The Tragic Truth Behind Manti Te’o’s Rise to Fame


| LAST UPDATE 11/09/2022

By Julia Shepherd

In 2012, Manti Te'o had a promising professional football career ahead of him. But by January 2013, he was one of the world's most hated sportsmen. This is the tragic story that led to his rapid fall.

An Emotional Night

September 2012, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o stepped out onto the field with a heavy heart. Having just lost his grandmother and girlfriend, he was dedicating the game and season to them.

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Gregory Shamus via Getty Images

Celebrating a great win alongside his Fighting Irish teammates, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. His heartbreaking and inspirational strength at a time most would crumble had him pegged as a national hero. At that moment, no one could have predicted the shocking events that would follow.

Lennay Kekua

Our story starts with the former girlfriend of Manti Te'o: Lennay Kekua. He was hopelessly in love with the Stanford student, devastated by the news of her passing. While at first sympathy came flooding in for the athlete, some startling revelations soon turned him into the butt of a joke, often even a villain.

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Netflix via YouTube

Understanding the ongoing speculation surrounding Manti Te'o's life, Netflix decided to run a documentary in 2022 about his journey. Featuring interviews with the footballer himself, this was his chance, all these years later, to finally tell his side of the story...

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The Beginning

Manti Te'o was born in Oahu, Hawaii, in 1991 to a conservative Mormon family. After showing off his football skills while playing for his high school team, he was scouted by Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana. He joined their Fighting Giants football team in 2009 and was soon an essential player.

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Jonathan Daniel via Getty Images

Following Notre Dame's 45-38 win against Cardinal in 2009, Lennay added Manti on Facebook, telling the football star she knew his cousin Shiloah Te'o. At first, the relationship was purely platonic - but by the time Manti was in his junior year of college, it had turned into something more.

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A Deep Connection

After he learned that Kekua's father was sick, Manti reached out to her to offer his emotional support. "I felt like I was helping her, and that made me feel good as a person. I really fed off of that," he explained in the Netflix documentary. Soon, the pair were spending hours talking on the phone and online.

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Netflix via YouTube

"We would talk often. ... Through those conversations, I started to get to know who Lennay is and what she stands for, what her values are, and I'm like, 'I like that.'" Despite their long distance and Kekua's unavailability to meet in person, the two had undeniably fallen in love.

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The Diagnosis

In Spring 2012, Lennay was severely injured in a near-fatal car crash. While in the hospital, doctors ran numerous tests and were shocked to discover she had leukemia. Unconscious and placed on life support, her brother called Manti on her behalf to break the news of her diagnosis.

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Jonathan Daniel via Getty Images

Upon hearing the emotional update, Manti vowed to help her through it all. He called his long-distance girlfriend every night, sometimes staying on the phone for up to eight hours at a time. For every procedure and treatment she needed, the linebacker provided virtual support.

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Unbearable News

On September 11, 2012, Te'o received a call from his family informing him that his grandmother had died at the age of 72. Incredibly upset over the news, he plunged into an even deeper depression when he was notified that afternoon that Kekua had also passed away.

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Jonathan Daniel via Getty Images

As news of these tragedies spread, many were concerned for Manti's well-being. Moreover, speculation grew around whether the sports star could pull himself together to play in the game. "I just broke. I walked out of the locker room, and I remember everything kind of came crashing down at that time," he told Netflix producers.

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Playing Through

Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly addressed the decision two days before the game. "He lost some people very close to him, and it's obviously taken a toll on him," he said. "Our players have been there for him and have been a great support. We'll support him. He'll be with us. He'll be playing Saturday against Michigan State."

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Netflix via YouTube

"Unfortunately, he's gone through a very rough 24, 48 hours. But his support and his family at home have been great, and all of the coaches and players have been there for him. He wants to be with the people that care about him. He's a strong man, and he's going through a tough time, but he'll rise to the occasion."

