Back in the spring of 2004, someone sent a tape to high school football scout Matt Lemmings. The film quality was bad, but he knew immediately he just had to see this kid.
“When he came off the line, it looked like one whole wall was moving,” Lemmings tells Michael Lewis in The Blind Side. “When I saw the tape I guess I didn’t really believe it … No one that big should be able to move that fast. It just wasn’t possible.”
The kid had a name, Michael Oher, and as Michael Lewis reveals in this fascinating and unabashedly heartwarming book, his size and speed were not the only singular things about him.
For starters, the fact that Michael Oher (whose name is pronounced “oar”) was in school at all was a miracle. He possessed an IQ of 80, and a cumulative grade point average of .6. Oher’s mother was an alcoholic and a drug addict. Oher’s biological father was murdered.
Lemmings had no clue about this information when he came down to Memphis to see the physical oddity. As Lewis tells it, Oher was a blank canvas—a rather large, fast-moving one at that—upon which Lemmings saw the possibility of a masterwork: an NFL left tackle.
As in Moneyball, his previous book on baseball strategy, Lewis shows how a single moment in sports history embodies an enormous shift in how that game is played. Here, the need for Michael Oher began in the late ’70s, when the NFL’s passing game began to explode.
The bubble burst in the early ’80s when New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor exploited quarterbacks’ left side—their blind side—sacking them, maiming them and sometimes putting them out for the rest of their career. As quarterback salaries had skyrocketed, NFL coaches desperately needed a player who could protect this investment.
Lewis insists Memphis Grizzly announcer Sean Tuohy wasn’t thinking of these things when he saw Oher sitting on the bleachers in the gymnasium of Briarcrest Christian School. He just saw a kid who might need some help. Oher had been admitted to the school—which was mostly white, academically rigorous and well-to-do—on the basis of his size, and Tuohy, who had worked his way through Ole Miss on a basketball scholarship, knew what it meant to have one skill and one skill only.
What began as an idle act of generosity became for the Tuohys a bear hug so tight it drew even the attention of the NCAA recruiting police. Driving home one day, Tuohy and his wife spotted Oher walking through the cold. “Where are you going?” they asked. “To basketball practice,” Oher replied. “Michael, you don’t have basketball practice,” Tuohy said. “I know,” said Oher, “but they got heat there.”
From that moment, the Tuohy family made Oher their responsibility, and Lewis describes what happened when a 6-foot-5-inch, 350-pound black teenager moved in with a conservative, white, wealthy Memphis family. In no time at all, Oher took to calling Leigh Anne Tuohy, who was his fiercest protector, “mamma,” and their blonde teenage daughter, “my sister.”
Race, Lewis writes, was the least of their issues. They had to find clothes big enough for Oher—even the local pro football team didn’t have anyone as large—they had to find him a tutor, so he would be eligible to play football, and then they had to run interference when hordes of coaches descended with offers of full-ride scholarships.
Lewis is a terrific reporter and a gifted prose stylist. He absorbs the vibrations of the world he immerses himself in without getting carried away. So, as the book progresses, he never loses track of Michael Oher. Although he is a hulking man, Oher is often timid and afraid. He doesn’t like to be touched, he says very little and he trusts almost no one.
In fact, there is a lot about Michael Oher’s past that the Touhys don’t know and can’t know, and Lewis beautifully captures how Oher seems to hide those pains in his massive bulk. One day soon that protective armor will make Michael Oher a very rich man. The Blind Side reminds us he is the exception.