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An Oral History of the Manti Te'o Catfish Story: Part 3

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The final installment of this oral history recaps the bizarre events from two years ago.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

"The sheer quantity of falsehoods about Manti's relationship with Lennay makes that friend, and another relative of Ronaiah's, believe Te'o had to know the truth." -Deadspin, January 16, 2013

CLICK HERE FOR PART 1 OF THIS ORAL HISTORY

CLICK HERE FOR PART 2 OF THIS ORAL HISTORY

CLICK HERE FOR A TIMELINE OF THE EVENTS

Our Discussion Panel

arnold1
Keith Arnold- NBC Sports' Inside the Irish manager, Bleacher Report lead writer

walters1
John Walters- Newsweek Senior Sports Writer

ritter1
Ryan Ritter- Her Loyal Sons Editor-in-Chief

frank1
Frank Vitovitch- UHND Manager

fish
Fishoutofwater- One Foot Down writer

young2
Youngcrumudgeon- One Foot Down writer

ndroyals2
NDRoyalsfan- One Foot Down writer


Manti Te'o was criticized for being one of the most naive athletes in modern history for the way he handled this relationship seemingly unaware of numerous red flags that popped up over the months and years. Our panel looks back at some of Manti's biggest mistakes from the ordeal.

walters1

John: As an alum of Notre Dame, I can tell you with 100% assurance that naivete in terms of interacting with the opposite sex is not a condition exclusive to Manti. If you're an alum, you're not all that surprised.

ritter1

Ryan: Te'o's naivety cost him in not just getting catfished, but also in not realizing that there would be people in the media that would love to tear him down about his feel good story. He should have been far more aggressive in defending himself once it was clear that this story was going to break. Manti could've been on camera and in front of the story on ESPN. Jack Swarbrick would have gotten on the record with multiple media outlets to defend him as well. However, for one reason or another, he decided against that path. In doing so, he lost initial control of the narrative and it cost him.

young2

Youngcrumudgeon: I can't comment about anything between him and the alleged Lennay, that's his personal business. I think he got caught embellishing a story a little bit and couldn't get himself out. But we've all been there, so even that is not the end of the world in my mind.

frank1

The only thing I would criticize him for in the entire situation is the fact that he referenced a couple times after he and the University initially learned of the hoax. That was the one sticking point for me since if there was any doubt in his mind at that time - he probably should have either deflected questions on not brought it up on his own.

arnold1

Keith: I think he's probably guilty of myth-building. But I tell people this all the time when they're skeptical of the kid and if he was in on it. Here's a guy who believes God told him to come to South Bend to play college football. That he believed he needed to be there for this girl - via phone, skype, whatever - only Manti. It's not as if there were a lot of great opportunities for Hawaiian Mormons in South Bend to find people like him. An internet relationship isn't that far-fetched.

fish

Fish: Arguing that Te'o should have acted differently strikes me as a "hindsight is 20-20" line of thinking. Based on who he was and what he was counseled to do, Te'o did what he did, and I don't think anything he did was objectively wrong. Things may have gone better for him had he acted differently - not engaging "Lennay" as he did, not insisting on meeting her face to face, not describing their relationship in vaguer terms, not telling his story with greater haste or in a different form, etc. And perhaps he would have acted in those other ways if he'd known what he knows now, just as we think he should have acted differently knowing what we knew after the whole thing unraveled. Expecting a 22 year old from the community he was from finishing four years under the shelter of the golden dome to make those decisions differently can perhaps only be wishful thinking.

ndroyals2

NDRoyalsfan: Initially, he probably did embellish the relationship a bit too much, and the lack of meeting when Kekua said she was in Hawaii should have probably tipped him off something wasn't quite right. After the investigation was completed, Manti breaking the story after the BCSNCG would probably have made things a lot easier on him. Lastly, after the Deadspin story was published, it seemed like he waited too long before appearing on camera to give his version of the events.