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A Big Win

Before long, Manti had more than risen to the occasion, leading his team to victory against Michigan State. After 12 tackles and 2 defended passes, he celebrated their 20-3 win with his teammates. It was instantly clear that the linebacker had channeled his grief toward positive results.

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Jonathan Daniel via Getty Images

In a post-game interview, Manti Te'o confirmed that his grandmother and girlfriend had been along his side all the way through. "They were with me. I couldn't do it without them, I couldn't do it without the support of my family and the support of my girlfriend's family. But I miss them. And I know I'll see them again someday,"

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A Dying Promise

In the aftermath of the big win, Te'o kept in contact with his late girlfriend's family, taking comfort from their mutual grief. He even met up with Kekua's cousin Tuiasosopo while in Los Angeles. One week later, on the day of Lennay's funeral, Manti led the Fighting Irish to yet another victory.

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@flowersbylilidotcom via Instagram

After the game, he explained Lennay had requested he not leave his team if something happened to her. "[She] made me promise when it happened that I would stay and play," he told the Los Angeles Times in December 2012. "All she wanted was some white roses. So I sent her roses and sent her two picks along with that."

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Making a Name for Himself

From then on, Manti Te'o was unstoppable, achieving win after win. This impressive season included 113 tackles, 7 interceptions, and 11 defended passes, putting him in a league above the rest. It also set him on track to win the Heisman Trophy - awarded annually to the most outstanding player in college football.

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Kelly Kline via GettyImages

Unfortunately, he lost out on the Trophy to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel but was honored with many other awards throughout the season. These included the Maxwell Award for college player of the year and the Chuck Bednarik Award for defensive player of the year.

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America's Hero

With his heartbreaking performance and acts of strength, Te'o received a significant amount of positive press. It seemed people could not get enough of the grieving linebacker who rose through the ranks of college football. Major publications such as Sports Illustrated featured Manti on their cover.

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Jonathan Daniel via Getty Images

He was also asked to appear in an episode of College GameDay, where he reviewed his impressive season. In 2012, he was the face of Notre Dame's football team, leading the Fighting Irish in the battle for their first national title since 1993. To the naked eye, he was the most famous college footballer around.

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Brutal Blows

On January 7, 2013, the Te'o's groundbreaking season came to a crushing end when the Fighting Irish lost 42-14 to Alabama in the BCS Championship game. Almost a sudden switch from endless wins to an embarrassing defeat, it seemed Manti Te'o's lucky streak was over.

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Jonathan Daniel via Getty Images

Everyone wondered how the footballer must have been feeling, presumably devasted over the bitter way the season had ended. Little did they know, Manti was dealing with a shocking development in his personal life - likely the reason for the sudden change of pace in his performance.

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A Lifechanging Phonecall

In December 2012, Manti Te'o received yet another monumental phone call that would change his life forever. This time, it was Lennay's cousin on the line, revealing to him that Lennay was not dead. Reeling from the news, Te'o confided in his friends and family for emotional support.

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Netflix via YouTube

In the public eye, however, Manti continued to play innocent, still lovingly talking about his late girlfriend. "My uncle immediately said, 'I think you're getting catfished,'" Manti recalled in the documentary. "And that was the first time that somebody ever brought up the term 'catfish.'"

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What Is Catfishing?

In the Netflix documentary, the linebacker revealed he was not familiar with the concept of 'catfishing' at the time. "I didn't know what catfishing was. Even when he explained what it was, I still couldn't understand what that even entailed," he admitted.

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@80s_aesthetic_vibes via Instagram

Made famous by the 2010 documentary Catfish, the term refers to when a person pretends to be a fictional person or takes on another human's real-life identity online. Carried out for a myriad of reasons, the catfish will strike up a relationship with an innocent victim, keeping up the facade throughout.

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Although Te'o had managed to keep the truth under wraps for just under a month, everything changed in January 2013. Deadspin released an explosive article titled "Manti Te'o's Dead Girlfriend, the Most Heartbreaking and Inspirational Story of the College Football Season, Is a Hoax." Manti had been exposed.

