By the 2004 N.F.L. season, the average N.F.L. left tackle’s salary was $5.5 million a year, and the left tackle had become the second-highest-paid position on the team, after the quarterback. In Super Bowl XL, played on Feb. 5, 2006, the highest-paid player on the field was the Seattle Seahawks’ quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck — who was just finishing the first season of a new six-year deal worth $8.2 million a year. The second-highest-paid player on the field was the man who protected Hasselbeck’s blind side, the left tackle Walter Jones, who made $7.5 million a year.
After he saw the tape of Michael Oher, Lemming tried to reach the kid by phone. He found out that his surname was pronounced “oar,” but that’s about all he learned. He was accustomed to the social lives of high-school football stars: the handlers, the harems, the informal advisers, the coaches. The kids Lemming sought to meet were not, typically, hard to find. This kid not only had no handlers; he didn’t appear to exist outside of school. He had no home; he didn’t even have a phone number. Or so said the Briarcrest Christian School when Lemming called looking for Michael Oher. Briarcrest officials were mystified by Lemming’s interest in their student, but they were also polite and finally agreed to have someone drive Michael over to the University of Memphis football facility for a face-to-face interview. “I’ll never forget when he walked into the room,” Lemming told me not long ago. “He looked like a house walking into a bigger house. He walked in the door, and he barely fit through the door.” He wasn’t just huge. He was huge in exactly the right ways. “There’s the big-blob 300-pounder, and there’s the solid kind,” Lemming went on to say. “He was the solid kind. You also see big guys, tall guys who weigh a lot, but they have thin legs. They’re fine in high school, but in college they’ll get pushed around. He was just massive everywhere.”
What happened next was the strangest encounter of Lemming’s 28-year career as a football scout. Michael Oher sat down at the table across from him. . .and refused to speak. “He shook my hand and then didn’t say a word,” Lemming recalled. (“His hands — they were huge!”) Lemming asked a few questions; Michael Oher just kept staring right through him. And soon enough Lemming decided further interaction was pointless. Michael Oher left, and he left behind blank forms and unanswered questions. Every other high-school football player in America was dying for Lemming to invite him to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Michael Oher had left his invitation on the table.
What never crossed Tom Lemming’s mind was that the player he would soon rank the No. 1 offensive lineman in the nation, and perhaps the finest left-tackle prospect since Orlando Pace, hadn’t the faintest notion of who Lemming was or why he was asking him all these questions. For that matter, he didn’t even think of himself as a football player. And he had never played left tackle in his life.
II. School of Hard Knocks, West Memphis Branch
When the file on Michael Oher from the Memphis City Schools hit his desk in the summer of 2002, Steve Simpson, the principal of Briarcrest Christian School, was frankly incredulous. The boy, now 16, had a measured I.Q. of 80, which put him in mankind’s ninth percentile. An aptitude test he took in eighth grade measured his “ability to learn” and placed him in the sixth percentile. The numbers looked like misprints: in a rich white private school like Briarcrest, you never saw single-digit numbers under the column marked “percentile.” Of course, logically, you knew such people must exist; for someone to be in the 99th percentile, someone else had to be in the first. But you didn’t expect to meet them at the Briarcrest Christian School. Academically, Briarcrest might not be the most ambitious school. It spent more time and energy directing its students to Jesus Christ than to Harvard. But the students all went on to college. And they all had at least an average I.Q.
In his first nine years of school, Michael Oher was enrolled in 11 different institutions, and that included a gap of 18 months, around age 10, when he apparently did not attend school at all. Either that or the public schools were so indifferent to his presence that they neglected to register it formally. Not that Oher actually showed up at the schools where he was enrolled. Even when he received credit for attending, he was sensationally absent: 46 days of a single term of his first-grade year, for instance. His first first-grade year, that is; Michael Oher repeated first grade. He repeated second grade, too. And yet the school system presented these early years as the most accomplished of his academic career. They claimed that right through the fourth grade he was performing at “grade level.” How could they know when, according to these transcripts, he hadn’t even attended the third grade?
Simpson, who had spent 30-plus years in area public schools, including 29 in Memphis, knew what everyone who had even a brief brush with the Memphis public schools knew: they passed kids up to the next grade because they found it too much trouble to flunk them. They functioned as an assembly line churning out products never meant to be market-tested. At several schools, Michael Oher had been given F’s in reading his first term and C’s the second term, which allowed him to finish the school year with D’s — they were giving him grades just to get rid of him. And get rid of him they did: seldom did the child return to the school that passed him. The year before Simpson got his file, Michael Oher passed ninth grade at a high school called Westwood. According to his transcripts, he missed 50 days of school that year. Fifty days! At Briarcrest, the rule was that if a student misses 15 days of any class, he has to repeat the class no matter his grade. And yet Westwood had given Michael Oher just enough D’s to move him along. Even when you threw in the B in world geography, clearly a gift from the Westwood basketball coach who taught the class, the grade-point average the student would bring with him to Briarcrest began with a zero: 0.6.
If there was a less promising academic record, Simpson hadn’t seen it. Simpson guessed, rightly, that the Briarcrest Christian School hadn’t seen anything like Michael Oher either. Simpson and others in the Briarcrest community would eventually learn that Michael’s father had been shot and killed and tossed off a bridge, that his mother was addicted to crack cocaine and that his life experience was so narrow that he might as well have spent his first 16 years inside a closet. And yet here was his application, in the summer of 2002, courtesy of the Briarcrest football coach, Hugh Freeze, who offered with it this wildly implausible story: Big Mike, as he was called, was essentially homeless and so had made an art of sleeping on whatever floor the ghetto would provide for him. He crashed for a stretch on the floor of an inner-city character named Tony Henderson, who at nearly 400 pounds himself was known simply as Big Tony. Big Tony’s mom had died and as her dying wish asked Tony to enroll his son Steven Payne at a “Christian school.” Big Tony had figured that as long as he was taking Steven, he might as well take Big Mike, too.
But Big Mike wasn’t like Steven. Steven had a father and a bed and a decent school transcript. He could cope with a conversation. Big Mike, in company, seemed as lost as a Martian stumbling out of a crash landing. Simpson had tried to shake his hand. “He didn’t know how to do it,” he says. “I had to show him how to shake hands.” Every question Simpson put to Big Mike elicited a barely audible mumble. “I don’t know if ‘docile’ is the right word,” Simpson says.
The disposition of Michael Oher’s application to Briarcrest was Steve Simpson’s decision, and normally he would have had no trouble making it: an emphatic rejection. Beneath the Briarcrest coat of arms was the motto: Decidedly Academic, Distinctly Christian. Michael Oher was, it seemed to Simpson, neither. But this was only Simpson’s second year at Briarcrest, and its football coach, Freeze, had phoned Simpson’s boss, the school president, a football fan, and made his pitch: This wasn’t a thing you did for the Briarcrest football team, Freeze said; this was a thing you did because it was right! Briarcrest was this kid’s last chance! The president in turn phoned Simpson and told him that if he felt right with it, he could admit the kid.
Simpson thought it over and said, Sorry. They would take Steven, but there was just no chance Michael Oher could cut it in the 10th grade; the fourth grade might be a stretch. But the pressure from the football coach, coupled with a little twinge inside his own heart, led Simpson to reject the applicant gently. He granted a single concession: if Michael Oher enrolled in a home-study program and performed at a high level for a semester, Briarcrest would admit him the following semester. Since there wasn’t much chance any program would pass him, Simpson suspected that he would never hear from the football coach, or Michael Oher, again.
He was wrong. Two months later — six weeks into the 2002-03 school year — his phone rang. It was Big Tony. It was a sad sight, Big Tony said, watching Big Mike stare at these books sent to him by the Gateway Christian School, which he had enrolled in, without any ability to make heads or tails of them. Big Tony didn’t have the time or the energy to work with him. Big Mike was trying so hard but getting nowhere, and it was too late for him to enroll in a public school. What should they do now?
That’s when Simpson realized he had made a mistake. In effect, he had removed a child from the public-school system. He had tried to handle this problem the easy way, for him, and it backfired. After a sleepless night, he called Michael Oher — apparently still sleeping on Big Tony’s floor — and said, “We are going to take a chance on you, but you’re not going to play ball.” No basketball, no football — he couldn’t even sing in the choir until he proved to the school that he could handle the work. Michael didn’t say much at all in response, but that didn’t matter to Simpson. “My conscience would be clear if we gave him a chance,” he says. His thoughts turned to the teachers: how would he explain this mess to them?
III. A Very Big and Very Blank Slate
Jennifer Graves had run Briarcrest’s program for students with special needs for nine years. “I decided early on in my life,” she says, “that Christ was calling me to work with the kids who did not have it so easy.” But her mission took on a different and less hopeful tone when in the fall of 2002 this huge black kid was dumped in her lap. She, too, had seen the file on Michael Oher that had come over from the public school system. After the transcript came the child himself, accompanied by Simpson. “He said, ‘This is Michael Oher, and you’ll be working with him,”’ Graves recalls.
