While the bulk of the documentary presents an in-depth version of the story we’re familiar with, its most compelling new material chronicles the aftermath. At its core, this is a story about two young people healing from the damage of experiences the rest of us are only beginning to understand.
After everything went down, Naya went to American Samoa, where she found an LGBTQ community that helped her feel comfortable transitioning. She was so removed from public view that nobody else in the film has any idea what her life has been like in recent years. Early on, the documentary provides a disclosure noting that its interview subjects misgender her and refer to her by her deadname because they weren’t aware she is trans. This unfortunate complication neuters some of the potency from the film’s heartfelt final moment, as Te’o says, “I forgive him. And I hope and pray that him and his family is cool. ‘Cause that’s all that I can wish for him.”
That show of grace offers a useful resolution to the story, but it’s clear the emotions are still raw, the process ongoing. Naya speaks about Te’o with the tenderness befitting an ex you still have love for. Te’o’s voice catches and he starts to cry when he tries to talk about the moment he found out that Lennay had died. Lost in the messy details that absorbed our attention was the fundamental reality that this saga began as a tale about two teens in love and ended with their three-year relationship shattering suddenly and traumatically. Whatever might have been fake about it, the feelings were as real as can be.
With news cameras swaming, the life-changing money of a professional football career on the line, and his golden reputation shredded into a heap of mockery, 21-year-old Te’o was left to unpack the realization that his most serious adolescent romance was with a man, grappling with a worldview shaped in a generation that grew up using “gay” as a generic slur, a sport that prized hypermasculinity, and a religious faith that didn’t recognize same-sex marriage.
For Te’o, months of mourning his grandmother and girlfriend were immediately followed by months of being the subject of one of the most embarrassing public spectacles in recent memory, one that ultimately cost him millions of dollars because it seemed to contribute to him getting selected later in the NFL Draft.
He became famous beyond the sports page for his displays of emotional resilience, only to become infamous for an incident that tested that emotional resilience.
We are familiar with people persevering through certain kinds of tragedies. An athlete loses a loved one and plays in their honor, inspiring all. In high school, Chris Paul scored 61 points after his 61-year-old grandfather died. With “RIP Sis” scrawled in marker on his sneakers, Isaiah Thomas scored 33 points in a playoff game the night after his sister died in a car crash. Brett Favre threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns the day after his dad died. Many other such performances are etched into sporting lore.
Those stories are moving, and we love them because we all lose loved ones and must manage to move forward. Te’o was the latest in a long line of tropes, playing through the grief with a sacred purpose. He might have never been through something like that before, but he had seen others go through it, and he knew how he was supposed to carry himself, what he was supposed to do, how to properly honor them.
But there was no script for what came next. “I didn’t know who to talk to,” Te’o says in the doc, explaining that he did whatever his crisis management consultants advised. “Honestly, I didn’t wanna say anything.” It was such a big story because we had never seen such a thing at such a scale. Dude was in uncharted waters. This wasn’t about persevering in the wake of tragedy, or asking for forgiveness after immoral acts, or rebranding a persona associated with a toxic reputation. This was about getting clowned pure and simple, your most embarrassing experience broadcast for everybody to see on the biggest stage, a show starring you but the jokes are on you, all happening back when we were so enthusiastic and relentless and extra snarky on the internet, when those mass pile-ons still felt novel, maybe even harmless.