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Cliff Welch/Icon/SMI/Corbis/Icon/Sportswire via Getty Images

Here they broke the news that Te'o's relationship with Kekua was never real. "Her passing, recounted so many times in the national media, produces no obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis, and no mention in the Stanford student newspaper," they wrote. They also reported no record of her birth or existence.

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Ulterior Motives

In the wake of this news, multiple sources came forward to confirm that the couple had never met in real life, despite Te'o saying otherwise. Much negative press surrounded the previously-loved linebacker who had won over the hearts of the nation for the believed existence of this girlfriend.

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Sean Gardner via Getty Images

Hundreds of accusations were thrown at Manti Te'o, many of who questioned whether the star had fabricated the entire story for a quick route to fame. Was this all just a big scam to boost his career? Alternatively, was someone else behind this - and was Te'o just an innocent victim?

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Lennay's True Identity

In the article, Deadspin revealed that it was former football player Ronaiah Tuiasosopo who was pretending to be Kekua. Now a confirmed catfish case, it was questioned whether Manti was in on the hoax all along. The publication included interviews with several people who claimed that the linebacker had to have had some knowledge.

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Dr. Phil via YouTube

"A friend of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo told us he was '80 percent sure' that Manti Te'o was 'in on it' and that the two perpetrated Lennay Kekua's death with publicity in mind," they wrote. Instantly, Te'o was labeled as a liar and self-promoter, earning him a spot as one of the most controversial athletes alongside Woods and Armstrong.

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More Revelations

Deadspin explained that Ronaiah had used photos of someone named Reba in an attempt to entice Te'o. In actuality, Tuiasosopo was a 22-year-old male who had been a quarterback for Lancaster and Paraclete high schools in previous years. In light of this, Te'o found his sexuality and identity being questioned.

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Netflix via YouTube

The publication stated that Te'o and Tuiasosopo knew each other in some way before this scandal, which suggests his willing participation in the scam. Deadspin also quoted a source that suggested the two were "at least family friends." Alongside this, they highlighted cases where Te'o had retweeted Tuiasosopo.

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“Cruel Deception”

Amongst all the speculation, Notre Dame confirmed in a statement they were standing by their footballer. "On December 26, Notre Dame coaches were informed by Manti Te'o and his parents that Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax," they said.

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Elsa via Getty Images

"The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax. While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators."

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Breaking His Silence

Finally, Te'o addressed the issue in a statement of his own. "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. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship."

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Tom-Walko/Icon/SMI/Corbis/Icon-Sportswire via Getty Images

"To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating," he continued. "I am enormously grateful for the support of my family, friends, and Notre Dame fans throughout this year."

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Taking Responsibility

Manti used his statement to request his fans' sympathy and patience, all while recognizing the error in his ways. "I hope that people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been," he noted. "In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious."

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Kelly Kline via Getty Images

"If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was. Fortunately, I have many wonderful things in my life, and I'm looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me as I focus on preparing for the NFL Draft."

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Admitting to the Lies

While he believed he was mostly a victim in the situation, Te'o understood there was one thing he had to confess to: He had lied about meeting Kekua in person - but only because he didn't want anyone to think he was crazy. "I even knew that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn't meet," he told ESPN.

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Netflix via YouTube

"People find out that this girl who died, I was so invested in, I didn't meet her, as well. So I kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, yeah, he met her before she passed away so that people wouldn't think that I was some crazy dude. I didn't know, myself. I didn't know what to believe," Te'o said.

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A Shocking Confession

An ESPN Report in February 2013 reported that Tuiasosopo had confessed to a friend about fabricating the entire persona. According to this source, Ronaiah had confirmed Te'o's innocence in the scam and expressed an intense sense of guilt for the deception.

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Dr. Phil via YouTube

"I pretty much had this escape of Lennay, and this was where my heart had pretty much invested, not just time, but all of my energy went into this," he told Dr. Phil in 2013. "I cared for [Manti]. I did all that I could to help this person become a better person, even though I wasn't getting nothing out of it."

