Manti Te’o (a native Hawaiian) was a star football player at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Full disclosure, I’m a Notre Dame football fan since I grew up near Chicago, and even though South Bend is in Indiana, Notre Dame is still the adopted “favorite college team” of most Chicagoans. If you have heard of or remember the movie Rudy? That was about Notre Dame, there’s a ton of history there, it’s a private Catholic school and it’s a really hard school to get into academically, they have “Touchdown Jesus”, paint their helmets with part real gold, have a sign they touch before every game that says “play like a champion today” that I have in my office as we record this.., so many reasons to love or hate the team. I love Notre Dame, a lot of my friends can’t stand Notre Dame. It’s one of those things.
So Manti Te’o had wonderful career an unbelievable senior year on the football team. He was all over the field for the Notre Dame defense, making all sorts of tackles and big plays all the time. I wanted the Chicago Bears to draft him in the NFL draft because the kid seemed like a natural leader and was just so inspiring!
Part of the reason Manti had such an inspired senior season was because he dedicated his season to his grandmother and girlfriend Lennay, booth of whom died on the same day as the season started. Manti was close to his grandmother and obviously close to his girlfriend. The inspiring story spread quickly to mainstream media outlets because it was so sad and touching at the same time. He was playing out of his mind and always brought up his grandma and girlfriend in dedication. Sweet right? There was one big problem with the story that nobody knew just yet. The girlfriend did not exist. This is where it might be helpful to define the term “catfishing”…
“the process of luring someone into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona.”
The “girlfriend” was all an elaborate hoax. You had media and people wondering if Manti was part of the hoax, so that it would increase his media attention and draft stock, or was he making up the story? Was someone from his family or friends responsible? Why would they do something like this? Jealousy? I was inspired to cover this story mainly due to the popular documentary on Netflix called Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist.
Turns out the hoax was engineered by a guy that was named Ronaiah (RO-nayah) Tuiasosopo (Tooey-AHS-suh-SO-PO). Also Ronaiah now identifies as a transgender woman and goes by Naya.
Naya grew up in a huge family in Hawaii, everything was centered around faith, family , and football. Sophomore year in high school Naya started at quarterback, one of the most important positions in sports. Naya’s dad played in college, uncle and cousins played in the NFL, but Naya hated football, and said she only wanted to play to make her dad happy and to do what was expected of her as a natural born male in her family.
She felt stuck, so that’s when she created the fake character “Lennay Kekua”. She set up a fake Facebook profile, used a picture of a pretty girl that Naya had seen on campus before. Naya says the profile’s text was filled in with her own interests and thoughts, outside of the pictures it was 100% Naya. Soon, the Lennay character started getting friend requests, so Naya would accept them and go on as Lennay.
Manti’s parents said he was a very obedient and respectful kid. They grew up in a mormon community. Same idea with Manti’s family and a lot of the polynesian culture – the three pillars of faith, family and football. When Manti was about 5 years old his dad asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. Manti’s answer? The best. So his dad took that literally and trained him to be the best athlete he could be. They would go over his sprints in slow motion to see how he could get faster. After a football game they would go out in a field and go over the plays that he missed so he wouldn’t miss them again in a future game. A football scholarship was going to be his ticket to education, because his dad only brought in about $150 per week.
Manti played out of his mind in high school (meaning that he was really really good) and many considered him to be the #1 player at his position in the country, so he essentially had his pick of colleges. Most of the “best of the best” players don’t wind up at Notre Dame because Notre Dame takes academics very seriously, and a lot of the best players in the country only care about football and winning championships. Don’t get me wrong, really good players go to ND, but it’s not often they get the #1 player at a position.
Also, Manti had always wanted to go to USC – University of Southern California. USC was one of the best football schools in the country, they had recently won a national championship, just everything a recruit is looking for. So Manti worked out for them, USC loved him, and he came home and his dad told him to pray about it. At one point Manti said something along the lines of “Heavenly father, if USC is not where I should go then please lead me to where that should be”
Around that time, Manti went to the athletic office and talked to someone close to him named Gary Sataway. Gary said to him “if you go to USC you’ll be the next great Polynesian football player. If you go to ND, you’ll be the only Manti Te’o.” Manti felt like this was his message from God, so he picked Notre Dame. In the Fall of 2009 Manti would start his college football career at Notre Dame.
Manti admitted he was kind of sad when he was signing his letter of intent to attend Notre Dame. It’s South Bend, Indiana compared to gorgeous Southern California.
