Wealth, poverty, faith, love and football: Lewis tells story of 2 extraordinary people

Review Sports

October 15, 2006|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,Sun Reporter

The Blind Side

Michael Lewis

W.W. Norton / 288 pages / $24.95

The Blind Side is about big-time college football, the black inner city, the nouveau-riche white South and evangelical Christianity.

Even if you have no interest in the topics individually, read the book. In Michael Lewis' hands, The Blind Side's whole exceeds its parts and dissolves its genres. It's not a jock book. It's not a sociology book. It's a storybook about modern society, ancient virtues and the power of love, money and talent to do a little good.

There are two extraordinary people in the book. The more obvious is Michael Oher. "Big Mike," when introduced, is 16, basically homeless, 6-foot-5and 340 pounds with the grace and speed of a youth half his size. He is black.

The other extraordinary person, Leigh Anne Tuohy, is a former cheerleader for Ole Miss University who married the basketball team's star point guard and with him achieved the millionaire American dream via a Taco Bell franchise.

Leigh Anne and Big Mike meet by chance when her husband, Sean, becomes acquainted with a very large, troubled boy who has just enrolled as a scholarship student at the private school attended by the two Tuohy children.

Sean Tuohy, the Taco Bell tycoon, has helped other poor black kids at the academy, but not the way he's going to help Big Mike. Leigh Anne Tuohy, a decisive, empathetic woman who lives her faith and likes to take on projects, makes Big Mike her biggest project of all. She starts by buying him clothes and food. Then, realizing Michael Oher has nowhere to call home, the Tuohys invite him to sleep on their couch. Then they give him his own room. Then they adopt him.

We come to know Big Mike as the Tuohys did. First he is an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a size 58 jacket they buy him. He barely speaks. We know nothing of his background, why he fails tests, who his parents are or why he likes hanging out in the gym when there's no practice.

Little by little, truths emerge. His father is dead. His mother is a crack addict who has borne more than a dozen children to several men. He has never had his own bed. He sleeps in a different run-down house each night. He likes the gym because it's heated, unlike other places to which he can repair.

But even as he meets and ultimately joins the Tuohy family, Michael Oher appears only as others see him. He is an object, not a subject. An amazing object, to be sure. A recurring theme is the extreme reactions experienced by the book's (usually white) protagonists upon meeting Big Mike for the first time. His size, grace and speed. His shyness, fear and ignorance.

In a nice bit of structuring, Lewis does not reveal Michael Oher in what might be called "the first person" until the last chapter. His story is deeply sad, but destiny seems to have a happier ending for him, first with the Tuohys, then with the U.S. football-industrial complex.

Starting with his first book, Liar's Poker, Lewis has perfected the art of analyzing interesting changes inside American institutions - the bond market, Major League Baseball - and then decorating the scene with personalities behind the statistics.

Besides chronicling the rise of Michael Oher, The Blind Side is about how left tackle - the offensive lineman two positions down from center - became one of the most important and highly paid positions in professional football.

As the NFL passing game gained importance in the 1980s, the value of the quarterback skyrocketed along with his vulnerability. Good right-handed quarterbacks can dance around pass rushers to their right, whom they can see as they scan the field. It's the ones to their left - their blind side - that cause big trouble. Hence the need for an extraordinary left tackle to protect them. (The Ravens' Jonathan Ogden may be the epitome.)

God made Michael Oher, his coaches and the Tuohys eventually decide, to be an NFL left tackle. Big Mike, who knows little about the game at first and can't understand the coach's diagrams, soon becomes one of the most intensely recruited players in the nation by major colleges.

As with almost any account about college football, there are questionable practices and Herculean efforts to attain required grade averages. Without the benefit of a stable childhood or regular class attendance, Oher is a terrible student. Even after he is admitted to Ole Miss, his eligibility to enroll and play football is in very large doubt.

The reader cringes as Sean Tuohy searches for loopholes such as getting him classified as learning-disabled, which eased some standards, and having him take "character" courses on the Internet to spruce up his transcript.

But the reader also roots for Big Mike. If tutors and bogus courses must supplement the doubly unlikely blessing of NFL talent and surrogate love to get Michael Oher over the top, the reader says, fine.

Jay Hancock is a business columnist for The Sun.

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