'In a Heartbeat' highlights the bright side of the Tuohys

Michael Oher's adoptive parents talk about giving and receiving off the football field

July 16, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy, the ebullient Memphis, Tenn., couple who made Michael Oher their third child, enrolled him at Ole Miss, then cheered him on when he became a Baltimore Raven, have collaborated on their own version of the story that became the book and the hit movie "The Blind Side."

With Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, they've written "In a Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving." Their book aims to bring the Michael Oher miracle off the big screen and back down to real life — and make sure that its message won't get lost.

It isn't primarily a sports story. To the Tuohys, Oher's miracle was his emergence from a dead-end Memphis public housing complex. Sports was the vehicle that got him out. Their part of the miracle was preparing Oher for college and, most important, welcoming him into a high-energy family, where he became a beloved son to them and devoted brother to their daughter, Collins, and younger son, Sean Jr. From the first page of the prologue, the Tuohys espouse "The Popcorn Theory: 'You can't help everyone. But you can try to help the hot ones who pop right up in front of your face.'"

It's not rare for the key figures in a media phenomenon to bring out their own version of now-famous events. What is unusual is that the Tuohys' story already came out between hard covers, in Michael Lewis' splendid "The Blind Side," a nonfiction best-seller.

Over the phone from a hotel in Los Angeles, Sean and Leigh Anne say that "The Blind Side" delighted them. "Everything about this experience has been great," Leigh Anne declares, in her exclamatory style. "Michael Lewis: Wonderful. The 'Blind Side' movie: Wonderful. We keep hearing horror stories from other people who've been through similar things. For us, it's been nothing but wonderful."

But the way "In a Heartbeat" states their position, "childbirth is easier to explain than our story. So in this book we'd like to introduce our family properly, tell you how we saw events through our own eyes, and deliver our message in our own voices. It's a message about giving."

The Tuohys stay on that message in their interview, and it takes on fullness, texture and humor as they go along. "In a Heartbeat" refers to the moment when the Tuohys drove past Michael, who was wearing shorts and a T-shirt in the November cold, and Leigh Anne said, "Turn around."

"With that," they write, "our lives changed in a heartbeat."

Yet the Tuohys' form of "giving" isn't merely about noticing the needs of a 6-foot-5-inch, 340-pound athlete soldiering half-dressed through Memphis' pre-Thanksgiving chill. As Sean says in a conversation, it's about community: "Standing in a movie line or a grocery store and meeting the person next to you, male or female. He or she may have the knowledge or the talent to write a great novel, but how could you tell unless you got to know this person? What's sad is that we put a value on people before we learn their true value."

And it's about shared responsibility, too. After recalling events she attended with Michael in Baltimore for homeless, orphaned, or generally at-risk children, Leigh Anne exclaims, "Isn't it a sad testament to this country that we can build animal shelters for the fricking dogs and cats, but we can't find homes for children who need families? Kids don't always need much, but they need attention. They want someone to send them a Christmas card."

The Tuohys' unpretentious exuberance keeps bursting through their declarations of faith, hope and charity. Sean says that "the key is, we were willing and cheerful givers, and Michael was a willing and cheerful receiver. Both those things are hard to do, but they're extremely joyful when they happen together. Michael got a nice home and food. We got Christmas every day."

"Blind Side" writer-director John Lee Hancock said he cast country music star Tim McGraw as Sean because "Leigh Anne is in reality such a force of nature and so Type A and ruling the roost, you had to cast someone who wouldn't just become paint on the wall — and that's easy to happen because she's the one who's marching around and barking orders. That said, hanging around the Tuohys, there's something about Sean that makes you think if Sean wasn't there, the whole thing would fall apart. He's the Southern ex-athlete who has his own kind of easygoing swagger and is very successful in his own right but doesn't feel the need to be out in front."

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