Michael Oher displays his wise side

In his memoir, "I Beat the Odds," Oher's rise from homelessness to the NFL becomes an example for at-risk kids

February 04, 2011|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Michael Oher wants to set moviegoers straight about his portrayal in "The Blind Side." He was never slow, mentally or physically. He did know football from an early age. Most important, many people besides a wealthy, loving couple in the swank east side of Memphis, Tenn., helped him rise from homelessness to football stardom at Ole Miss and in Baltimore.

The Ravens offensive tackle tells his story in "I Beat the Odds," written with Don Yaeger. He details his hard-knocks life before he entered Briarcrest Christian School and was mentored and then adopted by Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy. It's a surprising book to come from a fellow who dislikes talking about himself. He did it to reach disadvantaged kids and inspire them to persevere as he did. The book highlights his wise side.

It frankly depicts Oher's life in the meanest projects in West Memphis. He logged time in foster care, in a hospital ward, in friends' homes. He stole food when he was hungry. He went on the lam from Tennessee's Department of Children's Services. He ran away from responsible caretakers on the chance he could reunite with his mother, who had 12 children by different men as well as an unshakable drug habit.

In Michael Lewis' "Blind Side" book, Sean Tuohy told Lewis, "Michael's gift is that the Good Lord gave him the ability to forget."

When I recently asked Oher whether it was hard to dig up his roots for "I Beat the Odds," he said, "It wasn't difficult at all. I understood that in order to write this book, I had to look back a lot."

At age 7, watching Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls beat the Phoenix Suns on TV ignited Oher's ambition to use athletic skill to rise from the inner-city ghetto. What saved him, he thinks, was having any dream — and developing the mental toughness and honest values to stay true to it. The chance to reach at-risk kids with that message led Oher to agree to write this book with Yaeger (a former Sports Illustrated editor who has collaborated with the likes of Jordan, Walter Payton and John Wooden).

"My past is what made it all possible," Oher said. "For the people I was trying to target — kids who are in the same situation I was — I had to go back. The people who write me and tell me I am an inspiration — I had to let them know what it was really like, and open the eyes of people who should know about kids who need a hand." Oher wants his book to convey that a youth can rescue himself or herself from hopelessness without benefactors like the Tuohys or prospects of sports stardom.

When his management team approached him about "I Beat the Odds," he didn't envision anyone buying another Michael Oher book "when people already thought they knew me." "The Blind Side," book and movie, were huge hits; the Tuohys had started their own memoir ("In a Heartbeat"). "But then," Yaeger recalled, "he realized that both the book and the movie 'The Blind Side,' though they were good stories, were incomplete."

Oher is proud of the finished book, Yaeger said, because it delivers the theme that made him want to do it in the first place: "If, as a kid, he had made a lot of wrong decisions, he would never have been in a place where he could be 'saved.' Everybody in the world has focused on the couple who saved him, and how awesome that is — and what the Touhys did is awesome. But the truth is, Michael Oher had to be available to them. He was 16 before he met them; he did a lot to save himself. He's grateful to the Tuohys; he's grateful to Ole Miss; he's grateful to the Ravens. But Michael has a backbone that doesn't exist in a lot of people. He'd be successful whatever he did in life, even in an hourly-wage job."

Interviewed the Friday after the Ravens' playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Oher said, "I didn't want the book to be about me." Still, he uses it to correct some misperceptions. His beef against the movie is that "it portrayed me as dumb instead of as a kid who never had consistent academic instruction and ended up thriving when he got it." He thinks that, like the book, the film made it look as if the Tuohys taught him how to play football.

"Sports is all I had to grow up on," Oher told me. "I didn't have too much of anything else. Sports is how I got to that point. Briarcrest would not have taken me if I couldn't do anything." Movie scenes like Sean Jr. teaching Oher strategy with condiment and spice bottles — well, Oher feels you can take them with a whole shakerful of salt.

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