Monday, September 2, 2013

Michael Oher

Evolution of a Game

(with 8 pages of B&W photos)

There is a mythopeic element to the remarkable story of Michael Oher. It's the sort of tale that deserves to be told at bedtime or around campfires. Yet the book that first brought him to prominence is not, as the subtitle indicates, only about him.

Author Michael Lewis provides a fascinating account of how the NFL's passing game became increasingly important, and how the defence developed ways to disrupt it. He begins by describing the literal impact on the game by Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants. His goal was to hit a QB so hard that he'd forget he was on a football field, and that is exactly what happens in the opening chapter with an account of how he broke Joe Theisman's leg.

"Left tackles everywhere failed to sleep the night before they faced Lawrence Taylor," writes Lewis, and front office executives began asking themselves a question:

If we were to play the Giants, how much would I pay to have Lawrence Taylor erased from the field of play? The number was higher than they ever imagined.

Offensive linesmen had traditionally been among the lowest paid players on the field, but that changed dramatically in the early 1990s when the arrival of free agency caused a "strange bidding frenzy." After Will Wolford neutralized Lawrence Taylor in Superbowl XXV, and turned free agent the following year, the Colts signed him to a contract that not only made him the highest paid player on their offence, but guaranteed he would remain so.

"By 2005, the left tackle position would be paid more than anyone on the field except the quarterback."

There are many wonderful Michael Oher moments in the book, but some of the best writing describes pro left tackles John Ayers, Jonathan Ogden, and Steve Wallace. The battle between Wallace of the 49ers and Chris Doleman of the Vikings reads like a scene out of the Iliad.

Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving

(with 8 pages of B&W photos)

When Blind Side was published in 2006, Michael Oher was still in college. Three years later he graduated and his magical story continued when he was drafted in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens. The movie came out the same year, and ends with Michael Oher donning a Ravens jersey.

If you've only seen the movie, you might find yourself wondering if Oher and the Tuhoys are as wonderful as they're made out to be. You might also want to know how Oher handled all the attention generated by the book and the movie.

In 2010, a year after the movie came out, the Tuohys published their own book, and while their story is not as dramatic as Oher's, it's just as inspirational. They serve up plenty of interesting anecdotes about themselves and Oher ("almost always the smartest person in the room").

Leigh Anne's father was a US Marshall who once arrested Johnny Cash. Sean was a college basketball star drafted by the New Jersey Nets, and who (in addition to running his fast food empire) works as a broadcaster for the Memphis Grizzlies. (A New York Times piece by Michael Lewis mentions Sean's athletic prowess and the man who coached both of them, Billy Fitzgerald.)

But the parts I most enjoyed are football-related.

While attending Ravens games, the Tuohys got to know some of the other players, and Leigh Anne was as outspoken as ever. She told QB Joe Flacco he needed to get rid of the ball faster, and after the movie came out she cornered the safety, Ed Reed, in the team hotel:

"Don’t you let anyone make fun of Michael in the locker room," Leigh Anne said.
"No, ma’am," Ed said. "I'm kind of adopted, too. I hope this movie helps a lot of kids."

The person who suffered most from the movie was the Tuohys' son, S.J., who was still in high school. He had to endure a lot of taunting on the basketball court.

"Your dad should have adopted a point guard because you stink."
"You’re only on the team because you’re in a movie."
"Can you get us a date with Sandra Bullock?"

Oher’s tutor, Miss Sue, remained devoted not only to him but to other football players she helped at Ole Miss. One of them was Jamarca Sanford, who was drafted by the Vikings. When she visited him in Minnesota, he introduced her to a teammate saying, "This is Miss Sue. She's just like my mom."

The Tuohys talk about their charitable work, which you can learn more about at the website of their Making It Happen Foundation.

From Homelessness to the Blind Side and Beyond

(with 8 pages of colour photos)

Oher's own book came out in 2011, in part to correct a few misrepresentations in the film, but mainly because "I owed it to all those other kids who looked at me and saw a role model, kids who were in the same place I was just a few years ago."

He speaks frankly about his own childhood experiences, about his mother, siblings, and other families he stayed with before settling in with the Tuohys. He talks about meeting Michael Lewis (a childhood friend of Sean Tuohy) and how Blind Side came to be written.

The movie was released during his first year with the Ravens. He started all 16 games, alternating between left and right tackle.

I had several guys on other teams say, "Hey, Hollywood!" when we faced one another on the line. The funny thing was, they were mostly nice about the movie; several of them said they liked it a lot. For a bunch of guys who make a living trash-talking and tackling one another on the field, it was nice to know they were happy for me.

What he didn’t like about the movie was how it portrayed him at the beginning as clueless about football, when he "already knew football inside out."

Every week he gets boxes of fan mail from people inspired by his story. He quotes from a number of them, and in a chapter entitled, "Breaking the Cycle," addresses children-at-risk directly. "My mother's failures do not have to be mine," he writes. "You have to make that same decision." To them, and to their "loving foster parents" and "caring teachers" he makes this promise:

I'm pledging my support to be the best role model I can be through the appearances and speeches I make for the various foster care support groups I work with, as well as with my lifestyle and the choices I make.

In 2013 the magical story of Michael Oher continued when the Ravens won Superbowl XLVII.