One of the more amazing (and frankly sadistic) aspects to this story that wasn't present in the original Deadspin report was how Tuiasosopo contacted Te'o during the ESPN Home Depot Awards Ceremony on December 6th and tried to convince him that Lennay was still alive. All of a sudden, Notre Dame's star linebacker had to deal with this while being showered in awards, traveling to the Heisman ceremony, and preparing for the National Title Game.

arnold1

What do you do? Call the FBI? Maybe that's what I'd do. But how do you even begin to do that? I think the shame and embarrassment of it all would've been just so overwhelmingly intense.

young2

I feel like I would have alerted those around me immediately, especially considering the odds that someone saying Lennay wasn't dead might have been the initial act of catfishing assuming he believed everything else.

walters1

Again, hindsight is easy. At the time how can I know how a 21 year-old kid was feeling emotionally?

frank1

I don't think anyone can honestly say how they would have reacted to that situation without actually being in it and at the same time don't think anyone can really critique how he reacted. It's easy to sit back and say what we would have done given two years of knowing all of the facts and background, but don't think anyone can realistically say how they would have reacted.

fish

Imagining ourselves into Te'o's position - practicing empathy - is and has been from the breaking of the story a valuable way to show a very basic human kindness here. It's also a way to find understanding within a chaotic and fundamentally incomprehensible situation. I don't know that any of us can imagine ourselves fully into Te'o's shoes when he received that December phone call saying that Lennay was alive, though we'd surely all like to think we'd be shrewder than he was.

manti3

ritter1

I wouldn't have known which way was up after that revelation. If I've just spent months trying to get over the death of someone I cared about only to hear someone say they are alive, I'd be beyond confused. Plus, there is the obvious embarrassment attached that I've been duped. That isn't exactly easy to come to terms with nor explain that to family and friends.

Still Manti told his closest friends at ND about the call two days after the Heisman ceremony. He told his bishop about it ten days later and then in another two weeks told his family. In total, that's three weeks to process this mess. Putting myself in his shoes, I probably don't wait as long to tell my family about it, but then again, I'm not sure I tell my friends so quickly about the phone call either and I'm certainly not telling my pastor about it. All things considered, three weeks doesn't exactly seem that long when you are going through a personal hell like this.

ndroyals2

I like to think I would have told my parents and close friends sooner than T'eo did, but the story was so strange, I don't really know how I would have reacted.

ritter1

I went back and checked the timeline of events that I had put together to try and make sense of this mess back in 2013. Te'o told his family about the hoax on Christmas and ND found out the day after. On January 2, a PI firm was hired. Two days later, they dug up some evidence and Swarbrick met with the Te'o family the following day. Two days later, the game happened. I just don't see any possible way that, with the biggest game of his life about to go down, that Manti, his family, Condon, or even Notre Dame decide that they need to go full speed ahead. They still needed more facts and everyone involved certainly knew that rushing things could make things far worse.

fish

Going public with an account of the hoax doesn't seem like it would possibly have been in the interest of anyone directly involved, and it would have produced unnecessary harm in the form of a very serious impediment for the Notre Dame team and coaches; it would also of course have been an intense and untimely distraction for many at the university, students, ND fans, college football fans, sports media, etc. I never wondered at all why they decided to wait until after the game.

ndroyals2

Considering Manti didn't find out the hoax until early December, the wheels would have had to turn pretty quickly for ND have even been able to go public with everything before the January 7 title game.

arnold1

No way. Football is about eliminating distractions? You want to welcome this one in? Yikes.

walters1

I would have gone public, as I said earlier. That way YOU own the mistake, not Deadspin. Classic example of bad p.r. advice.


Notre Dame would end up being trounced in the National Title Game 42-14 at the hands of Alabama. Could things have ever been different in that game?

walters1

No.

frank1

No. It's a nice thought and one a lot of Notre Dame fans have tossed out there, but Alabama was clearly the better team that night. I think the injuries that impacted Notre Dame's ability to hit much in practice had much more to do with their performance than the Manti Te'o story. I have no doubt that it impacted his performance, but not enough for it to have really impacted the outcome.

arnold1

Can we create a fake girlfriend for Eddie Lacy? I know we did that day for A.J. McCarron. I think Notre Dame plays that game 10 times, they win only once...especially after a month off, and that's only if they play it perfectly. A slow start both offensively and on defense and that was all she wrote. I remember being in the pressbox and talking about Mike Tyson's Punchout with somebody. You needed to get through the first two minutes to have a chance to beat Tyson in the Nintendo game. If he touched you, you were knocked down. I just wanted to see if the Irish could get through the first two minutes. They didn't.

