As far as recent sports documentaries, “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist” about former Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te’o on Netflix blows away “The Captain” on former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter on ESPN.
In just a two-part production, there is more drama, intrigue and searing intensity in the Te’o doc than in seven combined episodes of “The Captain.” The latter appears to have been made because Jeter really liked watching the groundbreaking “The Last Dance” on ESPN about Michael Jordan in 2020 and wanted one, too. It’s a lot of Jeter trying to be cool and pontificating in a repetitive, dull, too-long series.
“The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist” is a compelling who-dun-it, even though we know who did it, or think we know, or think we remember. It leaves the viewer wanting more. It is the best documentary since “The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley” about delusional Elizabeth Holmes from HBO in 2019.
Those two have two incredible features in common.
Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, now a transgender woman named Naya, is interviewed at length about expertly concocting the diabolical catfish scheme. Ronaiah invented a never-see girlfriend/Stanford student named Lennay Kekua on Facebook while Te’o played at Notre Dame from 2009-12.
Te’o never met Lennay, but he basically fell in love with a picture that Tuiasosopo used to create the fake girl. Lennay shared a Samoan background with Manti Te’o, who grew up in Laie, Hawaii. The picture was of someone Tuiasosopo also craftily befriended on Facebook, a very attractive Diane O’Meara.
Tuiasosopo, while he was still living as a man from 2009-12, also skillfully disguised his voice to uncannily sound like a young woman. Te’o, who is interviewed at length in the documentary, says Tuiasosopo’s skilled womanly voice is one of the main reasons he was sold for so long on the girl he never met.
The voice changing skills of Tuiasosopo—proven late in the documentary by none other than television star Dr. Phil—are uncanny. They are even better than that of Elizabeth Holmes, who did the opposite. She suddenly grew a deeper voice like a man, as her star rose dramatically with Theranos, a blood-taking mechanism that never worked but made her billions fraudulently by 2014. She is awaiting sentencing in October, which could be 20 years.
Like Holmes, Tuiasosopo skillfully made everyone believe a complete hoax.
Manti Te’o Forgives Himself
But Tuiasosopo has gotten away with it as most catfishers do. Te’o, now 31, even forgave her, though Te’o repeatedly says “him” in the documentary. (Te’o did not initially know of Tuiasosopo’s gender change.)
Te’o also eventually forgave himself for being so naive and frankly, incredibly delusional, and moved on. A first-round projection for the 2013 NFL Draft, he fell – likely because of the catfish controversy – to the second round as the 38th overall pick by San Diego. He played four seasons there and from 2017-19 with the New Orleans Saints. A great career never developed, though, and he has not played since 2020 with Chicago.
Manti Te’o did marry a very attractive, real woman named Jovi Nicole Engbion, a personal trainer and beauty consultant, on Aug. 29, 2020, in La Jolla, Calif. It is not far from where Lennay lived in make believe.
A truly amazing ending for Te’o would have been to date or marry O’Meara. He did fall in love with the picture, which is what Bruce Springsteen did initially with his first wife: model/actress Julianne Phillips. If O’Meara could speak like Tuiasosopo, Te’o would’ve been done.
The four-year fraud was not exposed until January of 2013, shortly after Te’o and Notre Dame lost the national championship game to Alabama, 42-14. Te’o was one of the most honored players in college football history in 2012 as he won the Ronnie Lott Trophy, the Chuck Bednarik Award, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, the Butkus Award, the Lombardi Award and the Walter Camp Award and finished second for the Heisman Trophy to Johnny Manziel.
Te’o Not Completely Innocent In Scheme
Those accolades partly came about because Te’o kept milking the story of his girlfriend Lennay’s death on Sept. 12, 2012, which Tuiasosopo—disguising his voice as a family member of Lennay’s—told him about. Tuiasosopo devilishly decided to end his fake person on about the same day that Te’o’s real grandmother, Annette Santiago, died.
Manti Te’o is not completely innocent, though. The documentary reveals that he seemed to enjoy the sympathy he was receiving for the death of his fake girlfriend, with whom he was obviously not very close. And he kept letting the story grow, even though his doubts that she really existed starting getting stronger late in 2012.
But Te’o kept telling reporters late that season that the last thing Lennay told him was “I love you,” even though he had his doubts at the time.
“He really wanted to be something that transcended college football,” national TV journalist Alex Flanagan, who covered Notre Dame at the time, says in the show. And he sure did.
Te’o kept talking about his dead girlfriend in several interviews, but never added the detail that he had never actually met her face-to-face. And he kept perpetuating the myth.
Deadspin’s Role In Te’o Saga
One of the more interesting parts of the documentary is how Deadspin broke the story of the hoax on Jan. 16, 2013. Deadspin embarrassed major news entities like ESPN, Sports Illustrated and the New York Times, none of which bothered to check simple facts. For example, Lennay Kekua’s name never appeared anywhere on various internet searches unless connected to Te’o. There were also no death notices to be found about Kekua anywhere either. Duh!
“To me, this was a story about how the most powerful media companies in the world didn’t fact check things that they published,” says then-Deadspin writer Tim Burke in the documentary. He broke the story along with unpaid intern/college student Jack Dickey.
“And Deadspin, a blog with eight employees, did,” Burke said.
“The opportunity to make ESPN look stupid,” said Dickey, who began the exclusive story’s process after getting an email tip. “Oh my God! That was what we were there for.”