It was a culture shock to Manti. He went from a predominantly Mormon culture to one of the most well-known Catholic universities in the US. He wasn’t really happy while he was there, he questioned why God would want him at this place that’s basically the opposite of where he wanted to be. He was kind of searching for things that would make him happier.
Around this time, Manti was in the computer lab and he got a friend request from Lennay Kekua. She caught his eye because she looked Polynesian. Lennay told Manti that she knew his cousin Shiloah (Shy-low). So Manti talked to his cousin and was like “what’s the deal with Lennay, you’ve talked to her? Shiloah confirmed “yup, I’ve talked to her a few times on the phone, some texts, whatever nothing big.
Meanwhile, Manti started his first freshman year at Notre Dame, and played right away. The marketers of Notre Dame loved him, just like all the fans did. He’s a guy that values faith, family, and football and being of service to his fellow man. He quickly became everyone’s favorite player for his presence both on and off the field.
At first the conversations were pretty light with Lennay, they had to get to know each other. Naya was taking it easy with the Lennay character because everything was new and Naya wasn’t sure which way to take things. Lennay would talk to a bunch of guys, but when it came to meeting in person, Lennay would go dark.
Lennay kept in touch with Manti for a couple years, and in Manti’s Junior year at Notre Dame, Lennay told Manti that her dad wasn’t doing well. Manti, being the helper that he is, would check up on her and support Lennay during her time of need. Manti said “something about me is whenever someone needed help, I would just go in and help.”
They started to get to know each other, talking about family, faith, really it was everything Manti was looking for. She was Samoan, she loved the church, similar upbringing, nothing like something he would find in South Bend, Indiana.
They would talk on the phone, I heard the voicemails from Lennay and she sounded exactly like a female, you would never know. Manti’s friends even said she sounded like a nice girl from when they heard her voice, and it wasn’t odd to have long distance relationships, because a few of the guys had them.
Manti thought “Oh man, we’re the same person”
You’re probably wondering “why the hell didn’t Manti want to see her?” He did. He tried many times, and Lennay had excuses every time they tried to Facetime. Things like “it works for me, can you not see me?” or “My phone is cracked it’s not working” or blaming the internet connection, changing reasons each time.
They even talked to each other openly on Twitter, Lennay would wish him luck before the games, and Manti would publicly talk to her on Twitter as well.
Things were getting more and more serious, and they were talking about meeting up soon.
At this time, Manti got a text from an unknown number saying something along the lines of “Hi Manti, this is Lennay’s cousin, can you call me? It’s an emergency.”
Manti found out that Lennay had been in a car accident, hit by a drunk driver, and the car went off the highway and she was on life support.
Naya (the person pretending to be Lennay) calls Manti pretending to be Lennay’s brother, and said “I can take you into the hospital room while we’re on the phone.” Manti was able to hear breathing through a mask, and was talking calmly to Lennay, saying everything is going to be ok, don’t worry, etc. As he was talking, he heard her breath speed up a bit, and then what he thought was a nurse in the room said “whomever is on the phone, keep doing what you’re doing, this is the most response we’ve seen from her.” So Manti being the helper that he is, agreed to call her every day because he made a difference for Lennay.
Later, Manti was told that Lennay was diagnosed with leukemia. Manti had a special place in his heart for those with cancer…both of his grandfathers died of cancer. So he was dedicated to helping Lennay fight.
This hospital saga went on for the next month, and then he heard Lennay say “Manti. MANTI…..” and then the breathing stopped and Lennay goes “Manti, it’s me.” While telling this story, knowing full well that Lennay is not real, Manti got emotional at this point. It brings back that many feelings for him.
At one point the interviewer asks Manti “did you ever think this might have been a catfishing situation?” and Manti said “in 2009 nobody knew anything about catfishing.” Manti had checked with a few of his friends online and they said they know of Lennay, and that’s kind of what Manti focused on more than anything. He wanted her to be real and he had true feelings for her, so the mind is a powerful thing in this situation.
Then came Manti’s senior year. He was working harder than he ever had before, focusing 100% on his career as a football player and the ability he would have to change his family’s financial picture forever. He was having a killer senior year, was being projected as to be drafted in the first round, where only the best players are taken in the draft.
Manti was THE MAN at Notre Dame, had an entourage everywhere he went, he wasn’t returning Lennay’s calls, probably because of the trust issues he had, wasn’t quite sure if Lennay was for real or not, and just focusing on his future.