ndroyals2

Alabama was clearly a better team than the Irish in Miami, and while Manti struggled in the BCSNCG, the problems were not limited to him. Manti at his best probably makes the game more competitive, but considering how well the Tide played, ND still loses by at least 10 points.

fish

I don't think the Te'o story kept Notre Dame from beating Alabama. I'm sure it kept Te'o and a few others on the team, including coaches, from performing at their very best, but it's impact wasn't game-deciding. Notre Dame's problem that night was Alabama, not Lennay Kekua. I do think the experience leading up to the game and going through it would have been much better personally for Te'o and the others who knew what storm was about to break had they not known it was coming.

ritter1

There is absolutely no chance in hell. I don't think any team in the nation could've beat that Alabama team that had a month of preparation under Saban. They were that good.

young2

I called that game on radio. The team I watched that day was not the same team I had watched throughout the season. Not the team that beat Oklahoma, USC, BYU, Stanford, etc. I know there were other things like injuries preventing contact during bowl prep and a variety of other factors that brought ND into that game slightly under-prepared. Ultimately I remember a lot of plays where Te'o seemingly was either a step behind or had a poor first step toward the play. It left me scratching my head a little bit because these were mental mistakes, not due to being overmatched athletically by Alabama.


One of the interesting bits to this story was the strong amount of merchandise that Notre Dame was able to move because of Manti Te'o and his difficulty overcoming these two deaths on his way to a historic season. The issues surrounding the NCAA and using players' likenesses was just about to blow up back then and is now a big part of college athletics discussions.

ritter1

Beyond the one lei-themed shirt was there really anything else besides the usual #5 jerseys (which could also be attributed to Goslon)? I mean, yeah, it's certainly awkward in hindsight on several levels, but not to the point in which I think Notre Dame was trying to completely exploit Manti and his story to make a quick buck. Plus, the fans really took to the lei thing organically making any official themed merch rather pointless.

walters1

Business as usual. How were they to know? Again, it's not just that he was an outstanding player. He was a sincere, pious guy. Plus, he'd committed to Notre Dame when the program was at an ebb. He was seen as a savior of sorts. Certainly as a hero.

leishirt

5hat

fish

The only Manti Te'o-themed product I recall were dark blue #5 t-shirts with a white lei printed on them. I thought that was pushing the line a bit.

ndroyals2

As someone that bought a #5 ND jersey that fall, it was somewhat embarrassing to find out about the hoax, but I still wear the jersey to games from time to time. The impending lawsuits and debates over amateurism make me question the decision to sell so many #5 memorabilia much more than the hoax, however.

arnold1

I had a friend who made Te'o Heisman t-shirts. They threw a lei around the next of the statue and put Manti's face on them. He had to have sold 50 of them before the USC game. Planned to give the proceeds to a leukemia foundation and then got drunk at a tailgate and lost the envelope stuffed with cash somewhere around the Coliseum. With guilt, he donated he own money to the charity. Then they contacted him and gave back the money because it was given under false pretenses. I'm guessing he took it and was relieved.

frank1

I don't find any fault in selling any of those products. People tend to forget that even though the whole girlfriend hoax happened, Manti did go out and play a gutty performance right after he lost his grandmother. Even without the girlfriend angle, that would still have been a big story and still very likely could have fueled the same level of marketing approach.


A few months later in the spring Manti Te'o would be drafted with the 6th pick of the 2nd Round by the San Diego Chargers after being considered a 1st Round talent throughout the 2012 football season.

walters1

I think the catfish drama hurt Manti, not because he isn't trustworthy, but because NFL GMs wondered how savvy he is as an adult. Also, that he might not be tough enough to handle NFL locker rooms.

young2

Cam Newton, Aaron Hernandez, the list goes on of guys who have had far more serious off-field issues who were still highly coveted come the NFL draft. I think his performance at the Combine and the simple reality that in the biggest game against superior competition he did not play well explains his draft selection much better than anything related to the scandal.

fish

I didn't believe the hoax would have a big impact on Te'o's draft status, nor, more importantly, on his success in the NFL, once the story was laid out in full. I thought that once all the evidence was there for front offices to interpret themselves, once the teams had sat in a room with Te'o and talked to him, they would recognize the relative insignificance of the whole thing to making their hiring decisions. I have no doubt that Te'o's size and Combine performance, alongside those of all the other athletes present and the teams' needs, determined where he fell in the draft.