She took him around and placed him in the middle of every classroom. “By sixth period of the first day everyone knew who he was,” she says. “And he hadn’t said a word.” It was a matter of days before the reports poured in from the teachers, every last one of them asking the same question of her that she asked of Simpson: why had Briarcrest let this kid in? “Big Mike had no conception of what real school was about,” she says. “He’d never have his books with him, didn’t speak in class, nothing. He had no academic background, no foundation at all.”
Michael Oher was only a few weeks into his tenure at the Briarcrest Christian School before several teachers suggested he should be on his way out. He wasn’t merely failing tests; he wasn’t even starting them. The only honest grade to give him in his academic subjects was zero.
The situation appeared hopeless and humiliating for all concerned. Word of the new student’s various failures inevitably reached Simpson, who also began to sense the dimensions of the void in the child’s life experiences. He didn’t know what an ocean was or a bird’s nest or the tooth fairy. He couldn’t very well be taught 10th-grade biology if he had no clue what was meant by the word cell, and he couldn’t very well get through 10th-grade English if he had never heard of a verb or a noun. It was as if he had materialized on the planet as an overgrown 16-year-old. Jennifer Graves had the same misgivings: the boy reminded her of a story she had read in a psychology journal about a child who had been locked away inside a closet for years. “That child didn’t even have tactile sense,” she says, “but it felt like the same sort of thing. Big Mike was a blank slate.”
IV. A Rich White Family Takes an Interest
When Sean Tuohy first spotted Michael Oher sitting in the stands in the Briarcrest gym — watching the practice of a basketball team he wasn’t allowed to play on — he saw a boy with nowhere to go but up. The question was how to take him there.
Sean was an American success story: he had come from nothing and made himself rich. He was a star point guard at Ole Miss, drafted by the
It wasn’t enough. The restaurants ran themselves; the Grizzlies gig was a night job; church was on Sundays. He needed a bit more action in his life. And he now had all the time in the world for what he still loved more than anything: hanging around school gyms and acting as a kind of consultant to the coaches at the Briarcrest Christian School in their dealings with their players. Like every other parent and student at Briarcrest, Sean had been born again, but his interest in the poor jocks might have run even deeper than his religious belief. Sean was interested in poor jocks in the same way that a former diva might be interested in opera singers or a Jesuit scholar in debaters. What he liked about them was that he knew how to help them. “What I learned playing basketball at Ole Miss,” he told me once, “was what not to do: beat up a kid. It’s easy to beat up a kid. The hard thing is to build him up.”
Sean was 42 years old. His hairline had receded, but not quite to the point where you could call him bald, and his stomach had expanded, but not quite to the point where you could call him fat. He was keenly interested in social status — his own and other people’s — but not in the way of the Old South. Not long after he became a figure in Memphis — a putatively rich businessman who had his own jet and was the radio voice of the Memphis Grizzlies — he had feelers from the Memphis Country Club. He didn’t encourage them because, as he puts it: “I don’t hang with the blues. I’d rather go to a high-school football game on Friday night than go to a country club and drink four Scotches and complain about my wife.” He delighted in the sight of people moving up in the world. Country clubs were all about staying in one place.
When he introduced himself to Big Mike, Sean was already knee-deep in the various problems and crises of the few black students at the Briarcrest Christian School. Sean’s daughter Collins, a sophomore at Briarcrest and on her way to becoming the Tennessee state champion in the pole vault, occasioned almost constant exposure to them: she was on the track team; they were on the track team. Collins had mentioned Big Mike to him. When she tried to pass him on the stairwell, she said, she had to back up to the top because she couldn’t fit past him. Without uttering a peep, he had become the talk of the school.
She said everyone was frightened of him at first, until they realized that he was far more terrified of them. Sean had seen Big Mike around the school three or four times. He had noticed that he wore the same clothes every day: cutoff blue jeans and an oversize T-shirt. Now he saw him in the stands and thought, I’ll bet he’s hungry. Sean walked over and said, “You don’t know me, but we have more in common than you might think.”
Michael Oher stared intently at his feet.
“What did you have to eat for lunch today?” Sean asked.
“In the cafeteria,” the kid said.
“I didn’t ask where you ate,” Sean said. “I asked what you ate.”
“Had a few things,” the kid said.
Sure you did, thought Sean. He asked if he needed money for lunch, and Mike said, “I don’t need any money.”
The next day, Sean went to the Briarcrest accounting department and arranged for Michael Oher to have a standing account at the lunch checkout counter. He had done the same for several of the poorer black kids who had come to Briarcrest. In a couple of cases, he had, in effect, paid their tuition by giving money to a school fund earmarked for scholarships for those who couldn’t afford tuition. “That was my only connection with Michael,” he said later. “Lunch.”
Sean left it at lunch, and at lunch it might have ended. But a few weeks afterward, the Briarcrest Christian School took its Thanksgiving break. On a cold and blustery morning, Sean and his wife, Leigh Anne, were driving down one of the main boulevards of East Memphis when just ahead of them a huge black male stepped off the bus. He was dressed in the same pair of cutoffs and T-shirt he always wore. Sean pointed him out to his wife and said: “That kid I was telling you about — that’s him. Big Mike.”
“But he’s wearing shorts,” she said.
“Uh-huh. He always wears those.”
“Sean, it’s snowing!”
And so it was. At Leigh Anne’s insistence, they pulled over. Sean reintroduced himself to Michael and then introduced Michael to Leigh Anne.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To basketball practice,” Michael said.
“Michael, you don’t have basketball practice,” Sean said.
“I know,” the boy said. “But they got heat there.”
Sean didn’t understand that one.
“It’s nice and warm in that gym,” the boy said.
As they drove off, Sean looked over and saw tears streaming down Leigh Anne’s face. And he thought, Uh-oh, my wife’s about to take over.
The next day in the afternoon, Leigh Anne left her business — she had her own interior-decorating firm — turned up at Briarcrest, picked up Michael and took off with him. A few hours later, Sean’s cellphone rang. His wife was on the other end.
“Do you know how big a 58-long jacket is?” she asked.
“Not big enough.”
Leigh Anne Tuohy grew up with a firm set of beliefs about black people but shed them for another — and could not tell you exactly how it happened, except to say, “I married a man who doesn’t know his own color.” Her father, a United States marshal based in Memphis, raised her to fear and loathe blacks as much as he did. The moment the courts ordered the Memphis City Schools integrated in 1973, he pulled her out of public school and put her into the newly founded Briarcrest Christian School, where she became a student in its first year. “I was raised in a very racist household,” she says. Yet by the time Michael Oher arrived at Briarcrest, Leigh Anne Tuohy didn’t see anything odd or even awkward in taking him in hand. This child was new; he had no clothes; he had no warm place to stay over Thanksgiving. For Lord’s sake, he was walking to school in the snow in shorts, when school was out of session, on the off chance he could get into the gym and keep warm. Of course she took him out and bought him some clothes. It struck others as perhaps a bit aggressively philanthropic; for Leigh Anne, clothing a child was just what you did if you had the resources. She had done this sort of thing before and would do it again. “God gives people money to see how you’re going to handle it,” she says. And she intended to prove she knew how to handle it.
V. Troubles Adjusting
Coach Freeze recalls the moment he realized that Big Mike was not any ordinary giant: a football practice at which this new boy, who had just been admitted on academic probation, had no purpose. Big Mike just wandered onto the field, picked up a huge tackling dummy — the thing weighed at least 50 pounds — and took off with it at high speed. “Did you see that — did you see the way that kid moved?” Freeze asked another coach. “He ran with that dummy like it weighed nothing.” Freeze’s next thought was that he had misjudged the boy’s mass. No human being who moved that quickly could possibly weigh as much as 300 pounds. “That’s when I had them weigh him,” Freeze says. “One of the coaches took him into the gym and put him on the scale, but he overloaded the scale.” The team doctor drove him away and put him on what the Briarcrest coaches were later told was a cattle scale: 344 pounds, it read. On the light side, for a cow — delightfully beefy for a high-school sophomore. Especially one who could run. “I didn’t know whether he could play,” Freeze says now. “But I knew this: we didn’t have anyone like him on campus.”
For his first year it didn’t matter. He failed his classes and didn’t play anything. As far as the Briarcrest teachers could determine, he didn’t have a thought or a fact or an idea in his head. But then almost by accident they figured out that he needed to be tested orally, whereupon he proved to them that he deserved high D’s instead of low F’s. It wasn’t clear that he was going to acquire enough credits to graduate with his class, but Simpson and Graves stopped thinking they were going to send him back out on the streets, and they let him play sports. He joined the basketball team at the end of his sophomore year and soon afterward the track-and-field team (throwing the discus and putting the shot). In his junior year he finally got onto the football field.
The problem there, at first, resembled his problems in the classroom. He had no foundation, no idea what he was meant to do as a member of a team. He said he had played football his freshman year at Westwood, but there was no sign of it in his performance. When Freeze saw how fast he could move, he pegged him as a defensive tackle. And so for the first six games of the 2003 season, he played defense. He wasn’t any worse than his replacement, but he wasn’t much better either. One of his more talented teammates, Joseph Crone, thought Big Mike’s main contribution came before the game, when the opposing team stumbled out of its locker room or bus and took the measure of the Briarcrest Christian School. “They’d see all of us,” Crone says, “and then they’d see Mike and say, ‘Oh, God.”’
