Oher's Story 'A Miracle'

Nfl Draft 2009

April 26, 2009|By RICK MAESE | RICK MAESE,rick.maese@baltsun.com

The storyteller always knew he had the makings of a good tale. He was writing about a good kid, a promising football player and an unbelievable back story. In many ways, he had found the perfect character.

But the most surprising thing - for the storyteller and especially for his subject - turned out to be the ending.

"It's so seldom that things work out the way they're supposed to work," author Michael Lewis said, "that I'm a little shocked."

Lewis profiled Oher in The Blind Side, the 2006 New York Times bestseller that is being turned into a movie. You hear Oher's story, you swear it's fiction. At times, you wish it were.

But for Oher and everyone connected with him, every event - the tragic, the difficult, the unfair - they all made Saturday's NFL draft feel that much sweeter. There Oher was in New York City, probably the last place anyone ever envisioned him. The Ravens traded up three spots to select the 6-foot-4, 309-pound offensive tackle with the 23rd pick in the first round. Oher was the last player in the green room at Radio City Music Hall, but he didn't seem to mind a bit.

"Where I'm from, nobody makes it out," Oher explained later.

Growing up with a mother addicted to crack and a father who was shot to death and tossed off a bridge, Oher had little stability as a youth. He bounced around Memphis, Tenn., staying with friends, crashing on floors. Football didn't exist then. School was barely an afterthought.

"It would have been so easy for him to give himself an excuse to fail and to not listen to people, to rebel," Lewis said Saturday night.

The author found that Oher had been enrolled in 11 different institutions in his first nine years of schooling. He repeated the first grade. And the second. There were semesters where he was absent as many as 50 days.

Eventually Oher found himself at a small private school called Briarcrest Christian, where Hugh Freeze, the football coach, wasn't quite sure what he was looking at. Standing before him was a giant of a boy - a mountain of flesh, but still very much a boy. Freeze said Oher was shy, meek, subtle.

"He wouldn't even raise his head to look you in the eyes to talk with you," Freeze said. "He's come miles since then."

Oher was soon taken in by a bighearted Memphis family. Sean Tuohy was an athlete himself, the star point guard at Ole Miss who was later drafted by the New Jersey Nets. He owned a chain of fast-food restaurants, and he and his family had much to share. The Tuohys gave Oher a roof, clothes, tutors, everything he needed.

Oher did the rest. He had to fight to make grades and worked hard to learn the sport. He didn't play varsity football until his junior year.

Tom Lemming has been scouting high school prospects for more than 30 years, and even though no one had heard of Oher, Lemming saw the 17-year-old lineman and thought he was looking at a future NFL player.

"He was a 350-pound mound of clay that needed to be molded," Lemming said.

At Ole Miss, Oher played for three offensive line coaches in four years. One of them, Art Kehoe, the longtime University of Miami assistant who had Oher for his sophomore and junior seasons, said Saturday night that the Ravens got the steal of the draft. Kehoe remembers visiting with New England Patriots coaches last summer when Bill Belichick asked about Oher. "I said: 'Coach, when you think of his background, most kids like that are going to be thugs, punks and in jail. But this kid's a miracle.' "

Still, leading up to the draft, there were questions whispered around the league about Oher. Coaches and general managers didn't know what to make of him. His passion was questioned and his intelligence criticized.

"I had numerous calls from NFL teams asking that stuff," said Freeze, who followed Oher to Ole Miss and is now the coach at Lambuth University in Tennessee. "It amazes me. ... If you want to question whether or not he grasps all the looks that he'll receive in the NFL, that's one thing. His capacity to learn that is there. But I don't see how anyone can question his toughness or his passion for the game."

Freeze sounded as if he had just been drafted along with his star pupil. Oher managed to touch many on his long, bumpy journey.

"It's the culmination of a lot of people's hopes and dreams for this young man. Obviously he's had to do the bulk of the work," Freeze said. "So just to see this emotional day, to know that his dreams have been realized, was very gratifying to numerous people," Freeze said.

The Ravens, of course, love the fairy tale, but for them Saturday wasn't about a happy ending. The story of Oher and the Ravens is just getting started.

In Lewis' book, as a freshman Oher thought he was already capable of taking on Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, a four-time Pro Bowl selection. Lewis took this tidbit to Freeney, who laughed and asked, "Who's this kid?"

So Lewis told him, gave Freeney the full story, in fact. The Blind Side ends like this:

As he listened to the biography of Michael Oher, Dwight Freeney's expression changed. He was no longer smiling. "What's his name again?" he asked. "Michael Oher.""You tell Michael Oher I'll be waiting for him," he said, and walked into the locker room.

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