Killer story in nytimes magazine yesterday. long long long but interesting
September 24, 2006
The Ballad of Big Mike
By MICHAEL LEWIS
I. Looking for the Next Anti-Lawrence Taylor
As he drove into Memphis in March 2004, Tom Lemming thought that everything about Michael Oher, including his surname, was odd. He played for a small private school, the Briarcrest Christian School, with no history of generating Division I college football talent. The Briarcrest Christian School team didn’t have many black players either, and Michael Oher was black. But what made Michael Oher especially peculiar was that no one in Memphis had anything to say about him. Lemming had plenty of experience “discovering” great players. Each year he drove 50,000 to 60,000 miles and met, and grilled, between 1,500 and 2,000 high-school juniors while selecting All-American teams for ESPN and College Sports TV. He got inside their heads months before the college recruiters were allowed to shake their hands. Lemming had made some calls and found that the coaches in and around Memphis either didn’t know who Michael Oher was or didn’t think he was any good. He hadn’t made so much as the third-string all-city team. He hadn’t had his name or picture in any newspaper. Had Lemming Googled him, “Oher” would have yielded nothing on Michael. The only proof of his existence was a grainy videotape some coach had sent him out of the blue.
From the tape alone, Lemming couldn’t say how much Michael Oher had helped his team, just that he was big, fast and fantastically explosive. The last time he met a player with this awesome array of physical gifts was back in 1993, when he went to the Sizzler Steakhouse in Sandusky, Ohio, and interviewed a high-school junior working behind the counter named Orlando Pace. “Michael Oher’s athletic ability and his body — the only thing you could compare it to was Orlando Pace,” Lemming said later. “He kind of even looked like Orlando Pace. He wasn’t as polished as Orlando. But Orlando wasn’t Orlando in high school.” Pace had gone from Lemming’s All-American teams to Ohio State, where he played left tackle and won the Outland Trophy, given to the nation’s finest college lineman. In 1997, he signed the largest rookie contract in National Football League history, to play left tackle for the St. Louis Rams, and later signed an even bigger one (seven years, $52.8 million). Pace became, and remained, the team’s highest-paid player — more highly paid than the Rams’ star quarterback, Marc Bulger; the star running back, Marshall Faulk; and the star wide receiver, Isaac Bruce. He was an offensive lineman, but not just any offensive lineman. He protected the quarterback’s blind side.
When Tom Lemming walked into the football meeting room at the University of Memphis looking for Michael Oher, the ghost of Lawrence Taylor was with him. The great New York Giants linebacker of the 1980’s was the first of a series of speedy and exceptionally violent pass rushers who tilted the finances on the N.F.L.’s line of scrimmage. The players on the blind side of a right-handed quarterback — both offensive and defensive — became, on average, far more highly paid than the players on the visible side. By 2004, the five most highly paid N.F.L. left tackles were earning an average of nearly $3 million a year more than the five most highly paid right tackles and more than the five most highly paid running backs and wide receivers.
When Tom Lemming looked at left tackles, he thought in terms of others he had selected for his All-American teams who went on to be stars in the N.F.L.: Pace, Jonathan Ogden, Tony Boselli, Walter Jones. These people looked nothing like most human beings or even like the football players Lemming interviewed in the late 1970’s and 80’s. Among this population of giants, the left-tackle type still stood out. Freak of nature: when he found one of these rare beasts, that’s the phrase that popped into Lemming’s mind. When Lemming put the high-school junior Ogden on the cover of his annual prep report in 1992, Ogden was 6-foot-9 and weighed 320 pounds. (He would fill out in college.) When he did the same with Pace the next year, Pace stood 6-foot-6 and weighed 310 pounds. (And hadn’t stopped growing.) The ideal left tackle was big, but a lot of people were big. What set him apart were his more subtle specifications. He was wide in the rear and massive in the thighs: the girth of his lower body lessened the likelihood that Lawrence Taylor, or his successors, would run right over him. He had long arms: pass rushers tried to get in tight to the blocker’s body, then spin off of it, and long arms helped to keep them at bay. He had giant hands: when he grabbed a defender, it meant something.
But size alone couldn’t cope with the threat to the quarterback’s blind side, because that threat was also fast. The ideal left tackle also had great feet. Incredibly nimble and quick feet. Quick enough feet, ideally, that the prospect of racing him in a five-yard dash made the team’s running backs uneasy. He had the body control of a ballerina and the agility of a basketball player. The combination was just incredibly rare. And so, ultimately, very valuable.
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 New Jersey Nets. And while he didn’t make it in the National Basketball Association, he took his preternatural court sense into the business world and made his fortune — sort of. He owned a chain of 60 Taco Bells, KFC’s and Long John Silver restaurants, along with a mountain of debt. If everything broke right, he might soon be worth as much as $50 million. If everything did not, he could always call games on the radio for the N.B.A.’s Grizzlies, which he had been doing since they arrived in Memphis in 2001. What Atlanta was to the American South, Sean Tuohy was to the white Southern male. Prosperous. Forever upgrading the trappings of his existence. Happy to exchange his past at a deep discount for a piece of the future.
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 Minnesota Vikings. Long was awed by Michael Oher’s raw ability immediately. “When I first saw him,” he says, “I thought, This guy is going to make us all famous.” But then he coached him in the final games of his junior year, after Michael was moved to right tackle on the offensive line, and Long wondered why he wasn’t a better player. One game, he pulled Michael out and sat him on the bench because he thought the team was better off playing another guy.
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, Clemson University, University of Southern Mississippi, University of Tennessee, Florida State University. These weren’t head coaches, just assistants. But still. College coaches of any sort weren’t in the habit of visiting Briarcrest. The Briarcrest football field was in the middle of nowhere. Few of the players had any idea, at first, why these men were present. The Briarcrest coaches knew why, because Freeze had just told them, but they were still as surprised as the players. “I don’t know why they were there,” Tim Long says. “I guess his size just got him noticed.”
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 “Pygmalion.” Again, he hadn’t the faintest interest in the thing. They got through it by performing the work aloud, with Michael assigned to the role of Freddie. “He does wonderful memory work,” Mitchell says. “It’s a survival technique. You can give him anything, and he’ll memorize it.” But that’s all he did. Engaging with the material in any deeper way seemed impossible. He was as isolated from the great works of Western literature as he was from other people. “If you asked him why we’re doing all this,” she says, “he’d say, ‘I got to do it to get to the league.”’
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 Iowa. The N.C.A.A promptly lost it. Sean threatened to fly up on his plane with another copy and sit in the lobby until it was processed — which led the N.C.A.A. to find Michael’s file. While it remained suspicious and didn’t close its investigation, the N.C.A.A. on Aug. 1, 2005, informed Michael Oher that he was going to be allowed to go to college and play football.
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.
Michael Lewis is a contributing writer for the magazine. This article is adapted from his new book, “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game,” to be published next month by W.W. Norton & Company.