But during the games he seemed confused. When he wasn’t confused, he was reluctant. Passive, almost. This was the last thing Freeze expected. Freeze didn’t know much about Michael Oher’s past, but he knew enough to assume that his player had some kind of miserable childhood in the worst part of West Memphis. A miserable childhood in the worst part of West Memphis was typically excellent emotional preparation for what was required on a football defense: it made you angry; it made you aggressive; it made you want to tear someone’s head off. The N.F.L. was loaded with players who had mined a loveless, dysfunctional childhood.
The trouble with Michael Oher as a football player was the trouble with Ferdinand as a bull: he didn’t exhibit the anger of his breed. He was just a sweet kid who didn’t particularly care to hit anybody. Or as Freeze puts it: “He just wasn’t aggressive. His mentality was not a defensive player’s mentality.”
VI. Finding a New Home
That fall, in 2003, Michael spent his nights with at least five different Briarcrest families — including the Tuohys — but most nights he spent with Quinterio Franklin, a teammate at Briarcrest. One night after a track meet, Michael was left without a ride home, and Leigh Anne offered to take him wherever he wanted to go. “Terio’s,” he said, and off they went. . .30 miles into Mississippi. “It was a trailer,” she says. She couldn’t believe there was room enough inside the place for him. She insisted on following him in to see where he slept. He showed her his old air mattress on the floor. It was flat as a pancake. “I blow it up every night,” he said. “But it runs out of air around midnight.”
“That’s it,” she said. She told him to gather up all his stuff. “You’re moving in with me.”
With that, he picked up a single Glad trash bag and followed her back into the car. Right up to that moment Leigh Anne hoped that what they and other Briarcrest families had done for Michael added up to something like a decent life. Now she knew it didn’t. She took over the management of that life. Completely. “The first thing we did,” she says, “was have a cleansing of the clothes.”
Together they drove to every house in Memphis where Michael had stashed his clothing. Five houses and four giant trash bags later, she was staring at a pile of his belongings. “It was stuff people had given him,” she says. “Most of it still had the tags on it. Stuff he would never wear. I mean, there were polo shirts with little penguins on them.” For the next couple of weeks, Michael slept on the Tuohys’ sofa, and no one in the family stated the obvious: this was Michael Oher’s new home and probably would be for a long time. He was, in effect, a third child. “When I first saw him, I was like, ‘Who the heck is this big black guy?”’ says Sean Jr., who was 8 at the time. “But Dad just said this was a kid we were trying to help out, and so I just said all right.” Sean Jr. had his own uses for Michael: the two would vanish for hours on end into the bedroom and play video games. Just a few months after his arrival, Leigh Anne would point to Michael and say, “That is Sean Jr.’s best friend.” His sister, Collins, says he became comfortable quickly: “When he kept staying and staying, Mom asked him if he wanted to move in. He said, ‘I don’t think I want to leave.’ That’s when Mom went out and bought the dresser and the bed.”
After she organized his clothing, Leigh Anne stewed on where to put this huge human being. The sofa clearly would not do — “it was ruining my $10,000 couch” — but she was worried that no ordinary bed would hold him, or if it did, it might collapse in the middle of the night, and he might crash through the ceiling. Sean had mentioned that he recalled some of the larger football players at Ole Miss sleeping on futons. That day, Leigh Anne went out and bought a futon and a dresser. When the futon arrived, she showed it to Michael and said, “That’s your bed.” And he said, “That’s my bed?” And she said, “That’s your bed.” And he just stared at it a bit and said, “This is the first time I ever had my own bed.”
Sean, for his part, had long since given up probing into Michael’s past. The boy had a gift for telling people as little as possible and also for telling them what they wanted to hear. “The right answer is the answer that puts an end to the questions,” Sean told me. He finally decided that Michael did not have “the slightest interest in the future or the past. He’s just trying to forget about yesterday and get to tomorrow. He’s in survival mode: completely focused on the next two minutes.” He persuaded his wife to take a more detached view of the question, Who is Michael Oher? and Leigh Anne agreed, at least in principle. “What does it matter if he doesn’t know the names of his brothers and sisters?” she said unconvincingly. “Or where he went to school? Or if he went to school?”
They decided to move forward with Michael on a need-to-know basis: if they needed to know some detail about his past, she harassed Michael until he gave her an answer. If they didn’t — and mostly they didn’t — she would leave him alone. “It is what it is,” she said. “The past is the past.” She had a big talk with Michael and told him: “We’re just going to go forward. There is nothing I can do about whatever might have happened to you before now. If it’s going to cause you problems and you’re not going to be able to go forward without dealing with it, maybe we need to get help from someone smarter than I am.”
He just looked at her and asked, “What does that mean?”
And she half-thought his past actually didn’t matter all that much to him. “Like the way a woman blocks out childbirth,” she says now, “I think he just blocked out a lot of his childhood.”
VII. The Scouts Are Impressed
Tom Lemming’s private scouting report was sent to nearly all the head coaches of Division I college football programs, and so more than 100 head college football coaches learned that this kid in Memphis, whom no one had ever heard of, was the most striking left-tackle talent since Orlando Pace. And Pace was now earning more than $6 million a year playing left tackle for the St. Louis Rams. It was only a week or so after Lemming’s report went out that the Briarcrest Saints football team met for two weeks of spring practice. Hugh Freeze was there, of course, since he was the head coach and ran the practices. Tim Long was there, too, because he coached the offensive line. Like several of the coaches, Long was a Briarcrest parent, but he was also a 6-foot-5, 300-pound former left tackle at the University of Memphis, and he had been a third-round draft pick of the
The only other coach at the Briarcrest spring practices with any experience of college or pro sports was Sean Tuohy. Hugh Freeze had asked Sean to help out as an assistant coach — which meant his usual role as coach to the coach and unofficial life counselor to the players. When Sean told Leigh Anne he planned to coach football, she laughed at the idea of it: her husband didn’t know a reverse from a play-action pass. The first thing Sean learned about coaching football was that you shouldn’t do it in a BMW. He came home the first day and told Leigh Anne: “I need to buy a pickup truck. I’m the only one without a pickup truck.” A few days later, he bought one.
That first afternoon of spring practice, Sean rolled up in his new truck to find the players lined up and stretching. The other coaches were there already. But there was this other, highly unusual cluster of identically dressed men: college football coaches who had turned up to watch practice. They stood to one side, but you could tell them by their identical dark slacks and coaching shirts with their school’s emblem emblazoned on the chest: University of Michigan,
The most complicated set of social rules on the planet — the rules that govern the interaction of college football coaches and high-school prospects — forbid the coaches to speak directly to a high-school junior until the July before his senior year. In the spring of his junior year, they are allowed to visit his school twice and watch him from a distance. So the coaches made a point of not saying anything directly; they just kept off to the side and stared. “I’ll never forget it,” Long says. “We did calisthenics and agility. Then board drill, right away. We’re 10 minutes into it. Michael’s first up.”
The board drill — so named for the thin six-foot-long board on the ground that it’s conducted on — is among the most violent drills in football. The offensive lineman straddles one end of the board and faces the defensive lineman. At the sound of the whistle, they do whatever they must to drive the other fellow off the end of the board. Facing off against Michael Oher during a football game was one thing: he was often unsure where to go, and you more than likely had help from teammates — if you didn’t, there was plenty of room to run and hide. Getting onto the board across from him, for a fight to the death, was something else. No one on the team wanted to do it.
After a while, out stepped Joseph Crone, the team’s biggest and most powerful defensive lineman. He was 6-foot-2, maybe 270 pounds, and a candidate to attend college on a football scholarship. To him, this new mission, going helmet to helmet with Big Mike, had the flavor of heroism. “The reason I stepped up,” Crone says, “is that I didn’t think anyone else wanted to go up against him. Because he was such a big guy.”
Crone still didn’t think of Michael Oher as an exceptional football player. But if he hadn’t been a force on the field, Crone thought, it was only because he had no idea what he was supposed to do there. And Crone noticed that he had improved the past season and by the final game looked very good indeed. “He was figuring it out,” Crone says. “How to move his feet, where to put his hands. How to get onto people so they couldn’t get away.” But even if Big Mike had no idea what he was doing on a football field, Crone found him an awesome physical specimen. He had a picture in his mind of the few opposing players who had made the mistake of being fallen upon by Big Mike. “They looked like pressed pennies,” he says. “They’d get up, and their backs would be one giant grass stain. I couldn’t imagine being on the other side of the ball going against Mike.” Now, by default, he was.
The two players dropped into their stances with the eyes of the Southeastern Conference, the Big Ten, Conference USA and the Atlantic Coast Conference upon them. Joseph Crone’s mind was working overtime, he says: “I’m sitting there thinking: Man, this guy is huge. I got to get low on him. I got to drive my feet.”
