Manti Te’o in the Netflix documentary “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist.” The two-part film was co-directed by Utah filmmaker Tony Vainuku.
Before agreeing to direct “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist,” a Netflix documentary that revisits the Manti Te’o catfishing saga, Tony Vainuku wanted to talk to Te’o. Specifically, he wanted to know how Te’o was doing and why he hadn’t told his story.
Thanks to the filmmaker’s work on “In Football We Trust,” which explores a Polynesian community in Salt Lake City and the pressures on that community to play football at the professional level, Vainuku was able to get access to Te’o.
He hopped onto a Zoom call with the former Heisman Trophy candidate and star linebacker for Notre Dame. Although he had never met Te’o until that moment, Vainuku knew this was the right time for the documentary.
“I immediately know that Manti is ready to tell the story,” he told the Deseret News last year, shortly before the documentary hit Netflix last August.
It’s now been five months since “Untold” premiered. Since then, Te’o — who turns 32 on Jan. 26 — was inducted into the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame and welcomed a second child into his family.
Here’s a look back at how “Untold” came together.
Getting Manti Te’o on board with ‘Untold’
Te’o was ready to share his story, but it took a couple of months to get things rolling.
A lot of people were involved in the story, including Te’o’s family and Te’o’s perpetrator, Naya Tuiasosopo, who has since come out as a trans woman.
And Te’o — who became the center of a media firestorm in 2013 when it was revealed that his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, did not really exist and was actually the social media creation of Tuiasosopo — had some hesitation about getting in front of the camera.
“He had a lot of distrust for the media because they ultimately betrayed him in a lot of ways,” Vainuku said, noting that he and Te’o bonded over their shared Polynesian culture and his 2015 film “In Football We Trust.” “He was willing to retell his story, not willing to relive his trauma.”
Vainuku said he worked on establishing trust with Te’o, making it clear that he wasn’t going to “exploit” the football player.
“We weren’t going to push anything that he wasn’t ready for,” said Vainuku, who grew up in Salt Lake City and graduated from Westminster College. “I went into the project with no judgment. I was just open to whatever he was going to tell us, whatever he needed to share, and helping him feel safe doing that. It was going to be on his terms.”
For Te’o, that included making sure all sides of the story were featured in the documentary. Although Te’o hadn’t communicated with Tuiasosopo in the years since the catfishing hoax, he was adamant that she be included in the project, Vainuku said.
Once all of the parts were in place, Vainuku spent a few days interviewing Te’o, letting him tell his own story in his own words.
“My jaw dropped the whole time,” the director said.
Manti Te’o shares his story
Vainuku said he was “taken aback” by Te’o’s interview — his vulnerability and willingness to share his story and inspire others.
“He’s so genuine with how much he loves his fans, that it was important for him to not only tell his story for himself, but to answer all the questions that everybody had,” Vainuku said. “He wanted to leave it all on the table. And fortunately, he gave me and the team an opportunity to do that with him.”
In “Untold,” Te’o reveals how his transition to the NFL in the aftermath of the catfishing scandal was riddled with anxiety, the Deseret News previously reported. During his first preseason game with the San Diego Chargers, Te’o said his entire body felt numb.
It would be like that for three seasons with the Chargers.
Every day Te’o tried to get rid of the anxiety. He listened to motivational talks, watched old footage of his Notre Dame football days and tried to remember who he was before it all. But eventually, he ended up going to therapy, where he finally had his major breakthrough.
During one session, Te’o’s therapist asked if he had forgiven Tuiasosopo. Te’o didn’t even hesitate in responding. He had been quick to forgive his perpetrator.
And then his therapist asked him a follow-up question: Had he forgiven himself?
“For you to go through what you went through, deep down inside you’re questioning yourself,’” Te’o recalled his therapist saying in the documentary. “You have to forgive that kid. What happened to you is not your fault. It’s OK. Forgive that kid.”
The timing of the documentary, Vainuku said, allowed for the complete story to be told. Over the 10 years since the hoax, Te’o had been able to process and work through his emotions, and he was now in a better position to share that journey with his fans.
“I hope that they’re finally able to put to bed all the speculation from back then, and really just experience this story on a human level,” Vainuku said.
For the filmmaker, one of the most powerful parts of “Untold” comes near the end — a monologue from Te’o that makes him cry every single time.
“You’re gonna have hundreds and thousands and millions of people that tell you, ‘You ain’t worth nothing, man,’” Te’o says. “But there’s gonna be the one that’s gonna say, ‘You’re worth the world to me,’ and I play for that person.
“I’ll take all the jokes, I’ll take all the memes, so I can be an inspiration to the one who needs me to be.”
“Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist” is available on Netflix.