Gripping story of Ravens' rookie Michael Oher

John Lee Hancock sets out to make a different kind of sports movie

August 28, 2009|By Michael Sragow | michael.sragow@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

When Michael Oher takes the field as a Baltimore Raven this fall, a national audience of readers and moviegoers even bigger than the Ravens' fan base will be cheering for him. The amazing story behind his rise to football stardom will fill the bestseller shelves at bookstores on Oct. 12, with a new edition of Michael Lewis' powerhouse piece of nonfiction "The Blind Side."

And if all goes according to plan, it will also pack movie theaters on Nov. 20, when writer-director John Lee Hancock's movie version hits theaters, starring newcomer Quinton Aron as Oher and Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw as Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy - the wealthy, white, conservative, evangelical couple who devoted themselves to the happiness and success of "Big Mike," a black kid from the meanest streets of Memphis, Tenn.

Anyone writing about Lewis' extraordinary "The Blind Side" feels torn between trying to convey its magical counterpoint of robust, supple emotion and brilliant analysis - and trying not to give away its constant stream of surprises.

According to standardized tests or conventional observers, Michael Oher (pronounced "oar") was a lost cause when he entered Briarcrest Christian School, a private Memphis high school, as a 6-foot-5-inch, 340-pound giant with zero learning or communication skills and a profound inability to indicate his own desires. He abhorred human touch and appeared to be as determined to remain as inconspicuous as a natural pillar of strength could be.

No one (including Michael) knew where he'd sleep, what he'd wear or how he'd eat. Ralph Ellison wrote about the Invisible Man. Oher was the Invisible Boy-Man until his biology and "special needs" teachers realized that he was absorbing class lessons with his remarkable hidden intelligence - and until the Tuohys recognized that he was a physical genius able to master an esoteric skill like a discus throw simply by seeing someone else do it.

Over the phone from his editing suite, Hancock says he's trying to keep the verve and freshness of a many-sided story that made him envision a film "not just as a sports movie and character comedy" but also an emotional journey and a mystery about character and fate.

"I'm a big Michael Lewis fan," says Hancock. "I was just 50 pages into 'The Blind Side' when I said, 'Gosh, this really is a movie.' " The first chapters plunge the reader into a sea change in NFL strategy - and the pressurized world of football team recruiters - before it even gets to the story of Oher's bizarre, unlikely entrance into the cushy Briarcrest school. Hancock saw Lewis' unconventional structure "not as an obstacle but as an opportunity. ... To me, it was all about the same thing: How did the stars align to shine so brightly on this one kid in the projects in Memphis?"

From the beginning, Hancock viewed the "The Blind Side" as far more than another tale of an underdog becoming a top dog. True to Lewis' subtitle, "evolution of a game," it is also about how the triumph of the San Francisco 49ers' passing game in the 1980s transformed football strategy. The new dominance of the quarterback brought unprecedented importance to the left tackle: the offensive lineman who protects a right-handed quarterback's blind side.

The position called for Big Mike's physical type: as Lewis wrote, "wide in the rear and massive in the thighs," with "long arms," "giants hands" and "great feet."

The book also provides, in the most matter-of-fact and powerful way, a paradigm of social evolution. Oher at age 16 was so amazingly under-educated and under-socialized that for him, a book was a foreign object, and a trusted adult an unknown. Yet he came up from rock-bottom with the help of a rich, white, stunningly resourceful and caring husband and wife.

Leigh Anne Tuohy is the daughter of a racist U.S. marshal, but she shed any vestiges of prejudice when she married a fellow who (as she puts it) "doesn't know his own skin color." Sean Tuohy is a self-made man. He achieved fame as a star point guard for the Ole Miss basketball team and does radio play-by-play for the Memphis Grizzlies; he also used his full-court savvy to amass a mini-empire of 60 franchise restaurants.

He has a gift for connecting with white and black kids from hardscrabble backgrounds. But Leigh Anne, even more than Sean, became the driving force behind the Tuohys' drive to give Oher the chance to make good on his promise. What occurred when the Touhys took him under their wing offers a terrific clarification of the debate over nature vs. nurture. Oher's extraordinary physicality and native smarts could only be released in a nurturing environment.

And only fleshed out on screen by a man like Hancock. A passionate gridiron fan (and former high-school football player), he demonstrated a humane touch with real-life sports sagas when he directed Dennis Quaid in the title role of an overage pitcher in the much-loved 2002 baseball movie "The Rookie."

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