Sports Nut

I Was Manti Te’o

Don’t believe anyone could fall for a man pretending to be a woman over the phone? It happened to me.

Manti Te'o.

Manti Te’o

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Late one night in 2004, during my first cross-country book tour, the phone rang in my motel room in Austin, Texas. I picked up, and a woman began whispering to me on the other end of the line. She told me her name was Nicole. Though I had no idea who she was and had never had phone sex before, within 20 minutes she’d coaxed me into it. A good time was had by all.

I gave Nicole my cell number, and in the months that followed, we developed a relationship. While phone sex remained an ingredient, we mostly shared the day-to-day nuts and bolts of our lives. We never said “I love you,” but my regular calls with Nicole offered nourishment, stability, and meaningful connection.

Eighteen months after our first phone call, I returned to Austin to finally meet Nicole in person. Except the person I met wasn’t Nicole. As I explained in a 2006 essay in GQ, it was a man named Aaron.

Aaron confessed that he’d concocted the “Nicole” voice at 15 because he’d had a crush on a football player at his school and had wanted to find a way to be close to him, even if it was only over the phone. In the years since, he’d had phone relationships with dozens of guys as Nicole. He’d found that these connections left him less emotionally vulnerable than having a real-life boyfriend and—despite their obvious limitations—were ultimately more satisfying.

Given my experience with Nicole/Aaron, I’ve naturally been caught up in the unfolding Manti Te’o/Lennay Kekua/Ronaiah Tuiasosopo story these past few weeks. A lot of questions still remain unanswered at this point, but I feel like I’m in a position to illuminate a few things that others find mystifying.

Is it really possible to be fooled into thinking a man’s voice is a woman’s? It happened to me. While in retrospect there was something just a tiny bit off about Aaron’s “Nicole” voice, he’d spent more than a decade crafting and honing it and had found a way to channel the sound of a woman. It seems that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo had been similarly cultivating his “Lennay Kekua” voice and persona for years. Those voice mails from Lennay certainly sound feminine, whether it was Ronaiah acting as Lennay and producing the voice, as he demonstrated during his interview with Dr. Phil, or Ronaiah’s female cousin Tino, as the New York Post previously reported.

After I learned Nicole’s true identity, I felt that I should’ve been more suspicious all along, but it’s easy to silence any doubt when you’re enjoying an appealing fantasy. If Te’o found meaning and connection in his calls with this woman he’d stumbled upon online, there was no incentive for him to question it.

Is Manti Te’o gay? Is Ronaiah Tuiasosopo? Ronaiah told Dr. Phil he was “lost” and “confused” with regard to his sexuality. The rest of us are probably less confused. Anyone who pursues a series of romantic relationships with guys by disguising his voice as a woman seems likely to be gay. As it happens, Aaron/“Nicole” grew up in the same kind of religious environment as Ronaiah, where homosexuality was considered monstrous. To a conflicted soul, Aaron told me, a phone relationship with a man felt less abhorrent than a face-to-face one. If Ronaiah is confused, it’s likely not about whether he’s gay. It’s about how to reconcile his religious devotion with his sexual orientation.

As for Te’o, he told Katie Couric that he was not gay, and there’s little evidence to indicate that he’s not being truthful. When I discovered that I’d been having steamy, soulful conversations for months with someone who was actually a man, I wondered if at some subconscious level I’d known and if this was a reflection on my own sexuality. The conclusion I reached is that while I was capable of connecting deeply and meaningfully with a man, I simply lacked any physical attraction to guys and therefore wasn’t gay. Te’o seems to be in the same boat.

Why would Manti Te’o, who could presumably date any woman he wanted, have a phone relationship with someone he’d never met? For one thing, Lennay Kekua was available when it fit his schedule. The time demands on a high-level athlete are extremely rigorous. To be able to call someone as he drifted off to sleep would surely have been a welcome anchor in his life, just as my calls with “Nicole”/Aaron were during my months-long book tour. I continue to travel for months at a time for my work, and it always takes a toll on my relationships. A relationship built on calls and texts can be integrated into a busy life a lot more easily than an actual relationship.

