“This is not about me. This is not about one person. It’s about this whole family. If you wanna go fast go alone, if you wanna go far go together,” said Manti Te’o, former Notre Dame football star and NFL linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, when he returned to campus on Saturday, Sept. 17 to support the Fighting Irish in their game against Cal. Although I was standing in the sweltering gameday heat, Te’o’s spirited words gave me goosebumps, especially as I recalled the emotional struggles and adversity he had faced throughout his collegiate and NFL football career, portrayed in the 2022 two-part Netflix documentary Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist.
The documentary conveys the popular fandom surrounding Te’o during his ND football career. Clips show fans waving multi-colored leis at football games to honor Te’o’s Samoan-Hawaiian heritage and enthusiastically asking him for autographs. However, the documentary focuses on the revelation which, arguably, affected him and his career for the rest of his life. It can all be summed up in one word: “catfishing.”
The film traces Teo’s Facebook relationship with Lennay Kekua, a fictional girl created by Naya Tuiasosopo, the catalyst of the complex hoax. I think the documentary’s most compelling and valuable feature is the way it intertwines both Te’o’s and Naya’s interviews to convey the story — it provides both sides, both personal perspectives.
The second part of the documentary recounts Te’o’s senior season at ND, a season in football and his life which led him to feel “numb.” It focuses on how Lennay’s fictional death and the actual death of Te’o’s grandmother — which occurred on the same morning — personally impacted him and his senior football season: he played in their memory. The story gripped college football fans, but it eventually became a brutal punch line. The documentary culminates in the revelation that the person Te’o thought he was talking to, whom he thought had passed away, did not exist. Through heartbreaking interviews, Te’o and his parents express their struggles regarding rumors that Te’o was involved in the hoax. The documentary does an effective job of portraying the way in which public perception of Te’o changed: Clips from his appearance at the 2012 Heisman Trophy Ceremony are interspersed with imagery of online messages with Lennay and the recordings of her phone calls. This transforms into critical media reports and sensitive interview clips with Te’o in the aftermath of sports blog Deadspin’s story regarding Te’o’s fictional girlfriend: “Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking and Inspirational Story of the College Football Season, Is a Hoax.”
Te’o, a man committed to his Mormon faith, his culture and his family, endured the mockery and memes of the media and society with grace. In fact, at the end of the documentary, he says that he forgives Naya. And so, the documentary invites us — Notre Dame fans, college football fans, 21st-century kids cautioned about the world of catfishing — into Te’o’s struggles with anxiety and his spiraling from self-trust to self-doubt. I would highly recommend this film to anyone who wants to know both sides and perspectives of the hoax and how Te’o gained the motivation to rise above it all to be an inspiration for others.
My takeaway is this: Perhaps Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist will secure a rank next to the film the Fighting Irish know so well, Rudy. Both are inspirational football stories that represent a triumph over adversity and display of grace in the midst of mockery