Latter-day Saint Life

Former NFL and Notre Dame star shares how he found hope after public humiliation and depression

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 26:   Manti Te'o #51 of the New Orleans Saints looks on from the sideline during the second half of a game against the Los Angeles Rams at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 26, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
While he played in the National Football League until 2021, Manti Te’o says he’s playing a different game now—helping people know they’re not alone in their struggles.
Sean M. Haffey, Getty Images

In 2012, Manti Te’o was the victim of a high-profile catfishing incident. For almost a year, he thought he was in a relationship with a woman he had only texted and spoken with on the phone. He one day received news that this woman had died. But months later, he received a call from the allegedly deceased girlfriend—and realized the relationship wasn’t what he thought.

The media soon uncovered and released a report that Manti’s “girlfriend,” Lennay Kukua, was actually an online persona invented by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who now goes by Naya, to exchange text messages and calls with Manti.

Manti was widely ridiculed as the target of an elaborate hoax, becoming the subject of countless memes and jokes. Although he was one of three finalists for the 2012 Heisman Trophy and had one of the most decorated college football careers in National Collegiate Athletic Association history, his athletic accomplishments were often overshadowed by controversies surrounding the scam.

Manti recently spoke to Morgan Pearson on the All In podcast about his experience, reflecting on how his faith in Jesus Christ has allowed him to find forgiveness and renewed purpose after the public humiliation.

At first, he questioned why his willingness to try to do what’s right and see the best in others led to being catfished. “I was the first one to stick my hand out there when somebody needed my help,” Manti says. “It was just something that I couldn’t stop because I knew the impact that I could have on somebody. And it got me in trouble.”

Grappling with these questions and the hurt he felt brought him to a dark place. But ultimately, rock bottom helped him find a firm foundation in Christ:

“In a society where a lot of people feel alone, … I’ve been there. I know how that feels. And because I know how that feels, I also know that there is one person who understands exactly how I feel.

“And it was the Savior Himself when He went to that garden, and He took upon Himself, not only the sins of the world, … [but also] felt every depression, every pain—whether it be physical, mental, emotional, spiritual—He felt it all.”

This testimony has allowed Manti to guide others to Christ in their darkest moments. As he has shared his story, most recently in the Netflix documentary Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, many people across the globe have contacted him to thank him for turning them to God.

“If that’s the type of impact that this [trial] has, then I’m grateful for it,” Manti shared on the podcast.

▶You may also like: Manti Te’o: Everyone’s new favorite example of redemption and Christlike forgiveness on Netflix

And while he played in the National Football League until 2021, Manti says he’s playing a different game now—helping people know they’re not alone in their struggles.

“Because I’ve experienced that full spectrum [of experiences], I can relate to a lot of people in different times of their lives,” Manti says. “I’ve seen the summit of what this world can offer, … but then I’ve also experienced the fall …. I know what depression feels like. I know what it feels like to have those thoughts in your head of like, ‘Man, why am I even here?’”

Moving through trials or depression sometimes feels like playing offense against the devil, but with God as His coach, Manti knows that good ultimately overcomes evil. “I know what team I’m playing for, and because I know what team I’m on, I know that [the devil has] no power over me.”

In the wake of the catfishing scandal, there were times when he felt like staying in a dark room all day. But he tried to focus on taking just one step forward—even half a step—with God’s help.

To those struggling with depression, Manti recommends:

“Sometimes all you have is a step. When you're going through those dark days where you’re battling those demons inside, sometimes the best thing to do is just sitting up and getting up.”

Manti’s sister reminded him that moving through trials is an opportunity to metaphorically walk through Gethsemane with Christ—and help walk with others through their personal Gethsemanes as well.

As President Jeffrey R. Holland has taught, “Because Jesus walked such a long, lonely path utterly alone, we do not have to do so.”

This perspective has allowed Manti to let go, finding healing through forgiveness. “My life has benefited tremendously from being able to forgive—and to forgive not only the person that did it to me but to also forgive myself,” he says. “I really followed what the Savior would have done, and I know what the Savior has done.”

▶Recommended for you: While wrongly imprisoned for 537 days, this father had one scripture story permanently bookmarked

To learn more about Manti’s story, listen to the full episode in the player below or find All In on your favorite streaming platform.

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