A rising American football star fell victim to an elaborate catfishing hoax which ‘cost him not only his dignity, but millions and millions of dollars.’
Manti Te’o was a star player in prestigious college team Notre Dame, with aspirations of joining the NFL, when his life took an unexpected turn.
In 2012, the now 31-year-old was messaged on Facebook by a young LA-based woman, Lennay Kekua, and the pair struck up a friendship, which later developed into a meaningful relationship.
While Manti pushed to meet Lennay in real life multiple times, the Californian always came up with an excuse, although they did often speak over the phone.
As his career on the pitch was soaring, resulting in intense media coverage, Manti was devastated to hear that Lennay had been in a horrific car crash.
But as Netflix documentary Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist explores, things were not at all as they seemed.
After struggling with her injuries, Manti also learnt, via Lennay’s family members, that she had been diagnosed with leukemia.
She died from cancer shortly afterwards, with ‘I love you’ being Manti’s final words to her.
‘I just broke,’ the athlete said of hearing the news, which came on the same day as his grandmother’s death.
Garnering much sympathy from the media for his losses, Manti continued playing football, until it was nearly derailed by a Deadspin investigation into Lennay’s identity.
Reporters revealed that Lennay did not exist, and she was actually Ronaiah ‘Naya’ Tuiasosopo, who had created the fake profile because she was ‘in love’ with how much attention the character was getting online.
‘It was a black hole that consumed my life and I didn’t care who I was hurting,’ she told programme makers.
However, several outlets began to claim that Manti had been behind the hoax to advance his career or to conceal aspects of his personal life, according to the doc.
Sports broadcaster Alex Flanagan said: ‘I think one of the first questions everybody asked was: “How could he be so naive?” and then the second question everybody started wondering was: “Was he complicit?”’
‘It was just like a huge tidal wave and I was drowning,’ Manti recalled of the media coverage. ‘You can’t feel anything, taste anything, smell anything. Nothing.’
Of course, Manti had no involvement in the hoax and had no idea Lennay was anything other than a real person.
Still reeling from the explosive revelation, Manti was expecting to hear if he had been drafted into the NFL with his agent telling him, as he reveals in the two-parter, he would ‘get picked it’s just a matter of where and when.’
But the player was not picked in the first draft to the ‘shock’ of US sports journalists, with some pointing the finger at the scandal.
Alex explained: ‘Not only are the optics bad, of sliding from the first into the second draft of the NFL, but, more importantly, the money and the contracts change pretty drastically.
‘So now this incident had cost him not only his dignity in some ways, but millions and millions of dollars.’
Happily, Manti went on to play for the San Diego Chargers in the second round of the 2013 draft and is now a ‘free agent’ so no longer attached to a team.
But he said that period of his life left him ‘anxious’ and ‘numb’ and he sought help to ‘rediscover who I was.’
Meanwhile, Naya, who said she is ‘not proud or happy’ with the decision she made, has transitioned and identifies as a transgender woman.
She said: ‘After this whole life with Lennay had ended, I couldn’t give Lennay any more of my time. And I remember telling myself “you wanna be a girl, so be a girl.”
‘I put myself on the backburner for all those years so, moving forward, I just had to start living my life.’
Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist is available to stream on Netflix on Tuesday, August 16.
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