Famously catfished football player Manti Te'o is once again feeling the love following the debut of a two-part documentary examining the headline-grabbing scandal, “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist.”
“I was worried about it for a long time,” Te'o, 31, admits in an interview Wednesday, a day after the latest installment from the sports-focused docuseries arrived on Netflix. His anxiety stemmed from previous backlash over the scandal and uncertainty about whether viewers would understand what actually happened to the former linebacker for Notre Dame, the San Diego Chargers and New Orleans Saints, who's now a free agent.
“But the reception has been amazing," Te'o says. "I've been humbled by the love and the support that has come from all around the world... I've gotten messages in different languages that I don't understand, but by the hearts on them, I understand that it's all love.”
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A decade ago, tides quickly turned for the 2012 Heisman trophy finalist, then a college player who helped the Fighting Irish remain undefeated for the regular season. Support for the senior that followed the back-to-back losses of his grandmother and his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, changed to backlash when a January 2013 Deadspin article revealed “The Most Heartbreaking and Inspirational Story of the College Football Season” to be a scam.
The truth of the matter is that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, assigned male at birth, struggled with her gender. As a way to cope, she created a Facebook profile for the fictitious Kekua that featured images of Tuiasosopo's high school classmate, Diane O'Meara, and initiated online relationships with men, including Te'o. Tuiasosopo fabricated Kekua’s death to end the relationship with Te'o, who could never meet his alleged girlfriend.
Te’o says he requested directors Ryan Duffy and Tony Vainuku include Tuiasosopo in the documentary to tell a fuller story that extends beyond his own perspective.
Tuiasosopo, who transitioned to female after the scandal, shares her motivations for maintaining her fake profile.
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“I knew what was right and wrong, but I was too far in love with being looked at in this way,” she says. “Yes, it was completely selfish, but it was what made me happy. It was what I wanted to be a reality.”
Te’o, who says he and Tuiasosopo have not been in contact, admits watching the person who catfished him proved challenging.
“There are a lot of emotions there, hearing the details,” Te’o says, adding that his forgiveness of Tuiasosopo prepared him for whatever he might see in the documentary.
“For the first three years, my life was extremely difficult, and I was desperate to find peace,” he says. “The only thing that I could think of during that time was forgiveness, was to let it go. Once I did, I felt like I then regained the power over my life and that peace over my life.”
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Te’o’s forgiveness is awe-inspiring, considering the fallout that followed Deadspin’s exposé. Some in the media suspected he was complicit and questioned his sexuality. He was mocked on “Saturday Night Live” and inspired a cruel trend of being photographed embracing an invisible partner, dubbed “Te'oing.”
Te’o says “many times” he felt like he was going to break, and relied on his family, friends and faith to get him through.
“One of the darkest moments during that time” came a week after the article was published. In his Florida apartment, Te’o says he was having a heated discussion with God. “I was just yelling, ‘How could you let this happen to me?’” he remembers. “And the thought ‘Footprints in the Sand’ came in my head.”
Confused, Te’o pulled out his phone. “I'm in tears, and I'm angry, and I'm just in this dark place, and I type in ‘Footprints in the Sand,’ and the poem pops up.”
In the poem, God is questioned by someone who's confused why, during difficult times, they saw only one set of footprints. God explains these are the times He carried his follower. “I knew at that time, that when I looked back into my life and I saw those one set of footprints that I know that it was Him carrying me and I knew at that time that He would carry me,” Te’o says. “I just had to just close my eyes at times and just endure it and get through it and do my best to just be resilient, and (God will) handle the rest.”
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And resilient he is. Arguably the most moving part is the documentary is Te’o’s teary-eyed closing remarks.
“I’mma rise above all of that, bro. No matter how hard it is for me,” he says of overcoming his adversity. “I’mma look at all these people who made fun of me and the people who actually believed in me – I have to take a second to be like, ‘They actually love me, man. They love you. They don’t want to make fun of you, bro. Treat ’em nice in a world that’s just spit on you.’”
If viewership is any indication of acceptance, the world may stop spitting on Te’o. (As of Thursday morning, the program ranked second among Netflix's most-watched movies in the U.S.) If it can’t, at least the project has provided a balm for the athlete that even he didn’t know he needed.
“Doing this project and going through old text messages and going through the old phone, there (were) a lot of things that were coming up that needed to be addressed for me,” he says. “Now that the doc is out, and everything is out there – there is nothing that is left – definitely, I've healed from it all.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Netflix's Manti Te'o catfish doc healed him: 'Everything is out there'