‘I owe this school everything’: Irish football legend Manti Te’o returns to Notre Dame, addresses team before Cal

For the first time since his Netflix documentary, “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist,” Irish football legend and Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te’o was back on Notre Dame’s campus. This was Te’o’s fourth visit back to South Bend, and it was a warm homecoming for the former linebacker; when he was announced in Notre Dame Stadium, the applause he received brought Te’o to tears. While its layout has changed significantly since his time in Irish uniform, he said that Notre Dame itself remains a home for him each time he returns.

“There’s just so many new things, but as far as the feel, it’s always the same,” Te’o said. “Home is always going to be home. You know, on a good day, bad day, when you go home that’s … that’s your sanctuary. And that’s what Notre Dame is for me.”

For Notre Dame being his home, Te’o mentioned how he enjoys seeing the Notre Dame family when he attends game days. Te’o said that he always stops by several locations on campus, including South Dining Hall — checking to see if the cooks are still working there —and touches base with familiar ushers and Guglielmino Athletic Complex workers.

Starting with Te’o, three members of the Notre Dame linebacker corps in the past decade have gone on to win the prestigious Dick Butkus Award; the most recent recipient for the Irish was Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in 2020. When asked about the type of standard he wants set for Notre Dame following this success, Te’o said that although he is proud to be an award winner and wants more accolades like this for the program, he merely wants each player to perform at their best.

“I want everybody to be at the top of their game. Because if we’re all at the top of the game, it gives us the best opportunity to get the main prize,” Te’o said. “I don’t really preach specific excellence. I want excellence overall for everybody. Because if everybody’s on their P’s and Q’s, we’re gonna win the big one.”

The Irish entered the game 0-2 on Saturday, with hopes of being in the running to win “the big one” dimming significantly. Though the team has struggled, head coach Marcus Freeman has still received support from fans in the wake of his 1-3 record as the leader of the program. Te’o said that he reached out to Freeman when he was initially hired to tell him how happy he was for his promotion. 

Te’o compared Freeman to Bob Diaco, former assistant coach of the Notre Dame football program that led the team to a National Championship showing. This comparison, Te’o said, bodes well for the team moving forward.

“He reminds me of Coach Diaco to me, just somebody that you will literally do anything for, and I think that as a head coach is the most important thing that you could establish with your players,” Te’o said. “That’s what kind of led to all of our success in 2012 on the defensive side of the ball, is because all of us guys on the field would do anything for Coach Diaco … and now they have it as the head man, so what a great blessing, opportunity.”

This sentiment extends to Te’o himself. The Irish alum participated in the Notre Dame football team’s Victory March, stopping first to address the crowd in front of Hesburgh Library. In his speech, he noted that Freeman had reached out to him to give the Notre Dame community a boost ahead of Saturday’s game against Cal, to which he responded, “I’m there, Coach.”

Along with this showing, Te’o spoke to the players ahead of Saturday’s game. He likened the team to his “little brothers,” noting that he has kept in contact with a few of them over the years and addressed them as someone who has gone through similar experiences before.

“I’ve sat in those seats … I know you guys can’t see the forest from the trees, but I’m that older brother that’s hovering in the helicopter over you that’s helping you navigate your way,” Te’o said about his pre-game speech. “When they had their notepads out, they were writing notes and I was like, man, that meant a lot to me. You know, meaning that they were like, ‘OK, he has something to say that I need to hear.’”

Te’o said that in addressing an then 0-2 team, he spoke on how the game relates to life in general and gave them motivation moving forward into their eventual victory over the Golden Bears.

“That’s the greatest thing about football: It’s the greatest parallel to life,” Te’o said. “It’s not gonna start off the way that you wanted it to. Keep going. Like, life’s not always gonna be the way you want it to be. Keep going. And so, you can’t do anything about 0-2, but you can do something today.”

Te’o mentioned that he misses the “chess game” of football, but that it is really the relationships he misses the most. He said that, even though his schedule is already busy, he wanted to come back and speak to the team because of the impact Notre Dame has had on his life.

