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Manti Te'o, subject of high-profile catfishing story, talks 'Untold' Netflix doc

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, whether you care about sports or football or not, it's one of those stories that once you heard it, it was hard to forget.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM BURKE: There were millions and millions of people who knew that there was a Notre Dame football player whose grandmother and girlfriend had died the same night and that he dedicated his season to them. One problem - his girlfriend did not exist.

MARTIN: That's the voice of Tim Burke, the former Deadspin reporter who broke the news of an elaborate hoax aimed at former Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te'o. These days, a lot of people have heard the term catfishing. That's when somebody uses a false identity to deceive others online, often to create a relationship. But when this happened in 2013, it's probably fair to say that many people, maybe most, had no idea that somebody would do something like that. But somebody did do that - Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Ronaiah has since come out as a transgender woman. She calls herself Naya now and we'll hear more from her later.

But it was Manti Te'o who paid the price, at least at first. Almost overnight, he went from being a college football icon to the target of ridicule and attack. Now there's a new documentary that shines new light onto a story that ignited a media frenzy and offered a look at what at the time seemed a rare look at the ugly side of social media. But this time, Manti Te'o tells his side of the story at length in the film, which is part of the Netflix series "Untold." It's called "The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist." And Manti Te'o is with us now to tell us more.

Manti Te'o, welcome. Thank you so much for talking to us about this.

MANTI TE'O: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I can imagine that this was a really difficult period in your life and you probably would have been just fine not revisiting it. So first, thank you for talking to us. But why did you agree to participate in this film?

TE'O: Tony Vainuku is one of the directors of this piece, and so he told me about the project. And I - he and I had a great conversation. Again, I went through all the details with him. And after the whole conversation, he said, bro, you sound like you're ready to tell it. And I was at so much peace in my life at that time that I told him, I was like, listen, I don't feel the need to tell it at this time. Like, I'm OK now. I'm at peace with what has happened. And my life is good. I'm happily married. Like, you know, everything is good. And he said, OK, well, just think about it. Talk to your family about it, so I did.

And through a couple of weeks, I started to realize that there are a lot of people that still had questions and a lot of people that were confused. But more importantly, there were people that had supported me all those years, and they kind of just supported me because they loved me. And I - there was no backing to it. It was just loyalty. And I wanted to - I thought to myself, man, what a great opportunity that this could be, where I'm at a place now where I'm not ashamed of anything. I'm at peace with everything, so I can tell it. And also, there's - there are these two directors, Tony Vainuku and Ryan Duffy, that are willing to tell the story the right way. And so, you know, I thought that it was a great opportunity. And, you know, we jumped in.

MARTIN: So to remind people - and again, has to be painful, I apologize - that you became Facebook friends with somebody who told you her name was Lennay Kekua. And you became this - I don't know - how would you describe it?

TE'O: No, at first, it was just a normal conversation. You know, obviously, I was in I was in South Bend, Ind., my freshman year in college. And there's just a just general hello. My name is so and so. Like, nice to meet you. Like, I'm from California. I'm from Hawaii - Stuff like that. And it was just from that point on into my junior, just random hit ups here, random hit ups. So it wasn't a consistent communication there, you know, from my freshman year all the way to my junior.

MARTIN: Well, how did you just start to think of the person who you thought of as Lennay as your girlfriend?

TE'O: Those type of conversation didn't happen until later in my junior year.

MARTIN: Well, there are a couple of points in the documentary that really struck me - is that all this played out on social media. And now, of course, we know a lot about misinformation and disinformation on social media, that people use social media for sort of all kinds of things. But would it be fair to say that at the time that just never occurred to you that somebody would be talking to you who wasn't who they presented themselves to be?

TE'O: Yeah, no, for sure. That's definitely an accurate, I mean, evaluation of everything. Like, you know, nobody knew. You don't know what you don't know. You know what I mean? Like, I always told some of my teammates, I would ask a lot of them, you know, and they would ask me questions. I was like, how do you know about catfishing? And they said, oh, you. I said, guess how I know about catfishing? Me. I'm the one - I found out from catfishing because of my experience. Now, I hope that, you know, that brings awareness to that side, you know, because there are a lot of people in the past 48 hours that have reached out that have been, you know, totally hurt by individuals who have catfished them. And it's definitely something that, you know, for all - for everybody around the world, just be careful.

MARTIN: I don't know how you received what it is that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo was saying in the documentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "UNTOLD: THE GIRLFRIEND WHO DIDN'T EXIST")

RONAIAH TUIASOSOPO: I still feel horrible, and sometimes I wish that everything had been undone. But then also, another part of me was like, I learned so much about who I am today and, you know, who I want to become because of the lessons I learned through the life of Lennay.

MARTIN: She's saying that she was going through something she did not understand, where kind of she was in her own life, that she was - had this challenge within her that she did not have words for, and that this was kind of her way of living her truth, even though she didn't really understand it. And she knows that she caused you harm, and she's sorry. Do you accept that?

TE'O: I didn't - honestly, I never heard a sorry, you know. I never heard an apology. But honestly, it doesn't matter because the forgiveness was given without the request. I knew that in order for me to continue to be who I - the man who I wanted to be, forgiveness was something that I had to exercise no matter how hard it was at that time. And I started to realize the power of forgiveness. You start to take back the power in your life.

MARTIN: Did it follow you, though? I know as we said, you were a senior at Notre Dame. You were preparing for the draft. We've heard a lot of stories about, frankly, inappropriate questions that NFL team officials asked prospects before the draft. Did it follow you? Did you feel it followed you?

TE'O: Oh, yeah, I thought it followed me. And even if it didn't follow me, in my mind, it followed me. And that's the dangerous part. And I tell people all the time, the challenge with being in that kind of space is the world becomes really small. And what I mean by that is you think that everybody knows that everywhere you walk, everywhere that you visit in public, that when you - somebody stares at you, they're staring at you because they know. When somebody double looks at you, they're looking at you because they know. When they pull their phone out, they're pulling their phone out because they know. And you put everybody under this under assumption when that's not necessarily true.

MARTIN: That was former Notre Dame and NFL football player Manti Te'o. Manti, thank you so much for talking with me. It's really been a pleasure to speak with you.

TE'O: Thank you. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: Social media and our understanding of it has evolved, but so has online deception. Listen to the Consider This podcast to hear more from Manti Te'o and to hear why a social media expert says catfishing didn't start with Manti, and why it is still around today. You will find Consider This wherever you get your podcasts and at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.