“Best on best!” shouted Coach Freeze and blew his whistle.
When it was over — and it was over in a flash — the five college coaches broke formation and made what appeared to be urgent private phone calls. The Briarcrest athletic director, Carly Powers, turned to his left and found that one of them, in his bid to separate himself from the others, had wandered up beside him. “He was whispering into his phone, ‘My God, you’ve got to see this!”’ Powers says. The Clemson coach, Brad Scott (who was the former head football coach at the University of South Carolina), actually ran out onto the field, handed his card to Freeze and said, “I’ve seen all I need to see.” If Michael Oher wanted a full scholarship to Clemson, it was his. “Then,” Tim Long says, “the Clemson guy got in his car and drove eight or nine hours back home.”
Freeze was as impressed and surprised as anyone: it could have been a training film. Big Mike had picked up 270 pounds and dealt with them as he might have dealt with thin air. In the middle of spring practice his junior year, Michael Oher became a preseason First-Team High School All-American. From that moment on, Freeze had to give up pretty much everything he was doing and retire to his office to deal with the long line of college football coaches who wanted to spend quality time at the Briarcrest Christian School. In the frenzy, Freeze learned exactly what he had on his hands. Not just a big old lineman. Not some cement block, interchangeable with other cement blocks of similar dimensions. A future N.F.L. left tackle.
Freeze had played Michael on defense at first and then, when that didn’t work, had moved him to right tackle. And so Michael Oher had never actually played left tackle. That was understandable: the left tackle wasn’t a big deal in high school because the passing game and thus the pass rush weren’t quite so important. Freeze now understood that in big-time college football and in the N.F.L. the left tackle was some kind of huge deal. You find the freak of nature who can play the position brilliantly, and you have one of the most valuable commodities in professional sports.
After spring practice, Freeze informed the boy who had been playing left tackle that he was being moved to right tackle. Michael Oher was taking over his position.
VIII. A Force on the Field
Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy had their doubts. Michael had wandered into their lives, moved into their home and quickly become entirely dependent on them. He was meant to be a football player, but until everyone started telling him he was a star football player, he had shown hardly any interest in football. When thrown into games during his junior year, he spent most of his time wandering around the field in search of someone to fall over. He looked completely lost and passive. The left tackle might be the one guy on the field whose job was to reduce the level of violence. But even the left tackle, if he was to succeed, needed to play with aggression. And the few people who had paid attention on the few occasions when Michael played in football games hadn’t seen even a hint of aggression.
Michael’s first test was not an official game but a preseason scrimmage at home at the start of his senior year, against a team from Munford, Tenn., 25 miles outside of Memphis. Leigh Anne took her usual seat in the stands on the 50-yard line, two rows from the top, right beneath the “N” in “SAINTS.” She sat among a cluster of players’ mothers, all of whom had definite views about the quality of Briarcrest’s coaching and football strategy. They kept a cellphone handy just in case, as Leigh Anne puts it, “we had any opinions or thoughts on the game that we felt Hugh or Sean needed to know.” She was the coach in the sky box, and already she watched football games in a way few Americans did: focused on the offensive line. A play would end, and she would have missed entirely what had happened to the ball. “I don’t know about ‘keeping his pad level down’ and ‘getting fit’ and all these key little nichey phrases that the football coaches use to talk about what linemen do,” she says. “All I can tell is if Michael’s lying on top of somebody. And if he’s spread-eagled on top of somebody, that’s good.”
Sean also took his place, a few yards down the sidelines from Hugh Freeze, where he could get a different view of the action than the head coach had. Freeze, who fully grasped Sean’s near-magical ability to boost the confidence of teenage boys, had taught him football just so that he might put him in charge of the Briarcrest quarterbacks. Sean still kept one eye on Michael, but tonight he missed the signs. From the first play of the game, the Munford defensive end who lined up directly across from Michael targeted him for special ridicule. The Munford player was about 6-foot-2 and couldn’t have weighed more than 220 pounds, and yet he wouldn’t shut up. Every play, he had something nasty to say.
Hey, fat ass, I’m a kill you!
Hey, fat ass! Fat people can’t play football! I’m a run your fat ass over!
The more he went on, the angrier Michael became, and yet no one noticed. Freeze ordered up plays that called for Michael to block a linebacker or to pull and sweep around the right end and leave the defensive end across from him alone. The first quarter and a half of the scrimmage was uneventful — until Freeze called a different sort of play.
Leigh Anne rose from her seat to beat the crowd to the concession stand and so had her back to the action when the people in the stands around her began to laugh.
“Where’s he taking him?” she heard someone say.
“He’s not letting go of that kid!” shouted someone else.
She turned around in time to see 19 football players running down one side of the field after the Briarcrest running back with the ball. On the other side of the field Briarcrest’s No. 74, Big Mike, was racing at full speed in the opposite direction, with a defensive end in his arms.
From his place on the sideline, Sean watched in amazement. Freeze had called a running play, around the right end, away from Michael’s side. Michael’s job was simply to take the defender who had been jabbering at him and wall him off. Just keep him away from the ball carrier. Instead, he had fired off the line of scrimmage and gotten fit — which is to say, gotten his hands inside the defender’s shoulder pads — and then lifted the Munford player off the ground. It was a perfectly legal block, with unusual consequences. He drove the Munford player straight down the middle of the field for 15 yards, then took a hard left, toward the Munford sidelines. “The Munford kid’s feet were hitting the ground every four steps, like a cartoon character,” Sean says. As the kid strained to get his feet back on the ground, Michael ran him the next 25 or so yards to the Munford bench. When he got there, he didn’t stop but piled right through it, knocking over the bench, several more Munford players and scattering the team. He didn’t skip a beat. Encircling the football field was a cinder track. He blocked the kid across the track and then across the grass on the other side of the cinder track. And kept going — right to the chain link fence on the far side of the grass.
Flags flew, grown men cursed and Sean called Michael over to the sidelines.
“Michael,” said Sean, “where were you taking him anyway?”
“I was gonna put him on the bus,” Michael said.
Parked on the other side of the chain-link fence was, in fact, the Munford team bus.
“The bus?” Sean asked.
“I got tired of him talking,” Michael said. “It was time for him to go home.”
Sean thought he must be joking. He wasn’t. Michael had thought it all through in advance; he had been waiting nearly half a football game to do just exactly what he had very nearly done. To pick up this trash-talking defensive end and take him not to the chain-link fence but through the chain-link fence. To the bus. And then put him on the bus. And Sean began to laugh.
IX. Passing Grades
While Sean handled the sports end of things, Leigh Anne took over Michael’s academic life. Every day, without fail, she went through his North Face backpack. He would fail a quiz or get a D on a paper and never think it worth mentioning. He wouldn’t throw away his papers or test grades, but he wouldn’t volunteer them either. She would find the paper balled up at the bottom of the backpack. That was the biggest problem at first: Michael wouldn’t tell you when there was a problem. He had the most intense desire to please without the ability to do the things that pleased. He had spent his whole life treating his mind as a problem to be covered up. He had grown so accustomed to not sharing a thing about himself, or perhaps never being asked about himself, that he didn’t even know how to begin.
To get into the N.F.L., Michael Oher needed to first get into college. And to get into college, he needed to meet the academic standards prescribed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The N.C.A.A. had a sliding scale of ACT scores and grade-point averages; the higher the ACT, the lower the required G.P.A. Given Michael’s best ACT score, to play college football he would need a 2.65 overall G.P.A. He had finished his sophomore year with a 0.9. A better performance at the back end of his junior year, when he moved into the Tuohy home, raised his cumulative average to 1.564. That’s when Leigh Anne took over more completely. Before Michael’s senior year, she called all his teachers at Briarcrest and asked them to tell her exactly what Michael had to do to earn at least a B in their classes. She didn’t expect them to just hand Michael a grade — though she wouldn’t have complained if they did. But to her way of thinking, a B was the fair minimum to give any normal person willing to take the simple steps. She would hound Michael until he took those steps. Just give me the list of things he needs to do, she told the teachers, and he will do them.
Two days into his senior year, he came home, dropped his massive backpack onto the kitchen table and said, “I can’t do this.” Leigh Anne thought he was about to cry. The next morning, she told him to suck it up and pushed him right back out the door. But that’s when Leigh Anne brought in Sue Mitchell, whom she met at a sorority function.
As a tool for overhauling the grade-point average of Michael Oher, as well as for broadening his experience of white people, Sue Mitchell had a number of things to recommend her. In her 35-year career she taught at several Memphis-area public schools. At Bartlett High School, just outside Memphis, she took over the cheerleading squad and whipped it into five-time national champions. She applied to work at the Briarcrest Christian School, but Briarcrest rejected her out of hand because though Mitchell said she believed in God, she had trouble proving it. (“The application did not have one question about education,” Mitchell says. “It was all about religion and what I thought about homosexuality and drinking and smoking.”) She wasn’t born again, and she didn’t often go to church. She also advertised herself as a liberal. When Sean heard that, he hooted at her, “We had a black son before we had a Democrat friend!”