sportscenter

ritter1

I thought it would affect his draft status, but not too much. NFL teams are weird in how they manage off-the-field issues of all types and rarely does it ever seem consistent. That all being said, his Combine performance is what killed him. Not only does he have the catfish thing hanging over his head, but now it looks like it got to him physically and he couldn't bounce back.

frank1

I tend to agree that his combine performance - specifically his 40 yard dash time - combined with his performance in the BCS Championship impacted his draft status more than anything else. I'm sure the catfish saga had some minimal impact but at the end of the day, Te'o was still the 3rd linebacker taken in the draft after running a poor enough 40 yard dash time to cause concerns. I think the 40 yard dash in general is overvalued by the NFL, but when he clocked a 4.8 at the Combine I think his fate was determined.

arnold1

I didn't think it would matter, but it's tough to say that it didn't. I think NFL guys had him pegged as a softie, as someone who wasn't a predator but prey. That's not what you want from a middle linebacker. Combine that with a less-than-freaky physical skill-set and a position that's not always a high draft pick, and a second round plummet makes sense, even if it drives you nuts.

ndroyals2

While I think a few teams might have passed on him due to the cafish saga, I think his size/speed was probably a bigger factor.


It seems assured that we'll never see another story quite like this one. Our panel talks about how they've discussed this topic with people who thought Manti's girlfriend 'never existed' and the one memory that stick out as the strangest and weirdest part of the whole saga.

arnold1

I gave up after a while. People are going to believe what they want to believe. Especially on something as polarizing as this story - it had all the makings of a political scandal. But yeah, I think I explained the story to a few dozen people - friends, neighbors, sportstalk radio hosts - and they all listened, paused, and said something like, "I think he was in on it," or, "Is he some kind of idiot?" Save the oxygen.

young2

I spent most of the time explaining that he wasn't in on the scam and that he was really that nice of a guy to fall victim to it.

frank1

Honestly, I have not really heard too much at all about this story from casual observers since it happened. I think once it was proven Manti was an innocent victim in all of this combined with the rising awareness of "catfishing" being an actual thing, people just lost interest in the story.

walters1

People learn in sound bytes these days. Explaining nuance is a fool's errand.

ndroyals2

Most of the people I've talked to about the incident realized that there was someone else at the other end. The bigger misconception seems to be people still thinking that T'eo was involved and orchestrated the whole thing.

fish

Who didn't find themselves explaining this story to their parents, family, and friends in the weeks after the Deadspin story broke? I got my "brief history of Manti Te'o getting catfished" down to about 30 seconds pretty quickly.

ritter1

I still have to explain that there was another person involved. I still have to explain that Manti was a victim. It's incredible that's still the case two years later.

young2

The thing that bothered me about the story, even during the season, was how the part about his grandmother dying seemed to fade into the background. I obviously didn't deduce anything from this, I just thought it was odd that her story took a backseat to that of Lennay and disappeared. After the story broke, I was surprised that it wasn't brought up again to demonstrate that at least some of the narrative had factual basis.

fish

The two things that stick out to me as weirdest from the whole unfurling of the story were the NFL player saying that he had met Lennay Kekua and Roniah Tuiasosopo's cousin in American Samoa saying that she was the voice of Lennay on the phone. Those loose ends were never tied up for me, and I wish I knew what those two were thinking coming forward like that and whether they were sincere.

ndroyals2

Hearing the words "Deadspin" and "catfishing" on the nightly news was pretty surreal. Talking to my dad a few hours after the story broke was also one of the stranger conversations I've had with him. Additionally, the LSUFreek gif below.


walters1What sticks out to me is how much detail was in Thamel's story (the walk-through before the UM or MSU game) and yet obvious questions were never addressed. In hindsight, and I stress, IN HINDSIGHT, it's so obvious. Should be a teaching moment for every J-School for the next 20 years....

frank1

To me it was the Dr. Phil interview. I think almost anyone else in the media could have done a better job with it and in general was made the situation even more awkward - something I didn't think was possible.

ritter1

Dr. Phil getting the Tuiasosopo interview. I feel like the entire story went straight to plaid at that point.

arnold1

Ronaiah doing the voice for Dr. Phil. It doesn't get any weirder than that.