For all the deceptions behind Lennay Kekua, Te’o must have felt she was utterly guileless. The big-name athletes, musicians, and entertainers I’ve known have always had a certain level of guardedness—other people’s motives are hazy, and they often appear to be operating with an agenda. But Kekua didn’t want Te’o’s fame; she didn’t want to be seen on his arm at the club. All she wanted, as channeled through Ronaiah, was to love him and be loved.

More than anything, the hundreds of hours of phone time Te’o and Kekua seem to have logged speaks to the depth of their genuine connection. If Te’o chose Kekua over other women who were available to him, it’s probably because Ronaiah’s Kekua was more of a cosmic match for Te’o than any other women who crossed his orbit.

Then again, it now appears Te’o was not exactly faithful to his fake girlfriend. Understandably, he augmented his late-night heart-to-hearts with some late-night part-to-parts. No matter what feelings he may have had for Lennay, the temptations afforded a superstar are steep, and apparently he plucked some low-hanging fruit. Online and phone relationships breed compartmentalization—you satisfy certain needs through soulful hours-long calls and satisfy other needs elsewhere.

Can you fall in love with someone over the phone? Did Te’o exaggerate his relationship with Lennay Kekua to the media? Though we’d become close friends over months on the phone, I never felt like I’d fallen in love with “Nicole.” But a couple of years after I discovered that Nicole was really Aaron, I found myself in another primarily phone-based relationship. (I knew that this woman was actually a woman; I’d met her briefly in Arizona.) Online and phone relationships have an undeniable allure. When we get close with someone we’ve never (or rarely) met, we can fill in all of the little details however we choose, creating, in essence, a dream boyfriend or girlfriend. We do this even when we’re dating someone in real life, but it’s easier to pull off—and there are more blanks to fill in—when a relationship takes place mostly over the phone or online. As my calls with the woman in Arizona stretched over weeks and months, I felt like I was falling in love with her, and it’s easy for me to believe that Te’o experienced something similar.

At the same time, even some of Te’o’s teammates seemed to know that he’d never actually met her in person and doubted the sincerity of his grief when he believed Kekua had passed away. Unlike my calls with “Nicole,” I did tell some of my friends about my budding relationship with the woman in Arizona, but I never called her my girlfriend. Personally, I believe Te’o felt deeply connected to Kekua and might’ve been devastated when he heard news that she was dead. But at the same time, he appears to have overstated his level of commitment to her and certainly lied about some aspects of their involvement. He didn’t concoct Lennay Kekua and her death to help him win the Heisman, but when the press and public built him a hero’s throne based on the hardships he’d endured, he was in no hurry to step off of it and certainly ginned up the story to keep the love flowing. (As a die-hard Michigan fan, I think the only fair way to deal with Te’o’s embellishments is an NCAA “death sentence”—massive scholarship reductions for the Notre Dame football program and a 12-year bowl ban.)

What’s next for Manti and Ronaiah? While I felt angry that Aaron had duped me through months of calls, I was also able to recognize that the person I’d come to care about as Nicole still existed, simply in a different form. I was able to accept Aaron’s apologies and offer forgiveness, and we’ve remained friends, exchanging occasional texts and Facebook messages (though the sexual component is gone). Hollywood even made a film about our relationship, called Easier With Practice, where Brian Geraghty (Flight, The Hurt Locker) plays me and Eugene Byrd (8 Mile) plays Aaron. As you can imagine, watching our phone calls play out on the silver screen was a bewildering, surreal, and truly hilarious experience for both of us.

Surely, a big-screen version of the Manti Te’o/Ronaiah Tuiasosopo story is soon to follow. My hope is that Te’o can eventually accept Ronaiah’s apologies and that they, too, can arrive at some kind of friendship. As I told Aaron the night we finally met in person, “I feel like I’ve lost Nicole but gained Aaron, and it’s a trade up.”

It may be more difficult for Te’o to offer Ronaiah forgiveness, given that he played with Te’o’s emotions so wretchedly, convincing him that Lennay Kekua had died of leukemia and humiliating him on a more public stage. I’m sure if Aaron/Nicole had screwed with my head (and my career) to that extent, I wouldn’t have been so quick to let him off the hook. But Aaron knows me and Ronaiah knows Te’o in a way that few people do, and there’s value to that. In the end, perhaps, Te’o may realize that certain friendships are worth preserving, no matter how much trouble they’ve brought you.