Still, in spite of these presumed defects, Mitchell was relentless and effusive — the sort of woman who wants everything to be just great between her and the rest of the world but, if it isn’t, can adjust and go to war. And that’s what she did. She worked five nights a week, four hours each night, free, to help get Michael Oher into Ole Miss, her alma mater. The Tuohy family looked on with interest. “There were days when he was just overwhelmed,” says Collins, who saw the academic drama unfold both at school and at home. “He’d just close his book and say, ‘I’m done.”’ When he did this, Mitchell opened the book for him. She didn’t care much about football, but she fairly quickly became attached to Michael. There was just something about him that made you want to help him. He tried so hard and for so little return. “One night it wasn’t going so well, and I got frustrated,” Mitchell says, “and he said to me, ‘Miss Sue, you have to remember I’ve only been going to school for two years.”’
His senior year he made all A’s and B’s. It nearly killed him, but he did it. The Briarcrest academic marathon, in which Michael started out a distant last and had instantly fallen farther behind, came to a surprising end: in a class of 157 students, he finished 154th. He had caught up to and passed three of his classmates. When Sean saw the final report card, he turned to Michael with a straight face and said, “You didn’t lose; you just ran out of time.”
He had had a truly bizarre academic career: nothing but D’s and F’s until the end of his junior year, when all of a sudden he became a reliable member of Briarcrest’s honor roll. He was going to finish with a grade-point average of 2.05. Amazing as that was, however, it wasn’t enough to get him past the N.C.A.A. He needed a 2.65. And with no more classes to take, he obviously would not get it.
Now it was Sean’s turn to intervene.
From a friend, Sean learned about the Internet courses offered by Brigham Young University. The B.Y.U. courses had magical properties: a grade took a mere 10 days to obtain and could be used to replace a grade from an entire semester on a high-school transcript. Pick the courses shrewdly and work quickly, and the most tawdry academic record could be renovated in a single summer. Sean scanned the B.Y.U. catalog and found a promising series. It was called “Character Education.” All you had to do in such a “character course” was to read a few brief passages from famous works — a speech by Lou Gehrig here, a letter by Abraham Lincoln there — and then answer five questions about it. How hard could it be? The A’s earned from character courses could be used to replace F’s earned in high-school English classes. And Michael never needed to leave the house!
Thus began the great Mormon grade-grab. Mainly it involved Sue Mitchell grinding through the character courses with Michael. Every week or so, they replaced a Memphis public school F with an A from B.Y.U. Every assignment needed to be read aloud and decoded. Here he was, late in his senior year in high school, and he had never heard of a right angle or the Civil War or “I Love Lucy.” But getting the grades was far easier than generating in Michael any sort of pleasure in learning. When Briarcrest gave him a list of choices of books to write a report on, Mitchell, thinking it might spark Michael’s interest, picked “Great Expectations.” “Because of the character of Pip,” she says. “He was poor and an orphan. And someone sort of found him. I just thought Michael might be able to relate.” He couldn’t. She tried
There was one final piece of unfinished business in Michael Oher’s Briarcrest career. The senior yearbook picture was due, and Michael didn’t have one. It was a Briarcrest tradition for every senior to have his baby picture in the senior program. Her lack of a baby picture for Michael drove Leigh Anne to distraction. “You don’t want to be the only senior who doesn’t have a baby picture in the annual!” she told him. She made Michael give her the name of the foster home he admitted to having lived in when he was 8. She called the foster mother, who sounded vague; at any rate, she had nothing on him. She went down to his biological mother’s apartment and harassed her for pictures. Later, she finally came upon one shot, taken by an employee of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services when Michael was about 10 years old. She brought it home and gave it to Michael.
Michael looked at it and exclaimed, “Mama, that’s me!”
“That sure is you!” she said.
Then he took it into the den and stared at it for 15 minutes.
But the picture didn’t solve the problem. It wasn’t a baby picture. One spring night Leigh Anne had an idea. She flipped on her computer and went online and found, as she puts it, “the cutest picture of a little black baby I could find.” She downloaded the stranger’s photo and sent it in to Briarcrest.
The Briarcrest Christian School held its graduation ceremony in a church in May 2005. The Tuohys were all in the audience, of course, and they brought Sue Mitchell with them. Steve Simpson was there, and so was Jennifer Graves, who says that she has never seen anyone work so hard for a piece of paper as Michael Oher worked to get his Briarcrest diploma. Big Tony was on hand — even though his son, Steven, wouldn’t graduate until the following year. The Briarcrest president gave a long speech filled with many words of warning to the graduating class. He explained that when they left Briarcrest and went out into the world, they would encounter “all kinds of groups that claim some kind of privilege based on their lifestyles or perversions.” (There was no need to say “gay”; they knew all about sodomy.) He spoke sternly about the danger of “seeking false happiness in a variety of narcissistic pleasures.” After that final jolt of fear from God, the graduates were called forward to collect their rewards. Steve Simpson called their names, one by one; one by one, they stepped up. Michael wasn’t called until nearly the end. He sat waiting in the back row, upper lip tucked beneath lower, either choking back his emotion or settling his nerves.
“Michael Jerome Oher,” said Steve Simpson and smiled.
The N.C.A.A. still needed its proof of Michael’s new and improved grade-point average by Aug. 1. Ole Miss was willing to admit Michael Oher as a student, but the N.C.A.A. stood between them in a couple of ways. First, it had opened an investigation and voiced the suspicion that the Tuohys had become Michael’s guardians and put him into their wills as an equal of their own children only so that he might play left tackle for their alma mater. Next, the N.C.A.A. said his grade-point average was just a tad too low for him to play college football. On July 29, Michael took his final B.Y.U. test — another character course. Sean sent the test to Utah by Federal Express, and the B.Y.U. people promised to have the grade ready by 2 o’clock the following afternoon. “The Mormons may be going to hell,” Sean says. “But they really are nice people.” With Michael’s final A in hand, Sean rushed the full package to the N.C.A.A.’s offices in
One year later, Michael Oher was a first-team freshman All-American, the starting left tackle of the Ole Miss Rebels and the most awesome force on a football field that a lot of college line coaches had ever seen. He was on a collision course with the second-highest-paid job in the N.F.L. He could read and write and now blended so well socially into rich white Memphis that rich white Memphis almost forgot he was black. Drowned in nurture, his I.Q. test score had risen between 20 and 30 points. And his new parents, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, were so pleased with the results of their experiment that they began to figure out how best to go back into the inner city and do it all over again.Continue reading the main story
Questioning the Story:
Why did Leigh Anne Tuohy take Michael in?
"I just think Michael needed somebody, and it was so evident that there was nobody in his life. It just broke my heart," the real Leigh Anne Tuohy said in a December 2009 20/20 TV interview.
Was Michael Oher's birth mother really a crack addict?Yes. The Blind Side true story reveals that Michael's birth mother had been addicted to crack cocaine. "She wasn't really around too much," Michael recalled in a 20/20 interview. "I took care of myself most of the time." He was one of twelve kids growing up in a broken home in Hurt Village, a housing project located in crime ridden North Memphis.
What happened to Michael's father?
Like in The Blind Side movie, Michael Oher's birth father was murdered. He was shot and killed, then thrown off an overpass on the west side of Memphis. Michael didn't learn of his father's death until three months after it happened, partially because it took time for his father to be identified. Tony Henderson, who helped Michael get into Briarcrest, called the school office with the news of Michael's father's death. Michael's father hadn't been around when he was growing up. -The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game
The real Big Tony (right) played a more significant role in Michael's life than his movie character (left).
The character in the movie who refers to himself as Tony Hamilton is based on Tony Henderson (aka Big Tony), who in real life runs an athletic program that mentors teens in his neighborhood. Recognizing Michael's unstable home life, Tony took Michael in. "He was a good kid," Tony recalls. "He was real quiet and especially stayed to himself." Like in The Blind Side movie, Tony took his teenage son Steven to be enrolled in Briarcrest Christian School, and he brought Michael along with them (20/20). In real life, Tony worked across town as a mechanic, as stated in the movie (Evolution of a Game).
Why did the filmmakers change the name of the school to Wingate for the film?
In the movie, the Christian school that Michael attends is named Wingate and is the home of the Wingate Crusaders football team. Through our research into the Michael Oher true story we discovered that the real name of the school is Briarcrest, home of the Briarcrest Saints. "It wasn't adversarial, there were just concerns," Briarcrest president Mark Merrill said. He noted that there were several school administrators who were concerned over instances of "artistic license" in the original script that stretched the truth. -CommercialAppeal.com
The real coach (Hugh Freeze, right) and his onscreen counterpart (left).
Yes. According to the Michael Lewis book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, the football coach at Briarcrest, Hugh Freeze (referred to as Burt Cotton in the movie), did encourage his colleagues to accept Michael's application.
Was Michael immediately let into Briarcrest like in the movie?
No. When researching The Blind Side facts vs fiction, it was revealed that due to Michael Oher's poor and nearly non-existent academic record as of 2002, the principal at Briarcrest insisted that he participate in a home school program for a few months first to get his grades up. -The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game
Prior to attending Briarcrest Christian School, where else had Michael gone to school?
