Te'o also opened up about losing out on millions on NFL draft day amid the catfishing controversy.
Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist isn't a Netflix docuseries about Manti Te'o. It's also not a story about his famous catfisher, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. In Te'o's words, it's the story that answers lingering questions -- from both sides -- about the most famous and controversial catfish case ever, and Te'o knew it'd be incomplete without his catfisher's cooperation.
The 31-year-old former Notre Dame and NFL star spoke to ET's Kevin Frazier on the heels of Untold dropping on Netflix, and Te'o reacts to Ronaiah -- now a transgender woman who goes by Naya -- participating in the docuseries in which she offers her thought process and points of view.
Te'o said seeing Naya in the two-part docuseries (streaming now on Netflix) was the first time he'd ever heard her side of the story, but her appearances didn't come as a total surprise. In fact, Te'o practically orchestrated it.
"I'm grateful that Naya was able to go on there, and I'm sure it wasn't comfortable for Naya as well, but I wanted it," Te'o tells ET. "I told [Untold directors] Tony Vainuku and Ryan Duffy I wanted it to be the story. That’s what was so great. Everybody said it's my story. No, I wanted it to be the story. [Because] when this thing comes out I don’t want it to just be one-sided. I didn’t want it to just be me. I wanted it to be everybody. And again, it was the entire truth and I think that's what people really love about it. There was no stone left unturned, and definitely it was a powerful experience."
Te'o drew worldwide headlines in January 2013 after a Deadspin investigation revealed his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua -- who had been involved in a scary car crash and later diagnosed with leukemia -- didn't exist. Deadspin's headline read, "Manti Te'o's Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking And Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax."
Before the hoax came to light, Te'o's story served as an inspiration. He had a monster senior year as a linebacker. Notre Dame went undefeated. Te'o became a Heisman Trophy finalist (losing to Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel) and the Fighting Irish's undefeated season landed them atop the college football rankings and a spot in the national championship game. Notre Dame ultimately got beaten soundly by Alabama.
Then, it all came crashing down soon after amid Te'o was preparing for the 2013 NFL Draft. It would come to light that the inspirational story -- that his girlfriend died on the same day and just hours after his grandmother died -- was nothing but an elaborate hoax. Pundits and outraged fans insisted Te'o was complicit -- many asking, "How could he have gotten duped?" -- as Te'o fought tooth and nail to dispel the narrative that he was in on the hoax.
Te'o's stock plummeted. He would become 2013's most hated athlete in America, ahead of Lance Armstrong (who admitted to lying about taking performance enhancing drugs) and Tiger Woods (plagued by a tabloid-fueled sex scandal).
Not just that, Te'o literally lost out on millions of dollars due to the catfishing controversy. Once a projected first-round selection at the 2013 NFL Draft, Te'o shockingly dropped to the second round. CNBC estimated Te'o's dramatic fall in the draft cost him at least $8 million.
Te'o was sure he'd go in the first round, so much so he had a watch party, and his agent assured him it was only a matter of where in the first round he'd end up. The watch party was attended by dozens of family members in Hawaii, only for them all to be left dejected after all 32 teams passed on him in the first round. He didn't get chosen until the next day when the San Diego Chargers selected him with the 38th pick in the second round.
But Te'o doesn't think about the millions he lost out on. He can't. He won't let himself.
"The beautiful thing about it is we'll never know," Te'o says of exactly how many millions the catfish controversy cost him. "So, why am I gonna stress about that? Yes, [there were] millions of dollars that [were] potentially lost but what was meant for me was meant for me. I was meant to be the 38th pick in the 2013 draft, and that’s how I live."
"I don’t try to live my life in the what ifs because that’s gonna stress you out," he continued. "That’s just gonna put you in a space where you’re not at peace with it. And that’s my thing I've been chasing, peace. For so long, and once I obtained that and once I captured it I didn't wanna go back to that. I don’t wanna go back to the chaos, so I live right where I’m at right now."
As for what made him revisit the most painful moment of his life, Te'o says he had an epiphany courtesy of his then-New Orleans Saints superstar teammate, Cam Jordan. Te'o says a group of them went to a JAY-Z concert in 2017 and it was at that concert where Jordan all but made him confront his past with sincerity.
"He said, '[You] cannot heal what you don't reveal,'" Te'o says. "And at that time that was something that I felt needed to push me and I challenged myself from then on to to be more open about it. Whenever anybody would ask about the situation I would have those uncomfortable conversations with people and I started to feel that I started to gain a lot of strength from those conversations. I started to feel a lot of love and support from the people that were asking me, and that was something that was definitely different."
And, when it came time to agreeing to the Netflix docuseries, it was no easy task. Vainuku, however, made a compelling case when he approached Te'o about participating in the docuseries.
"In 2020, when Vainuku reached out to me, I was already at a place of peace," Te'o explains. "I've already had those three years [since the Cam Jordan conversation in 2017] to grow. And by our conversation [Vainuku] could tell that, so he told me he was like, 'Bro, you're ready to tell it. You know you should tell it.' And I told him I didn't feel the need to. I'm good now. I'm at peace with everything. My life is going well, but I told him I'll talk to my family and my parents about it, and during that time I still felt like people had questions.
"I felt that they didn't have the [background] for it," Te'o continued. "They were just doing it [supporting him] out of love and so I felt, 'What a great opportunity for two parties, one who's ready to tell it and another one who's willing to tell it the right way to come together and do a beautiful project.' I felt like it was beautiful."
Today, Te'o tells ET he's done with the NFL. He admits his best days are behind him. But he has other joys and challenges in his life. His wife of two years, Jovi Nicole Engbino, is expecting the family's first boy. She gave birth to a baby girl in August 2021. Te'o, who jokes his "first-born" is actually his loyal English bulldog companion, Prince, is also excited for his wife, who is currently in nursing school.
He's only 31 but Te'o has accomplished so much in the sports world only some can dream about. But the highs -- and especially the lows -- on and off the field are far and away the things that least define him.
"I'm a family man," Te'o says. "And I think that’s the beautiful part of it is, through all of this, I understand what’s important to me, and what’s important to me is my family and that’s always going to be first and foremost in my life."