Manti Te’o’s healing began—where else?—at a JAY-Z concert. It was 2017. Te’o played for the New Orleans Saints, at the time, still lodged in the damn near never-ending come down from that one time, you’re surely well-aware, when he was the biggest story in sports, two times over. The first? At Notre Dame, where Te’o not only blazed his way into Heisman trophy contention, but did so while playing for his grandmother and girlfriend, both recently passed away. Second? When the girlfriend turned out to be a hoax. Turns out, Ronaiah “Naya” Tuiasosopo invented an online persona named Lennay Kekua and became close with Te’o through this alter ego before faking her own death—then, Deadspin broke the story.
So Te’o is at this Jay-Z concert. A teammate invited him. Hov, voice carrying through an entire stadium, preaches, “You cannot heal what you don’t reveal.” Te’o, having gone through something wholly unimaginable, yet only possible in the era of clicks and smartphones, hears something he’ll never forget. “From that moment on, I was like, OK, I’m trying to heal from this thing,” Te’o says over Zoom in August. “If Jay-Z says I’ve got to reveal it, then what I’m going to do is every time somebody asks me about it? I’m going to have those hard conversations and tell them everything.” That gave him strength. Empathy, respect, love. Things started to feel a little bit better.
In 2020, a film director, Tony Vainuku, called Te’o. He wanted to make a documentary about the worst year of Te’o’s life. The former Notre Dame star was finally feeling something resembling peace at the time. Why relive it all? “I talked to my parents, I talked to my team, and I realized that there are a lot of people out there that still have questions,” Te’o says. “I felt like, OK, I’m at a place where I’m ready to tell it. I’m not ashamed of anything.” So he does it. The directors managed to convince Tuiasosopo to tell her side of the story as well. The result, Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, premiered on Netflix this Tuesday. As the film explores a connection that irreparably changed Te’o’s life, what emerges is a fascinating portrait of two people who felt alone and unsure in themselves—and found something they were missing in each other.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
ESQUIRE: If you were a JAY-Z album, which one would you be?
Manti Te’o: Hov is probably not going to not like me for this, but I didn’t really listen to Jay-Z like that. I like the “H to the Izzo.” I like the old school stuff, but I didn’t really listen to Jay-Z. But the one that really got me, honestly, bro, is “Kill Jay-Z.” And if you listen to those lyrics, that song resonated with me because that’s what I felt people were saying about me all those years. And to listen to him say it and vocalize it, I was like, holy schmoly. It helped me to do a lot of healing, man.
Manti Te’o, 2013.
Catfishing wasn’t really a thing over a decade ago. What do you think of how much the phenomenon has become a part of our cultural language in 2022?
I think it’s been brought to light, because within the 24 hours that the documentary has been out, there have been hundreds of people that have hit me up and told me, “Man, the same thing has happened to me.” Both men and women. How hard it was for them, how difficult it was for them to try to navigate that whole thing. So, yes, are we aware of catfishing? Yes we are. I think everybody knows what it is now. But people who go through that, I hope they know it’s going to be OK. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. You didn’t make any mistake. Just be easy on yourself and it’s going to be okay.
One eye-opening part of the documentary is how the media treated you. It shows an interview between you and Katie Couric where she asks pretty insensitive questions in front of your parents.
Do you think we’ve learned enough from how the media has mistreated athletes’ stories and to handle a situation like yours better now?
I hope so. I love a quote by Denzel Washington. I posted this on my Instagram a while back. He said, “Nowadays, we’re not worried about reporting facts. We’re just worried about being first. And what a responsibility we all have to report the facts and not try to just be first.” For the media, we have such an amazing opportunity to spread a message, so the question is: what message are you going to spread? I think they could do so much good in the world because we’re all watching. Everybody’s got a TV. Everybody’s got a cell phone. Let’s try to spread some positivity and some love and see what happens.
I know what rock bottom looks like. I know what it feels like, smells like, I know what the darkest days look like.
Was participating in the documentary healing for you?
For sure. It was. So I was at a place of peace, yes. And I thought that I was like, “Yeah, I healed from this. I’m good.” But doing this project, obviously, I had to go back down and relive a lot of those moments. It was emotional. There was a lot of emotions that came up that I didn’t know were there. And not just hard, dark emotions, but great ones as well. Going through that phone during that year, there was some good stuff. It was an all-around powerful experience.
And that’s—I would imagine—a real human connection. No matter what’s going on, if you’re connecting with another person. That’s meaningful.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
In the documentary, you address Naya and say, “I hope you know that I forgive you.” Naya gave a long interview for this documentary. If you’ve watched it, how do you feel about what she said?
Oh yeah. The powerful thing about forgiveness is that, one, it’s not only for the person that you’re forgiving, but it’s for yourself as well. Two, it’s unconditional. It doesn’t matter where the person is right now, it doesn’t matter what happened before. All of that, it’s forgiven, it’s done, it’s OK. Let’s move on. And so I had to do that and I felt like it was necessary for me to do that in order for me to move on with my life and to be happy again.
Teo, alongside his parents, in interview with Katie Couric.
Can you hit me with your favorite Notre Dame memory?
Oh, man. Favorite Notre Dame memory? My favorite Notre Dame memory will have to be my senior game when I ran out of the tunnel and I hugged my parents, man. And everybody cheered. They were chanting my name, but it wasn’t about me. It was the first time that on the same field, my parents were recognized as well. The people who created me to be the man who I am, who’ve helped me to get to where I’m at today, at that moment were there. To have my parents and feel that love. For everybody, the 80,000-plus in that stadium to show them that love, man, that was that moment, man. I’ll never forget that.
I’m pretty much your age. Watching this documentary reminded me of what I feel is one of the last great eras of college football. Where even a guy like Johnny Manziel played with his heart, you know? You were part of that.
Man, it was about just the team, having pride in your school, playing for your brothers. It wasn’t about, “Where am I going to get drafted?” Listen bro, let’s go to the dining hall, you know what I mean? Let’s go to class. What did you get on this test? Hanging out during the summers, having barbecues at each other’s houses—that’s what it was all about. The winter workouts. Just that brotherhood. There was nothing like college football, man. There literally is nothing like college football and it’s just so beautiful. I miss it.
After everything, do you feel like you’re a better man for having gone through this?
Oh, yeah, man. There are only certain things that you can learn by going through that. I call it the refiner’s fire. You can only learn certain things in a fire. It puts me in a place, honestly, of empathy for people that go through stuff. Because no matter what, I don’t want anybody to feel that way. I don’t want anybody to have to feel like they’re alone. That nobody loves them. So whatever anybody’s going through, the beautiful thing about me going through what I went through is I can empathize with anybody. I know what rock bottom looks like. I know what it feels like, smells like, I know what the darkest days look like. I know what that feels like, but I also know what the top feels like as well. I’ve experienced it all. So with that, am I a full man? I think I’m a more equipped man.
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Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist | Official Trailer | Netflix
I’m more equipped to help. I’m more equipped to serve. I’m more equipped to lend a helping hand or send a loving text to somebody, that they look at and are like, “Oh, man, Manti’s not just saying it.” When they see my name, they’re like, “I know, if anything, that Manti’s been through what he’s saying.” There’s so much power and validity in that. It puts more responsibility on me to reach out and be like, “Hey, listen, it’s going to be all right. Regardless of what you went through, it’s going to be all right. And trust me, I think I know a thing or two, so you can trust me when I say that.”
I know what you mean. You have to see it that way—that if you go through it early, you can help everyone who comes after you.
Right, bro. Bear another man’s burdens. That’s what we’re there for.
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