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A Moment Of Anger

Tuiasosopo explained to Dr. Phil that he eventually decided to kill off Kekua in a moment of anger. The pair had got into a heated argument when Te'o told 'Kekua' that he was talking with four other girls online and that 'she' was not his only love interest.

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Dr. Phil via YouTube

Incredibly hurt by this betrayal, Tuiasosopo decided to end the relationship in a radical way. "I poured so much into Lennay," he recalled in the Dr. Phil interview. "I was crying that morning, hurt emotionally." In a CNN interview in 2013, Ronaiah admitted to being confused and lost.

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Facing the Consequences

Te'o soon found himself to be the subject of many cruel jokes and memes, all of which ridiculed the sportsman for believing the student was a real person without ever meeting him. Even celebrities such as Seth Meyers, Mario Lopez, and Rainn Wilson couldn't help but join in with the mockery.

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Joe Robbins via Getty Images

For the college footballer, the worst part of the scandal was its impact on his career trajectory. Although he had previously been predicted as the NFL first draft pick, he was ultimately chosen to play for the San Diego Chargers in the second round. It was widely believed that the controversy had been behind this result.

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Sharing His Story

In August 2022, nearly ten years after the release of the Deadspin article, Netflix debuted the Manti Te'o documentary as season two of their Untold series. Titled Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist, the film attempted to show the disgraced linebacker in a new light.

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Netflix via YouTube

To mark the occasion of the documentary's release, Te'o took to Instagram to thank his fans for their support. "As I sit here and think about the journey that it has been to come to this point, I am extremely humbled," he wrote. "To all the people that have supported me and have stood up for me, this one is for you."

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“Can’t Be Dismissed or Doubted”

For Te'o, it was important for the documentary to include both sides of the story - his and Ronaiah's. "When I was first approached about this project back in 2020, I told the filmmakers Ryan Duffy and Tony Vainuku that I didn't want this to be my story. I wanted this to be the story," Te'o told USA Today.

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Michael Reaves via Getty Images

"That required everyone involved in what happened to be in the documentary, and I think that's what's so powerful about it. You have every side. It creates a level of truth that can't be dismissed or doubted," he explained when asked about his decision to include his catfish in the documentary.

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The Questions Continue...

Sitting down in front of the cameras, Tuiasosopo (who now identifies as a transgender woman) reflected on her actions. "I knew what was right and wrong, but I was too far in love with being looked at in this way," she explained. "Yes, it was completely selfish, but it was what made me happy. It was what I wanted to be a reality."

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Netflix via YouTube

"I totally felt fear," she continued. "I didn't have courage to just be like, 'This is who I am.' Detailing how she pulled off the hoax, Tuiasosopo recalled using photos of a high school classmate named Diana. The 22-year-old was a high school quarterback in California, where she had met O'Meara.

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Lifelong Trauma

While most have moved on from this story, focusing their attention on the next scandal, Manti was forced to live with the trauma for a while. Although he tearfully admitted in the documentary he has forgiven Tuiasosopo, he insisted that the emotional impacts will always remain.

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Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

"I'm going to rise above no matter how hard it is for me…" Te'o said. "Treat [people] nice in a world that just spit on you. I'll take all this crap, I'll take all the jokes, I'll take all the memes so I can be an inspiration to [the] one [fan] who needs me to be. That's the whole reason I am doing this."

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Where Is He Now?

Cut to 2022, and it seems Manti has gotten closure on the entire incident. Now happily married with a one-year-old daughter and son on the way, his focus remains on his family. For him, the documentary offered him a chance to give back to Notre Dame and all those who supported him along the way.

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@mteo50 via Instagram

After playing for the San Diego Chargers until 2021, Te'o looks back on his professional days with pride. "That's the greatest thing about football, it's the greatest parallel to life," he said. "Life's not always the way that you want it to be. You can't do anything about 0-2, but you can do something about today."

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