Prior to Briarcrest, Michael had been to 11 schools in 9 years, often skipping class. During one year at Westwood High School, he was absent 51 days. By his freshman year of high school his grade point average was .06. "It was easy for me to say, ya know, 'I'm going to hang out with these guys and do drugs and not go to school,'" Michael said, "but I decided I didn't want to do it. I wanted to be something in life." -20/20
The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game
Tackle the real story as author Michael Lewis presents Oher's journey without the Hollywood sugarcoating, revealing certain less flattering details about Oher's path to college football and eventually the NFL. This isn't to say his experience isn't inspiring; the book just does a better job at disclosing every aspect of the story.
How did Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy learn about Michael Oher?
The Tuohy's then 15-year-old daughter Collins was in one of Michael's classes and she told her father about the big quiet new guy in her class. Sean made an effort to get to know him and realized that he was hungry all day and that he had no money to buy lunch. So, Sean started to pay for his lunches. -Author Michael Lewis Interview
Did the father, Sean Tuohy, first spot Michael in the stands at his daughter's volleyball game?
No. The real Sean Tuohy did first spot Michael Oher when he was sitting in the stands of the Briarcrest gym, but it was during basketball practice, not Sean's daughter's volleyball game. At that point, Michael was still academically ineligible to play on the Briarcrest boys basketball team. -NYTimes.com
Was Leigh Anne the first one in the Tuohy family to help Michael?
No. Unlike what we see in the movie, in real life Leigh Anne's husband Sean started paying for Michael's lunch at school before his wife encountered Michael on the side of the road. A fictional account of this can be seen in the DVD's deleted scenes. -Author Michael Lewis Interview
The real biology teacher, Marilyn Beasley (right), found potential after giving Michael a test verbally.
Yes. Early in the movie, Mrs. Boswell (Kim Dickens) reads the beginning of an essay that the real Michael Oher wrote, which he titled "White Walls." In reality, he actually wrote the essay later during his senior year, as he reflected on his initial days at Briarcrest Christian High School. Mrs. Boswell is based on the real life Marilyn Beasley, a biology teacher at Briarcrest who discovered that Michael did much better when his tests were administered orally. The beginning of Michael's "White Walls" essay reads:
I look and I see white everywhere: white walls, white floors, and a lot of white people…. The teachers are not aware that I have no idea of anything they are talking about. I do not want to listen to anyone, especially the teachers. They are giving homework and expecting me to do the problems on my own. I've never done homework in my life. I go to the bathroom, look in the mirror, and say, "This is not Mike Oher. I want to get out of this place." -Evolution of a Game
Did Michael Oher really encounter Leigh Anne Tuohy on the side of the road?
"There were a few artistic liberties taken in that scene," the real Leigh Anne Tuohy told Mike Huckabee during a Fox News Channel interview. Unlike the rainy nighttime scene in the movie, The Blind Side true story reveals that Leigh Anne's encounter with Michael on the side of the road really happened on a cold morning during Thanksgiving break. She and her husband watched Michael get off a city bus in the snow wearing only cutoff blue jeans and a t-shirt. Like in the movie, Michael was on his way to the school gym in order to escape the weather and find warmth. In reality, Leigh Anne didn't offer Michael a place to stay immediately. Instead, their encounter on the side of the road on that snowy November morning in 2002, prompted her to pick Michael up at Briarcrest the next day and take him shopping. She couldn't ignore that he had been out in the cold in cutoff jeans and a t-shirt, the same outfit he was seen wearing every day. -Evolution of a Game
Was the Tuohy family the only family that Michael Oher stayed with while attending Briarcrest?
No. In reality, it took months after the roadside encounter before the Tuohy family welcomed Michael into their home. For months, Michael actually continued staying with Tony Henderson (aka Big Tony), the mechanic whose son also attended Briarcrest Christian School. And for months after that, at least five different families, both white and black, provided Michael with a place to stay after his coaches realized that he didn't have a home. This eventually included the Tuohy family. "He'd stay here once in a while and then he'd leave," says Sean Tuohy, "and then he seemed more comfortable to stay." (20/20) With regard to the Tuohy family, the real Michael Oher said, "When I moved in with Leigh Anne and Sean, I felt loved, like part of a family. In the other houses I didn't feel like part of the family. I didn't feel like they wanted me there." -Evolution of a Game
How old was Michael Oher when Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy took him in?
Michael was 16-years-old when Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy welcomed him into their home.
Does the real Leigh Anne Tuohy work as an interior decorator?
Yes. Leigh Anne works as an interior decorator and is a graduate of the University of Mississippi. After Michael Oher made it to the NFL and moved to Baltimore to play for the Ravens, Leigh Anne helped him decorate his suburban home.
Was the Tuohy's daughter Collins really a high school volleyball player?
No. In real life the Tuohy's daughter Collins was a state champion pole vaulter. She was also a high school cheerleader, as seen in the movie. -Good Morning America
Michael Oher as a kid around 10-years-old.
Yes. Being one of twelve children growing up in the projects, the real Michael Oher never had his own bed. Like Sandra Bullock's character does in the movie, Leigh Anne bought him a futon to sleep on since her husband told her that the larger pro athletes use them if they can't find a bed big enough. -NYTimes.com
Did everyone really call him "Big Mike"?
Yes. As in the movie, most people who knew Michael Oher referred to him as "Big Mike". This included the people he knew back in Hurt Village where he grew up and the people he met at Briarcrest Christian School. Like in The Blind Side movie, in real life he admitted to Leigh Anne that he hated to be called "Big Mike". -Evolution of a Game
Just how big was Michael Oher?
When he was 15-years-old Michael was 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed 350 pounds (20/20). In 2010 as a member of the Baltimore Ravens NFL team, Michael Oher was listed at 6-4 with a weight of 309 pounds (BaltimoreRavens.com). His onscreen counterpart in The Blind Side movie, Quinton Aaron, is 6-8 and weighs 472 pounds (20/20).
Did Michael Oher really have to learn to play football when he first joined the high school team?
No. This was grossly exaggerated in the movie. Michael did not have to learn how to play football, and Leigh Anne never walked onto the practice field to inspire Michael by telling him to protect his team as if he was protecting their family. The film's suggestion that he needed to be taught how to play football upset the real Michael Oher, "That part right there, it really got me because it was never like that. I've always known how to play the game of football. I've always had a passion for the game. You know, it's Hollywood, so I mean that's what they do, but at the end of the day it's still a good story."
Was he really a timid player who had to be toughened up?
No. "I've always had that fire and passion in me on the field," says Michael. "You can't put aggression into a person. It's impossible. Either you have that toughness and aggression or you don't." -20/20
Did the Tuohy's son S.J. really help teach Michael about football?
No. As the real Michael Oher stated above, he already knew how to play football. When Michael Oher was taken in by the Tuohy family, the Tuohy's son S.J. (Sean Jr.) was 8-years-old at the time (NYTimes.com). Actor Jay Head, who portrays S.J. in the movie, had just turned 11-years-old when filming began, although onscreen he looks to be a few years younger than he is and more in line with the true story. The real S.J. was not nearly as small either. He was by no means the pipsqueak that we see onscreen. Michael and S.J. did play sports together recreationally, but S.J. didn't have to teach him anything.
Did Michael really remain silent when taunted by racist fans at a game?
No. As Michael Lewis states in his book, when racist fans were taunting him, the real Michael Oher flipped them the bird.
Did Michael really lift up a trash talking opponent and carry him off the field by his pads?
Yes. During a scrimmage against a team from Munford, the defensive end who lined up across from Michael delivered a hefty dose of trash talk with every play, threatening Michael and calling him fat. Like in the movie, when the opportunity arose during a play later in the game, Michael lifted his trash talking opponent up by his pads and began to carry him off the field, through the Munford bench, across the cinder track and toward his bus. In real life, Michael got the Munford player up to the fence but not over it (unlike what we see in the movie) before a group of Munford players piled on top of him. Unsure what penalty to call, the refs penalized Michael for "excessive blocking", the same unusual penalty called in the movie. -Evolution of a Game
Collins Tuohy (right) and Michael Oher during their days at Ole Miss.
No. The real Collins Tuohy never had to overcome taunting at school because of Michael staying with her family. "My friends were very open to Michael," Collins said. "They were very sweet to him and we all got along really well." After investigating The Blind Side true story, we discovered that the reality of Collin's support of Michael was actually much more profound than what is seen onscreen. Collins Tuohy, an honor student, rearranged her entire class schedule in order to help Michael. She dropped all of her AP (advanced placement) classes to be in Michael's English and math classes, so that she could understand what his assignments were. She spent several hours at night helping him with his homework. "That was the most studying I'd ever done in my life," Collins recalled (20/20). Collins isn't quite as timid as her onscreen counterpart and being seen with Michael at school was never an issue. She was a cheerleader and he played football, and they both were on the track team together (Huckabee).
Did Leigh Anne really have to deal with haughty women questioning her decision to take Michael in?