Then came September 12, 2012. At 6am Manti got a call that his grandmother had passed away back home. His heart was heavy and he was being short with everyone, including Lennay. Naya said “I am not proud and not happy for what I did” this day. Manti gets a call from Lennay’s “brother”, he’s crying terribly and he goes “she’s gone.” So not only did his grandmother pass away, but Lennay dying the same day really sent Manti into a tailspin.
Naya said “I didn’t want to just end it with Manti, I also wanted to end it with Lennay”.
Manti’s parents got a call from Lennay’s brother that morning, telling them Lennay had passed away. Manti’s parents spent hours on the phone with the fake brother, consoling one another as they had just lost Manti’s grandmother as well.
Around this time, Notre Dame had several important games, and Manti had to make a decision. Either take it hard and not show up for his team, or turn it into fuel for his fire. Being the kind of guy Manti is, he chose to be an “inspiration to everyone else.” That was on Tuesday and their big game was Saturday. Manti said he was “so clear” in the game because he was playing for a bigger purpose than himself. Notre Dame won the game 20-3, and Manti was emotional on the sidelines through the game.
This is where the media, understandably, really latched onto the inspiring story. Manti said the last thing Lennay said to him was “I love you” and that she was the love of his life. Everyone was rooting for Manti, he had everyone’s support as you would guess. How could you not? This transcends sports and starts to show up on national news stories, not just ESPN.
All told, Notre Dame had an unbeaten season, they went 12-0 and went to the national championship game.
Of course, being the absolutely psychotic sack of shit that Ronaiyah was, she was just not done with Manti yet. Lennay’s “family” wanted to see Manti, and so who was the person that came out to meet Manti? Ronaiyah, along with Ronaiyah’s little sister, whom Manti knew as Puka. Manti wondered why the rest of the family didn’t make it, and Ronaiyah said they had to go somewhere. The little sister ended up giving a stuffed bear to Manti and said “this bear is Lennay’s favorite and I want to give it to you.” The little girl said how much she missed Lennay too! There’s even a video clip out there of Manti giving Ronaiyah a hug, just disgusting knowing what we know now.
Now we get to December 2012. Manti got a call from Lennay’s sister, just catching up. In the middle of the conversation the girl goes “hey it’s me.” Manti’s like “excuse me?” She says “Manti, listen to my voice it’s me Lennay.” and he hung up the phone.
She called back and tried to sell him on it being her, she said she got into trouble and had to go into hiding for a while. Manti was understandably doubtful, and she goes “I can send you a picture to prove it!” So Manti said OK send me a picture but it has to have 3 things:
- It has to have your initials somewhere.
- It has to have the date.
- It also has to have my special hand sign I always make (similar to the I love you sign)
And guess what? He got the exact picture he wanted. Manti said “this is when things got crazy”. Like they weren’t crazy already.
Now enter a blog called Deadspin. They would do all sorts of stories that the mainstream sports news places wouldn’t touch, like pictures of pro athletes sexting other people, videos of couples having sex in stadium bathrooms, just racy salacious kind of stuff, like the TMZ of sports. Well Deadspin got an email tip with subject line “Manti Te’o’s Non-existent dead girlfriend.”
It was from someone in Hawaii that grew up near Manti’s home, and they said the whole thing was made up. A Deadspin reporter did some quick research on Google, and found the only mention of this Lennay Kekua girlfriend was “Manti Te’o’s girlfriend”. Nothing at all regarding only Lennay. They tried to figure out a timeline, when did Lennay die? Before or after Manti’s grandmother? How did they meet? They started to find a lot facts weren’t reported properly, some outlets had Lennay dying before Manti’s grandmother, others saying the opposite. They started to wonder if Manti Te’o was involved to try to make himself more famous?
So the Deadspin folks started searching everywhere for any mention of Lennay – obituaries, accident reports, hospitals, Stanford University where she was supposedly a student. They came up with nothing.
December 25, 2012 – Manti came home and came clean to his parents, said he’s not sure if Lennay is alive or dead. His parents were confused, his dad was like “what the hell are you talking about?” So they called a family member who’s a lawyer, and they immediately said “it sounds like you’re getting catfished.” That was the first time Manti had heard that term.
December 26, 2012 – Manti told the University about the situation, so they went into Public Relations mode, consulting professionals how they would approach the situation, and the consensus was “don’t say anything right now, only 12 days before the national championship. We need to find out everything about this, but not right now.
