A new side to the story. In the fall of 2012, Manti Te’o was one of the most famous and talented college football players in the country, but by the winter, he was the target of cruel jokes.
Te’o, who played for Notre Dame at the time, revealed after a September 2012 game against Michigan State that he had lost both his grandmother and his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, on the same day. He dedicated his season to their memory, even skipping Kekua’s funeral because she insisted that he didn’t miss a single game of his senior season. “[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.”
Though his story of persevering through heartbreak and grief earned Te’o national attention, the story got even bigger in January 2013, when Deadspin reported that Kekua was not a real person. “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,” the outlet stated at the time. “There is no record of her birth in the news. Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there’s no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed.”
In their article, Deadspin claimed that the fake Facebook account was created by Naya Tuiasosopo. The Washington native later confirmed that she initially invented Kekua as a way to process her struggles with her gender and sexual identity. She has since come out as transgender.
Shortly after the story broke, Notre Dame issued a statement confirming that the linebacker had been “the victim of what appears to be a hoax,” and clarified that Te’o had only recently discovered that he had been catfished. “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 in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia,” spokesperson Dennis Brown said at the time. “The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax.”
Te’o soon became the subject of mean-spirited jokes and memes, many of which criticized him for believing that the supposed Stanford student was a real person even though he never met her. As a result of the scandal, the former football star was chosen in the second round of the NFL draft and struggled to find his footing playing professional football.
Te’o and Tuiasosopo shared the whole story with the world in the Netflix documentary Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, which premiered on Netflix in August 2022. “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 in August 2022. “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.”
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Keep scrolling to relive the complete timeline of Teo’s catfish controversy: