In January of 2013, after his Notre Dame team had finished a remarkable football season and he had won many of college football’s top awards, Manti Te’o became embroiled in a scandal as America quickly got an education in “catfishing.”
Te’o wasn’t just the team’s best player; he was also the figure at the center of a fairy tale-like narrative that had unfolded throughout the fall.
As he had told major media outlets, his grandmother and girlfriend had died within hours of one another on the same day.
The senior line-backer had dedicated his season in their honour, and as the Irish continued to chalk up wins, the story grew bigger and bigger.
If only it had all been true.
The tale of all that was revealed next – that the girlfriend didn’t exist, and was part of a “catfishing” hoax, uncovered a few days after the season by Deadspin.com – is the subject of the latest episode of Backstory, the ESPN documentary series featuring the investigative reporting of three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Don Van Natta, Jr.
“This strange, complicated tale ranks among one of the more challenging stories of my 30-plus year journalism career,” says Van Natta.
“Eight years later, there are plenty of lingering, intriguing questions about the saga. Among them: Was Te’o complicit with his catfisher? And when talking with reporters, did Te’o purposefully or inadvertently fuel the legend with the words he chose about his girlfriend, whom he described as ‘the love of my life?’ And what does it say about media-made myths and the stories we all find irresistible?”
The hour-long episode examines not only the still hard-to-believe truth that Te’o was able to tell his tale to the biggest media entities in sports, but also the behind-the-scenes machinations that took place once it became inevitable after the season that the real story would come to light.
As part of his pursuit to get to the bottom of what happened, Van Natta corresponds with Te’o himself over the phone and through text messaging – before pursuing a follow-up on-camera interview.
Recently married and now a member of the Chicago Bears practice squad, Te’o proved to be a tantalizing subject for Van Natta to explore.
“Doubts about many aspects of his story still linger to this day,” Van Natta says.
“And I believe that’s explained, in part, by the careful way Te’o told his story back in 2013 and has said nothing about it since. And, as I discovered in recent months, Te’o and his handlers are continuing to carefully manage the way he chooses to answer a reporter’s questions.”
In the end, it’s a story that’s still shadowed by questions about who knew what when, and how intentional and malicious the deception was.
After its initial airing, the program will be available for on-demand viewing on the ESPN App and will be available to stream on ESPN+ in late January.
Backstory debuted in August of 2019 with Serena vs. The Umpire, followed in January of this year with Banned for Life and with The Decision in June. All three previous episodes are available to stream on ESPN+.
Backstory: The Tale of Te’o premieres Sunday, January 3, at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.