Meanwhile, Deadspin found all the pictures of Lennay they could find, and he started doing Google reverse image search without much luck. Until the last picture, he got a match to a MySpace profile page. The page didn’t have a name, but through that they found a girl named Diane O’Meara, and the Deadspin reporter began to contact her. They talked on the phone, and the Deadspin reporter figured out most of the pictures he had were just taken from her profile pictures, except for one. The one that had the date and hand gesture that Manti requested. The reporter asked Diane about it, and Diane said she sent it to someone but she’s not ready to say who that person is just yet. As this conversation is happening, the Deadspin intern was texting the reporter the name Roniah…so the reporter says “did you send it to Roniah?” and Diane hung up.
Turns out Roniah asked Diane to send a picture with the details through some bullshit story she made up, and Diane was nice enough to do it.
January 7, 2013 – Alabama vs Notre Dame national championship, Notre Dame got their asses handed to them. Manti wasn’t playing well, missing tackles. Some people said this whole thing was part of why Manti played poorly, but Alabama had a college football dynasty, so who knows.
January 16, 2013 – Deadspin was ready to get this story out there, and they didn’t want to get beat on the story. They reached out to Ronaiah and Manti to get comment for the story, as is customary when putting together news. They called Manti’s parents and they didn’t answer. Manti never answered the call, he said he was distracted by everything going on. An hour after trying to reach Manti, they decided to publish the story. The headline read “Manti Teo’s Dead Girlfriend, the Most Hearbreaking and Inspirational Story of the College Football Season, Is a Hoax”.
4 hours later, as Manti was in Florida working out and preparing for the NFL draft, he got a call from his agent who said “I need you to go to your apartment and lock yourself in there. I’ll call you. It’s going to be a long ride, bro.” The article from Deadspin just posted and Manti’s twitter feed was blasted with all sorts of people calling him out as a fake.
All the same news people that were eating up the story of Manti’s rise were quickly attacking him. Wondering “why wouldn’t you tell people that you never met Lennay? Were you in on this? Katie Couric even asked him “Are you gay?” to which he replied “not even close”
The big first interview with Roniah was done by Dr. Phil. He asked Roniah a lot of what we already know in this story, but one thing we don’t – who was leaving those voicemails for Manti? Manti released the voicemails and like I said earlier, it sounded like a young woman. Dr Phil had voice experts analyze the voicemails and the experts said there was like a 1 in 10 million chance it was Ronaiah leaving those voicemails, but Ronaiah insisted they were the ones leaving them. So Dr Phil had Ronaiah get into character, lay down on a bed or whatever they needed to do, and speak like they spoke to Manti when they were on the phone. Sure enough, the voice was a perfect match!
One of Manti’s friends said “if all the different voices and phones were from Ronaiah, then Ronaiah needs to work for Disney or some shit.”
Oh by the way, this whole thing happened at the same time the Lance Armstrong story came out that he was doping in his racing days. Some people joked it was the best thing to happen to Lance Armstrong.
So keep in mind all of this was going on while Manti Te’o was getting prepared for the biggest opportunity of his life in the NFL draft. Draft day came, and he was not drafted in the first round like a lot of people expected. Teams just couldn’t count on him being the leader that he was purported to be. He may still be a great and strong person, but teammates might not think the same thing. Eventually Manti got drafted in the 2nd round and went to the Chargers.
Roniah ended up moving to American Samoa and coming out as transgender. Roniah thought that her story would help others who might be in a similar situation…probably not the same situation I’d imagine.
Meanwhile, Manti said he had a tremendous amount of anxiety. He wasn’t the confident playmaker that he had always been his entire career. He had tingling and numbness in his body that he didn’t have before. It seems like the whole situation just broke him completely. He claimed to have the same feelings for 3 years with the Chargers.
Eventually Manti went to a therapist, he’d had enough and knew something was going on in his head. They went through everything going on in Manti’s head, and at the end the therapist asked “have you forgiven Roniah for what he did to you?” Yeah. “Have you forgiven yourself? Somebody like you who’s always been so confident and never questioned anything he’s done. For you to go through what you went through, deep down inside you’re questioning yourself. You have to forgive that kid.” He said the thing that keeps him going are the people that he still inspires, not the people that take a picture with him one second, and make a meme about him afterwards. If he can positively effect one person’s life then it’s all worth it.
He forgives Roniah and hopes that Roniah’s family forgives her as well.
Manti bounced around the league for a little bit, most recently playing for my Chicago Bears, but he’s a free agent now and probably won’t play again at 31 years old. He’s currently married and has a cute little one year old daughter.
- Netflix – Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist
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