Yes. In the movie, Leigh Anne's (Sandra Bullock) friends ask her intrusive questions about Michael during a lunch gathering. The real Leigh Anne Tuohy commented on this in Michael Lewis' book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, "We knew people were going to have issues because we had a daughter exactly the same age," Leigh Anne admitted. Leigh Anne faced countless questions from people she encountered at shops, restaurants and school events, all typically asking, "How have you handled it?" More specifically, one of the questions they often asked her was how she handled Michael's sexual urges, him being a teenage boy living under the same roof as her daughter. Eventually, Leigh Anne let her opinion of this line of questioning be known, "You just need to mind your own business. You worry about your own life and I'll worry about mine," she said.
Was Leigh Anne Tuohy conscious of where Michael came from and the fact that he was black?
"It had nothing to do with what color Michael was or how big he was," Leigh Anne told 20/20 interviewer Deborah Roberts. "He was a child that had a need, and it needed to be filled."
Did Michael really inspire the Tuohy family to sit around the dinner table?
Yes, but in real life this happened on a regular basis, as Sean Tuohy pointed out in an interview. "He made us sit around the dinner table. But if we were going to spend time with him, we'd come eat at the table. We haven't eaten at the table since he left," Sean stated jokingly. -20/20
Did a gang member really taunt Leigh Anne when she visited Michael's mother?
No. Gang members never taunted Leigh Anne. However, once when she was dropping Michael off after taking him clothes shopping, he did tell her to stay in the car like his character does in the movie. The main gang member in the movie, Alton, is loosely based on Delvin Lane, the leader of a gang that hung around the Hurt Village housing projects. As emphasized somewhat in the movie, Michael never associated with such individuals. His closest friend from his old neighborhood was Craig Vail, whom he often told the Tuohy's about and later brought to their home. Craig was a person Michael could trust, who never expected or asked for anything. -Evolution of a Game
Was Michael really adopted by the Tuohys?
Yes. Like in The Blind Side movie, the Michael Oher true story confirms that he was legally adopted by Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy.
How does Michael react to black people who criticize the notion of the wealthy white family helping the poor black kid?
"I don't understand why people would feel that way," the real Michael Oher said, "because as long as somebody is helping somebody and taking somebody off the streets, I don't care, you know, black or white or whatever, it should never be a problem." -20/20
The real Tuohy family Christmas card photo vs. the movie photo (inset).
Yes. The actual photo is shown on the right. Like in the movie, Leigh Anne says that her cousin called her to ask her about the photo. "He said, 'I'm not trying to be rude or anything. Who's the black boy in the Christmas card?'" -20/20
Did the Tuohys really hire a tutor for Michael?
Yes. In The Blind Side movie, the Tuohys hire Kathy Bates' character, Miss Sue, to tutor Michael. In real life, Sue Mitchell spoke about her routine with Michael, "We worked hours and hours every day. He would come home, he'd take a shower and we would work until at least 11:30 every night. And we did this six nights a week." (20/20) By his senior year at Briarcrest, Michael was making the honor roll (Author Michael Lewis Interview).
Was the tutor really a liberal, or was that Hollywood injecting its views?
In The Blind Side movie, the tutor, Miss Sue (Kathy Bates), admits to Leigh Anne (Sandra Bullock) that she is a liberal who is more spiritual than religious. In real life, Leigh Anne Tuohy met Sue Mitchell at a sorority function. Sue was a retired public school teacher and cheerleading coach. It's true that Sue Mitchell was turned down a job at Briarcrest Christian School because she didn't share their religious beliefs. It's also true that she was a liberal, to which the real Sean Tuohy replied, "We had a black son before we had a Democrat friend!" -NYTimes.com
Did the accident really happen?
Yes. In the movie, a distracted Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) doesn't see a landscaping truck backing out in front of him as he and S.J. are on their way to get the new Madden videogame that has just come out. The Blind Side true story reveals that the accident actually happened in icy conditions when Michael's truck skidded across the divide traveling at 25 miles per hour and crashed head-on into a big van, which was also moving at 25 miles per hour. When Leigh Anne first arrived on the scene of the accident, she approached Michael who was sobbing uncontrollably to the point she could hardly understand what he was trying to tell her. -Evolution of a Game
In real life, S.J.'s injuries looked much worse than what we see in the movie. In addition to blood being on his shirt, S.J.'s face was so severely swollen that his mother almost didn't recognize him. Surprisingly, despite the swelling, no bones were broken. -Evolution of a Game
Did Michael really stop the airbag with his arm?
Yes. When Leigh Anne came home from the hospital, she delivered the news that S.J. was okay and that the doctors were amazed that his facial injuries weren't more severe. It was then that Michael held out his arm to show Leigh Anne the unsightly burn mark that ran down the length of it. -Evolution of a Game
Does Leigh Anne's husband Sean Tuohy really own dozens of Taco Bell restaurants?
Yes, Leigh Anne's husband Sean is one of three partners who operate RGT Management, Inc., a corporation that owns more than 80 restaurants under the Taco Bell, Long John Silver's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Off the Grill brands. RGT's stores can be found across Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky, Ohio and Missouri. -Memphis Business Journal
What's not mentioned in The Blind Side movie is that Sean Tuohy also works as a sports commentator and as of 2009 was in his ninth season as a broadcaster for the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies. He also has seven years experience serving as a broadcast analyst on radio programs at Ole Miss, in addition to working on national broadcasts for Westwood One and CBS Radio. -NBA.com
Was Leigh Anne's husband Sean Tuohy really a former college basketball star?
Yes. Leigh Anne's husband Sean Tuohy played college basketball for The University of Mississippi (Ole Miss). He was named All-SEC in each of the four seasons that he played and was named to the All-Century SEC team. In 1982, he was drafted by the New Jersey Nets but instead opted to continue his career overseas before returning to the US to be with his father during his final days. -NBA.com
Did Michael play any other sports at Briarcrest?
Yes. Although it's not focused on in the movie, Michael Oher's basketball talent made him runner-up high school Player of the Year in Tennessee.
Are the college football coaches who recruit Michael in the movie played by the real coaches?
The southeastern conference (SEC) coaches who appear in the movie are portrayed by the actual coaches who recruited Michael Oher. This includes former Notre Dame and then South Carolina coach Lou Holtz, former LSU coach Nick Saban, former Arkansas coach (and current Ole Miss coach) Houston Nutt, former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, and ex-Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron, who actually won the fierce recruiting battle for Michael Oher. -ESPN.com
Did the Tuohy's son S.J. really have demands for the college recruiters?
"What's in it for me," S.J. asks the recruiters in movie, making demands such as being allowed to lead the team onto the field. "I don't know if it's quite like that," the real S.J. admitted. "I think Jay [John Lee Hancock] might have pulled me off better than I pull myself off." S.J.'s parents interjected, "He worked those coaches pretty hard," Sean Tuohy added. "Don't let him fool ya." (Huckabee) Lewis' book states that the only sort of perk S.J. got was a tour through The Grove (a popular campus tailgating spot) from Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron.
Did Michael take any academic shortcuts to become eligible for the NCAA?
In his February 2010 article "Why 'The Blind Side' is Too Good to be True", Entertainment Weekly columnist Mark Harris is critical of some of Michael Oher's methods to become eligible for the NCAA, stating that Oher's methods largely trash educational ethics.
Michael had nothing but D's and F's until the end of his junior year. However, he made all A's and B's during his senior year, but with no more classes to take, he could at best only finish with a 2.05 grade-point average. This was a problem since the NCAA required a 2.65 GPA (NYTimes.com). Regarding Michael and the Tuohy's questionable academic efforts to fix this problem, columnist Harris focuses on 10-day internet courses that Michael took his senior year from Brigham Young University, in order to replace existing F's on his transcript with A's. Harris refers to the courses as "an NCAA eligibility trick." The author of The Blind Side book labels the practice as "the great Mormon grade grub." Sean Tuohy had gotten the idea from a friend and the effort was being managed by Michael's tutor Sue Mitchell. (Evolution of a Game).
Sean Tuohy selected a series of 10-day online BYU character courses for Michael to complete over the summer with Sue Mitchell's help. All that each course required students to do was to read a few brief passages from famous works or speeches and then answer five questions on it. A's that Michael earned in these character courses could be used to replace existing F's that he had earned in high school English courses. Sean's strategy for Michael almost didn't work because even after he had been accepted to Ole Miss, the NCAA said that his GPA was still a bit too low to play college football. Sean quickly enrolled him in another BYU internet character course and on August 1, 2005 the NCAA finally accepted him. -NYTimes
Another loophole that Sean had found was that since Michael had been certified as learning-disabled, he was allowed to retake the ACT tests as many times as he wanted and Miss Sue was on hand to help him analyze the questions. Recouping a small amount of points on the ACT meant that he needed less on his GPA, since the NCAA had a sliding scale when it came to ACT scores and grade-point averages. If you had a higher ACT score, then you didn't need as high of a GPA to be eligible. -Evolution of a Game
Was Michael Oher really investigated by the NCAA?
