people would call him reckless and silly if he admitted being in a relationship with a woman whom he had never met. Owing to his great performance for his college team, Manti could have entered the NFL draft a year before finishing college, but he decided to stay put at Notre Dame for his senior year in order to get better contracts. This decision paid off well, as Manti had the best season of his career so far, and his draft stock shot up rapidly. He was also enjoying off-field popularity at the time, and perhaps due to this, his relationship with Lennay was turning a bit sour, mostly because of the woman’s growing insecurity about the attention he was receiving. But the world could not imagine Manti’s terrible fate on the 11th of September, 2012, when his grandmother passed away, and then, on the very same day, his girlfriend Lennay also passed away from leukemia.
Manti had been publicly talking about his personal life for quite some time now, especially about Lennay and her difficulties in life, and now he spoke all the more about the difficult time he was facing. The media immediately picked up on the story, and football fans poured in all their love and support for the strong-willed athlete, who refused to take any time off from games. His inspiring story turned him into an overnight hero and leader, as he and his teammates propelled the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team to the BCS Championship Game, which was then the final of the college football championship in the USA. Not only was public support largely in favor of the mentally strong linebacker, but Manti Te’o was also quickly shortlisted for the Heisman Trophy, which is awarded to the best American football player at the college level of the sport. Although Manti did not ultimately win the prestigious award, he was considered a fine example of inspiration and determination in sports.
What Was The Real Identity Of Lennay Kekua?
Things started to fall out of place for Manti a few days later, when while talking to Lennay’s sister over the phone, the woman suddenly claimed to be Lennay herself. The athlete was understandably utterly confused, as he had been mourning his girlfriend’s death for the last few days and had also been very public about it, and now Lennay was claiming to be alive and saying that she had to fake her death to avoid some personal troubles. It was now that Manti told his parents about the whole situation, and gradually was told by an uncle that he might have been a victim of catfishing, an internet phenomenon where someone pretends to be someone else. Around the same time, a sports blog called Deadspin started researching this topic as they found major discrepancies in the various articles that had been published on Manti’s difficulties in the established sports illustrations.
Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, the two who researched the matter and wrote an article on it, state how the major mainstream publications, like ESPN, had reported different things about Lennay. Added to this was a tip they received from someone who claimed that Manti Te’o’s entire story about a dead girlfriend was fake and a hoax, and the two immediately started investigating. There was indeed no mention of Lennay anywhere on the internet other than as being Manti’s dead girlfriend, and the two then investigated the pictures that existed of her online. This immediately led them to a very different woman named Diane O’Meara, who had no connection with Manti Te’o whatsoever. Deadspin quickly wrote an elaborate article on their findings and first tried to contact Manti and his father. Both the men admit that they did not really give time to the sports bloggers, as they were already troubled with what they had found out about Lennay Kekua, and the journalists finally released their article on the internet. The news spread faster than wildfire, as first sports programs and then mainstream media covered the matter extensively. Way faster than his reputation had grown, Manti Te’o’s popularity plummeted, while Notre Dame University still decided to remain silent on the matter, despite the athlete telling them all of it.
As it was revealed later on, Lennay Kekua was only a character, an impersonation that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo used to play on Facebook in order to establish relations with men. Despite being born a biological male, from a very young age, Ronaiah felt that their sexual orientation and identity was not what it seemed to be, and even admits to being confused about it. But, growing up in an extremely religious family and even working as a band musician in their father’s church, Ronaiah could never express their true self in reality, and instead sought an escape online. They created the profile of Lennay Kekua and added pictures of Diane O’Meara, who used to be a classmate at their high school. Being of Samoan descent, Ronaiah also had family pressures for trying their luck at football, but they admittedly hated it and only again started liking it during their online relationship with Manti Te’o. To Ronaiah, Lennay was a different side of their character, almost a different persona, through which they could finally express themselves. Lennay’s intention was never to harm or bring any slander against Manti, but it was all part of a series of foolish acts by Ronaiah, who played along with their impersonation till it got quite serious.
All the stories of Lennay’s car accident, her leukemia, and also her death were their doing, as they wanted more attention from Manti. It was Ronaiah who would impersonate as Lennay’s sister and also her cousin’s brother, which was their true self, and after all these revelations were made, Ronaiah came forward on Dr. Phil and showed a demonstration of how they would impersonate the voices of women. As Manti was also under pressure to prove that he had no idea about this whole hoax, because people were now suspicious that he himself had planned this whole thing to get attention for his college career, he released voice messages that he had received from Lennay. When Ronaiah spoke out in the voice of a woman, it completely matched with that of Lennay Kekua, and there was no more doubt left. Diane O’Meara, who was also brought into the limelight, stated that all her photos had been stolen and used without her knowledge from her social media accounts, except for one very specific photo that Lennay had sent Manti. In the end, when Ronaiah, posing to be Lennay’s sister, claimed that she herself was Lennay, Manti had told her to send a picture with very specific details in it. Believing that this would totally win over Manti’s trust, Ronaiah had asked Diane for a quick picture with all those specific details in it, saying that a relative of theirs needed it for some general purpose. Ronaiah’s role in the whole hoax was quickly brought to public attention as well, along with Manti Te’o’s, and the matter quickly became a topic of much debate.
‘Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist’ Ending Explained – Where Is Manti Te’o Now?
The whole fiasco had affected various people in various different ways, and each of them had also perceived it in their own different ways. The two amateur reporters at Deadspin who first wrote the article admit that their only intention was to ridicule the well-established mainstream sports magazines and channels who did not really fact-check their articles before publishing. Although it would not hurt if they made a name for themselves in this way, it was never their intention to cause any personal or professional harm to either of the two parties involved. Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who now identifies as Naya Tuiasosopo, admits to all the childish and foolish acts that she committed when young and expresses her genuine guilt for unwillingly causing so much harm to Manti Te’o’s professional career. Despite all the negative connotations attached, though, Naya tries looking at the incident as an unfortunate twisted means to have found herself, as she lives a content life as a woman in her native Hawaii.
Undoubtedly, the worst repercussion of the fiasco was on Manti Te’o himself, who was perceived as a villainous liar in sports and was seen to be as bad as Lance Armstrong. Manti and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish lost the championship game as the athlete was going through all this turmoil mentally, and the college authorities also released public statements about it after a few days. When Manti showed up for the 2013 Draft Combine, all that journalists wanted to ask him was about this hoax in his personal life, and nobody seemed interested in his on-field performance anymore. There was a strong belief that Manti had indulged in such an elaborate hoax only to hide his homosexuality, but he has always been very strongly open about his heterosexuality, saying that he genuinely believed Lennay Kekua to be a real woman. Although he was predicted to be drafted in the mid-first round of the 2013 NFL Draft, no team looked at Manti as their first option because of the whole scandal that was now associated with his name, and he was only picked up in the second round by the San Diego Chargers.
The entire fiasco affected the man’s football performance tremendously as well, as he could not live up to even close to the potential that he was once believed to have had. Manti remained with the Chargers for four years, but did not have too much impact on the team or the league. In the documentary, “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist,” Manti says that he had forgiven Ronaiah very early on and has now learned to forgive himself as well, as he tries to look at the incident as something that can only make him stronger, but his linebacker abilities have never been the same anymore. After some short stints with the Saints and the Bears, Manti Te’o currently remains a free agent, desperately looking for another chance in the NFL.
“Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist” is a 2022 investigative crime documentary directed by Ryan Duffy and Tony Vainuku.