“I owe Notre Dame everything,” Te’o said. “I was asked a question yesterday: ‘What is the best decision I ever made?’ And I said, ‘There’s two, there’s two of them. One, to marry my wife because she’s the anchor in my life. And she’s given me a daughter and a son on the way. And the second was to come to this school. And so I owe this school everything.”


‘The Girlfriend That Didn’t Exist’: The story behind the legend

If you’re like me, you remember the 2013 BCS National Championship Game between Notre Dame and Alabama as the cementation of the SEC’s dominance over college football since the turn of the millennium. That season was the last time Notre Dame competed for a national title and the last time the team featured a Heisman Trophy finalist. Central to the mythos of the Fighting Irish’s undefeated campaign was the perseverance of said finalist, Manti Te’o, following the death of his grandmother and girlfriend on the same day in the middle of the season. In the aftermath of the title defeat, a bizarre truth emerged which grasped the sports world by storm: Te’o’s girlfriend was not a real person. Netflix’s two-part documentary released in August, “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist,” narrates the story of the highest-profile catfishing scheme of all time.

The documentary appeals to Fighting Irish die-hard fans and those uninclined to athletics alike. Get ready to travel back in time to early 2010s social media, when Facebook, Myspace and Xanga were still in vogue. Enjoy news anchors, congresswomen and Notre Dame leadership sounding like fools. Watch Te’o yawn as he walks out of O’Neill Hall, possibly on his way to SDH for some coffee. See the Hawaiian flag in his dorm room. Listen to the birds calling out down by Saint Mary’s Lake as you flash to Carroll Hall’s game day banner. Shiver at the sound of “Notre Dame, Our Mother” as light flickers back at you off a snowy Golden Dome. Sit back and enjoy a millennial’s “Rudy.” Observer a colorful “Knute Rockne, All American.”

The two-hour saga is as good as the final word we’re ever going to get on the Te’o incident. Any suspicions concerning the possibility of an active role by Te’o in the hoax are carefully dispelled in interviews with Te’o’s friends, family and the linebacker himself. The film reveals that the catfisher who masqueraded as Lennay Kekua, the fictional girlfriend, has since come out as a transgender woman, Naya Tuiasosopo.

Though it does not completely dispel the suspicion that Te’o knew at some level that he was interacting with a non-existent human being, the film does an excellent job of showing how Te’o might have fallen for the con. Several voicemails from Kekua to Te’o are played back and the voice sounds assuredly female. Tuiasosopo built an elaborate network around the Kekua Facebook account consisting of sham family members and friends, so potential male crushes would trust she was truly a person. Still, it is quite questionable that Te’o never grew suspicious when Kekua spurned all requests to meet in person or over FaceTime. I suppose one could get away with technological excuses such as claiming to have a cracked screen or poor connection in 2012, but that does not change the fact that Te’o told the entire world he had a girlfriend having never once looked upon her live, moving face.

The best parts of the film reveal the numerous character similarities between Te’o and Tuiasosopo. Both hailed from large Polynesian families who valued football. Tuiasosopo played quarterback in high school and her father was a signal-caller at USC. Both Te’o and Tuiasosopo belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their daily conversations revolved around religion and worship. Behind the veil of the fake Facebook profile, this was a real relationship. No doubt Te’o would have been devastated after hearing of Kekua’s death only a few short hours after being informed of his grandmother’s death. It was genuine emotion driving Te’o on the field during the 2012 football season. Tuiasosopo played an undisputed, behind-the-scenes part in leading the Fighting Irish to their last National Championship. As Notre Dame football begins a new era under head coach Marcus Freeman, perhaps the team will write a new mythical chapter in the history of Notre Dame football. Will it involve the faked death of the fabricated girlfriend of the team’s premier player? Probably not.

Title: “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist”

Directors: Tony Vainuku and Ryan Duffy

Starring: Manti Te’o

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5