Yes. NCAA investigator Joyce Thompson visited the family several times, interviewing both Michael Oher and Sean Tuohy. She was particularly concerned with how Michael was going to become NCAA eligible given that his high school transcripts still contained eight Fs. She wanted to know more about the Brigham Young study program (see above question), but Michael wasn't speaking up and Sean Tuohy claimed that he didn't know the details since Michael's tutor, Sue Mitchell, had been handling it. The NCAA investigator was also interested in discovering if the Tuohy's had pressured Michael into attending their alma mater, Ole Miss, which is similar to what is depicted in the movie. -Evolution of a Game
How do Leigh Anne and Sean react to allegations that it was in their interest for Michael to go to college at their alma mater, Ole Miss?
In the movie, Michael is questioned by an NCAA investigator over whether or not Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy had a grand plan for Michael to go to their alma mater Ole Miss. When interviewer Deborah Roberts suggested to Leigh Anne that some people think that she and Sean took a black teen in to mold him and make him what they wanted him to be, Leigh Anne responded by saying, "Nobody has the guts to say that to my face. No one has ever said that to my face. And if they did, I would tell them don't let the door hit their butt on the way out." -20/20
Did Michael really get in a fight when he was waiting to see his mom?
No. Michael did not get into a fight with gang members in his old neighborhood. However, after researching The Blind Side true story, we discovered that while he was in college at Ole Miss, Michael got into a fight with teammate Antonio Turner who had visited the Tuohy's home. At some point after his visit, Turner called Michael a cracker for living with a white family. Antonio also made comments to Michael suggesting that he was going to have sex with Michael's white sister and white mother (similar to the comments made by the gang member in the movie). This infuriated Michael who chased after Antonio and eventually tracked him down hiding at the study hall where the football players studied with their tutors. Michael threw the 230 pound Antonio into the ground, picked him up by the throat, beat him in the face and threw him across the room. In the process, the 3-year-old son of one of the tutors was knocked to the floor and suffered a bad head wound. The small white boy laid on the floor in a pool of his own blood. When Michael saw what had happened to the boy, he ran off. Antonio was taken to one of the coaches homes for protection. At Sean Tuohy's urging, Michael eventually turned himself in to the campus police, and Sean called his friend, well known attorney Steve Farese. Michael ended up making apologies and was given ten hours of community service. -Evolution of a Game
Regarding Michael going back to his old neighborhood to see his mom, it is stated in author Michael Lewis' book that whenever Michael Oher went back to his old neighborhood bad things often happened. For instance, on one occasion Michael arrived at his birth mother's apartment to find her being arrested. She had been driving around in a truck that had belonged to a man who turned up murdered. The police asked Michael what he was doing there and then took him into custody to central lockup. Sean had to get him out.
Did Leigh Anne really fake Michael's baby picture for his graduation?
Yes. The real Leigh Anne Tuohy went online and found a picture of the cutest little black baby she could find. The picture appeared in the senior program at graduation, not blown up on stage like we see in the movie. -NYTimes.com
Was Michael excited to graduate high school?
"It was unbelievable, just to walk across the stage and shake the president's hand." Michael said. "I was the first one out of anybody that I ever knew to graduate, so it was a great experience." -20/20
Tuohy family on the field at Ole Miss, where Michael and Collins attended.
"Ole Miss was right down the road," Michael said, "and I figured it would be easier for my family, you know, my friends to get down to Oxford to come see me play." (ABCNews.go.com) He received more than a thousand letters from college football recruiting programs, with Penn State being the only major football school that didn't offer him a full scholarship. -Evolution of a Game
How long did Michael live with the Tuohy family?
Michael was a sophomore when he came to Briarcrest. He began staying regularly at the Tuohy's in the fall of his junior year, 2003 (NYTimes.com). He remained with the Tuohys until he left for college at Ole Miss. Officially adopted by the family, Michael returned often to visit, sometimes bringing players from the Ole Miss team with him (Evolution of a Game).
Did Michael's high school tutor, Miss Sue, really continue to help him at college?
Yes. At the end of the movie, Michael's tutor, Miss Sue (Kathy Bates), is shown on his college campus making a comment about moving her things into an apartment nearby. In real life, Michael's tutor, Sue Mitchell, did continue to tutor Michael at Ole Miss. -Evolution of a Game
Did Michael Oher ever graduate college?
Yes. Michael graduated from the University of Mississippi (aka Ole Miss) after playing football for the Ole Miss Rebels for four years. While attending Ole Miss, Michael made the dean's list. He and the Tuohy's daughter Collins were the same age in real life (they were a year apart in the movie). Collins also went to college at Ole Miss, which allowed the two of them to grow even closer due to their shared experiences.
Leigh Anne Tuohy congratulates Michael Oher at the 2009 NFL Draft.
In 2009, Michael was selected as the 23rd pick in the first round of the NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens. The entire Tuohy family was with him at the draft, in addition to his tutor Miss Sue and his older brother Marcus. He entered the league as a starting lineman on the Ravens team, signing a $13 million contract. In his rookie season Michael started every game and was named the NFL's Rookie of the Month for December 2009. Oher finished second to Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin in the Associated Press NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year voting (BaltimoreRavens.com).
Are the Tuohys still as in touch with Michael now that he's an NFL star?
Yes. Eight years after they brought Michael into their home, the Tuohys are just as devoted to him. On game days, they take a private jet to go see him play. -20/20
Where does Michael live now?
Michael, 23, bought his own home and lives in suburban Baltimore. Leigh Anne, an interior decorator, helped him to spruce it up. "I definitely came a long way," says Michael. "Growing up in the projects in some of the roughest parts in Memphis. …it was a long road. Everyday I'm like, 'wow, how did I get here?'"
What song plays during the credits at the end of The Blind Side movie?
The Blind Side credits song is called "Chances" by the group Five For Fighting. The song can be found on the The Blind Side Movie Soundtrack and on Five For Fighting's album Slice.
How did actor Quinton Aaron land the role of Michael Oher?
Before auditioning for the part of Michael Oher, a then 23-year-old Quinton Aaron was working as a security guard. He was living in a rough neighborhood in the Bronx with his brother and mother, and it was his mother who discovered the casting call online. After director John Lee Hancock saw Quinton's tape, he flew him out to Los Angeles to meet in person. After the meeting, Quinton gave Hancock a card with his contact information and offered to work as a security guard on the movie set if he didn't get the part. -20/20
It took a year before casting was complete and Quinton was notified that he got the part. During that time Quinton's mother had died and he was unable to pay his rent. On the verge of being evicted from his apartment, he got a phone call telling him that he got the part. Quinton drew from his own personal experiences to help relate to his onscreen character. -20/20
Why didn't Michael Oher attend the movie's premieres?
"I am not curious," Michael told The Baltimore Sun. "I am not in a hurry to see it, but I will watch it eventually." Baltimore Ravens veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason responded by saying, "He lived the life, so he is concentrating on playing football." Oher put his focus on his job in the NFL, for which he was awarded the NFL's Rookie of the Month in December 2009. Despite missing the premieres, the somewhat shy and reserved Oher has since seen the movie.
Michael Lewis' Blind Side book.
In the new afterword to the paperback edition of his book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, author Michael Lewis writes that the purpose of his story was to "examine the many forces—chance encounters with a family, big changes in football strategy—that affected the value of this one unlucky turned lucky boy." Lewis says the thing that impressed him was that Michael Oher, who was 6 foot 2 inches tall and 350 pounds at the age of sixteen, and ran a 4-9-40, was already considered by many to be bound for the NFL. Michael Lewis is a non-fiction author and financial journalist. He is married to former MTV news anchor Tabitha Soren.
Why is the movie called The Blind Side?
As diagrammed with the Joe Theismann/Lawrence Taylor footage at the beginning of the movie (see below), Michael Oher's position on the football field is left tackle. It is the left tackle's job to protect the quarterback's blind side.
The Blind Side Interviews & Related Video
Watch interviews and video exploring the Michael Oher true story. See the complete footage of the Lawrence Taylor hit on Joe Theismann that is featured at the beginning of movie. Watch interviews with the Tuohy family and a separate interview with author Michael Lewis that further explores The Blind Side facts vs. fiction.
WATCHLawrence Taylor Hit on Joe Theismann
During the November 18, 1985 telecast of Monday Night Football, viewers watched in shock as the New York Giants' Lawrence Taylor delivered a career ending sack on the Washington Redskins' quarterback Joe Theismann (opening scene of The Blind Side). May be too graphic for younger viewers and the squeamish.
WATCHAuthor Michael Lewis Interview
Watch an interview with Michael Lewis, author of the book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, which became the basis for the Sandra Bullock movie. Lewis discusses what inspired him to write the book about Michael Oher.
WATCHCBN News Piece on Michael Oher
This report features Michael, the Tuohys, and Tony Henderson (aka Big Tony), who helped to look after Michael prior to his time with the Tuohy family. Big Tony was also responsible for getting him into Briarcrest Christian High School.
WATCHThe Blind Side Trailer
Sandra Bullock stars as southern mother who takes in and adopts a black teenager, whose immense size and athletic ability enable him to have a future that he never dreamt possible. Based on actual events.