The Other Big Mike

Michael Lewis found a Cinderella story in the NFL.

It’s a standing-room-only crowd — odd, considering that the topic is pigskin, and there doesn’t seem to be a single Monday Night Football fan in the bunch. But the book at hand isn’t some retired NFL coach’s soporific as-told-to. It’s an absorbing look at the shifting priorities of the game, the business of the game, and, most strikingly, a hulking survivor of a Dickensian childhood who will soon be a football star.

At Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore in the Elmwood on a chilly Thursday night, dozens of people hang on every word as one local best-selling author — Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) — interviews another, Michael Lewis (Liar’s Poker, Moneyball). When Pollan isn’t lobbing an occasional question or comment at his friend, though, he fades away, engrossed like everyone else.

You could brush past Lewis on the street and mistake him for the finance guy he used to be. But in person, and on the page, he’ll hook you. His new book, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game (Norton, $24.95), charts the rise in prominence of the left tackle position in football and eyeballs college-football recruiting, but its true focus is University of Mississippi sophomore Michael Oher, a likely No. 1 NFL draft choice. Born to a crack-addicted mom in a Memphis housing project, Oher has lived a Cinderella story. This waif, though, stands six foot six and carries 350 pounds of muscle and bone.

Growing up in and out of foster homes, then homeless — Lewis describes him as having been a “feral child” — “Big Mike” was taken in by fast-food-joint mogul and former college-basketball star Sean Tuohy and his wife, Leigh Anne, after the youth was fortuitously enrolled in a private Christian school their daughter attended. Oher thought he would be a hoops legend, but a gridiron scout took one look at Oher and announced that his destiny was to protect a quarterback’s blind side.

Left tackles have long been, as Lewis notes, “obscure, overweight, and not very good-looking.” The “lumpen proles of the football world,” as he describes them, have evolved over the past fifteen years from nearly anonymous NFL bit players into big earners: second only to QBs. And Oher is bound to be one of them.

Oher’s story fascinated Lewis, he says, but the almost pathologically shy teenager stymied him. “I’m stuck with this character,” he recalls telling himself, “and he’s never going to say anything.” Checking out Oher’s old stomping grounds, he was told that if wealthy white folks hadn’t whisked Big Mike off the streets, he’d likely have been recruited as a gang leader’s security chief — “the left tackle of the ghetto,” as Lewis puts it — and would likely have ended up not in a football jersey, but in a prison jumpsuit … or under a medical examiner’s sheet.

But the Tuohys stepped in, and Oher’s charmed life began. They’ve been accused of capitalizing on his talent, but he was part of the otherwise white-bread family long before he ever stepped on the grid; they even included him in their Christmas-card photos without explanatory annotation.

He wasn’t an instant sensation on his high-school team, which he joined only in his junior year. Illiterate, Oher rated below-average on IQ tests and sometimes had trouble remembering plays. “When he knew what he was supposed to do, though, the guy across from him was in trouble,” says Lewis, who describes video footage of a rival team’s defensive linemen hightailing it from Oher every time they heard “Hike!”

Big Mike dwarfed everyone else in his class, but he was dead last academically. His adoptive family took care of that, though: For Sean Tuohy — not exactly the kind of guy who cracks open a book whenever he sinks into his La-Z-Boy — “all of a sudden,” Lewis says, “it’s his job to read to his son.” Oher’s class standing soon inched up to 160 out of 161 students.

When Oher’s intelligence was measured again, his score had risen thirty points, and today he’s about to make the dean’s list at Ole Miss: a distinction, Lewis quips, that “will probably trigger an investigation,” considering that the twenty-year-old is still not exactly Rhodes scholarship material.

What motivated the Tuohys to shepherd a product of the projects? Initially, Leigh Anne Tuohy, who is essentially the heart of this story, was reticent about the topic, but Lewis reports that after a couple glasses of wine, she loosened up and said, “God gives people money as a test, and I’m going to pass it.” She long ago rejected her father’s bigotry, and has the same divine explanation about racism. The couple’s focused philanthropy, Leigh Anne told Lewis, is not selfless. To her, it is simply a matter of “I’m going to heaven, and you’re not.”

When Oher decided where he wanted to go to college, though, the motivations of his adoptive parents became suspect: He picked Ole Miss, not exactly a football powerhouse — and, incidentally, their alma mater. An investigation ensued into the deal that got him admitted, and controversy erupted over the rich white couple who had absorbed an athletically talented African-American kid into their home: “To some,” Lewis adds, “it is entirely plausible that white families are collecting black children to play football.”

Big Mike doesn’t see it that way, though. To survive his horrific childhood, he fantasized that he was a star. And, Lewis told the crowd, he very nearly is.


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