"All-American adoption story" November 21, 2009
Family man - The Blind Side
All-American Michael Oher went from the streets as a 15-year-old son of a crack addict to potential NFL Rookie of the Year on the love and dedication of an adoptive family that wouldn’t let him fail. The movie that tells their story hits theaters in time for National Adoption Day—and recognition that about 130,000 Michael Ohers are waiting for a family to adopt them | Amy Henry
MEMPHIS—Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy adopted as a family motto, "To whom much is given, much is required," they had no idea just how much would be required, nor that they were adopting far more than words.
Growing up hungry in the projects of New Orleans, Sean Tuohy intimately understood the plight of the poor athlete. When he became a basketball star at the University of Mississippi and then a fast-food millionaire owning over 80 Taco Bell, KFC, and Long John Silver restaurants, he gained the material means to help others. Tuohy's wife, interior decorator Leigh Anne, also gained a reputation for concern about basics for the underprivileged: "I don't care if you have cable or an iPod," she said, "but I care if you have the lights on, gas and water, a winter coat, and food."
Michael Oher needed help with the basics. Semi-raised by a crack addict a block from the Mississippi River in west Memphis, he and his 12 siblings survived by begging food from neighbors and hiding from social services. With no one checking on or caring for him, Oher spent his days on the basketball courts of Hurt Village, a housing project so dilapidated even the city of Memphis abandoned it. In the fall of 2002, at age 15, he was 6-foot-5 and saw himself as the next Michael Jordan—but he also weighed 350 pounds.
Just before Thanksgiving that year, the Tuohys were headed home when their daughter Collins, 16, and then Sean Jr., 9, recognized the African-American boy walking along the street as a newcomer at their school, Briarcrest Christian. Leigh Anne's mama bear instincts kicked in. It is one thing to send a coat or a check to some faceless child a state away. It is another to meet one on a nearby street. Surprised to see Oher wearing shorts and shirtsleeves on a chilly night, Leigh Anne learned later that the boy was heading to the school gym to get warm.
On Monday Leigh Anne, a Type-A daughter of a U.S. Marshal, stormed into the school and demanded answers: The boy's name was Michael Oher (pronounced 'oar') and no one seemed to know why the 15-year-old was at the school. Tall, dark, and wearing the same non-handsome clothes every day, he fit into the stylish, predominantly white student body about as well as a fish in a sandbox. It turns out that Oher had a friend whose grandmother's dying wish was that he attend a Christian school. Big Tony, the friend's father, invited Oher to ride along to check out the school. Briarcrest coaches took one look at Oher filling the doorframe of the school office and saw a future lineman. Both boys were admitted.
At 5-foot-2, Leigh Anne defies the equation that force equals mass times acceleration: "My pet peeve is to see a child alienated." She took over: Within weeks, Oher had moved in with the Tuohys. Leigh Anne saw in Oher not just a wide body but a boy with a huge heart and zero self-confidence. He had drifted in and out of at least 11 schools, so his knowledge base was practically nil—but he was innately smart. She believed he would thrive with love and intervention.
Scheduling Oher's day with military efficiency and organization, Leigh Anne set about establishing what soon became known as Team Oher—tutors, counselors, and friends who saw Michael's potential. A typical day consisted of school, football practice, and a hot shower, followed by dinner while Leigh Anne quizzed him on his Wordly Wise vocabulary and Bible memory verses, ending with three tutoring sessions. One of his tutors, Sue Mitchell, also known as Miss Sue, an English teacher and longtime family friend, fell in love with Oher at first sight. "He was so sweet and caring, with a mind like a sponge," Miss Sue said. "I just love him to death."
Within the year the Tuohys adopted Oher. This meant he had to get used to things like courtside seats at NBA games—Sean Tuohy not only owns all those fast-food restaurants but is also the announcer for the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies—and flying to the Super Bowl in Sean's private plane (dubbed Air Taco). Soon Oher felt so comfortable in the Tuohy family he didn't understand why anyone would dare question him, for example, when telling the worker at the Taco Bell drive-thru to put his food on his dad's bill. "When Michael tells people he's Sean Tuohy's son, they look at him like, 'Yeah, and I'm the Queen of England,'" said Leigh Anne.
More important than all the new socioeconomic status, Oher knew for the first time in his life that he was loved. The Ohers are big huggers. After months and months of Leigh Anne kissing him goodnight and telling him she loved him, Michael finally reciprocated. Shocked, Leigh Anne joked, "Wow. Did that hurt?" For the most part, Michael didn't follow the acting-out pattern of some adopted children who feel abandoned and out-of-place, which leaves adopting parents with the difficult but ultimately rewarding balancing act of showing love while enforcing necessary rules. Members of Grace Evangelical Church in Memphis, the Tuohys said that Oher, who came to Christ in high school, feels actions trump words when it comes to living as a Christian. A quiet guy to begin with, he is more comfortable showing the love of God by being a caring and loving person than by talking about his faith.
As his senior year neared, Sean and Leigh Anne grew concerned. Without a 2.5 G.P.A. upon graduation, Oher would not pass NCAA academic standards to play college ball. Already scouts and coaches saw that he possessed a body seemingly hand-hewn for the team's second most valuable asset, left tackle, the position protecting the quarterback's blind side. He dwarfed his largest teammates, had meat-patty hands, and was wide at the shoulders and rear—but unusually fast. Those years prancing on the basketball courts could prove more useful in the NFL than the NBA, but not unless he brought up his grades.
Team Oher kicked into high gear. "We would ask him to sit at that kitchen table hour after hour and he would do whatever we asked and then do it all over again," said Miss Sue. It wasn't easy. Every couple of months, around test time, Michael would throw up his hands, insist he couldn't go on, and tell them he just wanted to give up and go to military school.
"All right," Leigh Anne would snap. "Let's do it."
Getting on the internet, she looked up the worst ones she could find, showed him pictures of the marching and the drilling and said, "OK, which one of these do you want to go to? I'm paying for it. Come on, which one?" Other times, Miss Sue jokingly threatened him with the wooden spoon. About this time Sean would walk in, start rubbing Oher's shoulders and ask, "How's my Superstar?" He got back to work.
Meanwhile, Oher and the Tuohys were attracting the attention of one of America's most talented writers, Michael Lewis. In writing books on finance and then baseball (Moneyball), Lewis researched undervalued assets and profiled the people who saw their real value. The undervalued assets in baseball a decade ago were disciplined batters who worked pitchers for lots of walks. In The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game (Norton, 2006), Lewis described how left tackles who protected quarterbacks came to be highly valued, and how Oher, a nearly abandoned teenager, came to have great value in the eyes of one family and dozens of college football coaches. Lewis' book title had a double meaning, referring to blindness in both football and society.
In 2005, Oher headed to his adoptive dad's alma mater, Ole Miss, on a full scholarship. His adoptive sister, Collins, went also. They shared a house the Tuohys bought off campus in Oxford. In Memphis, Leigh Anne had loved Oher's obsessive neatness: "He is the only kid who gets up from the table and Windexes it." But that caused tension with his sister: "He's got laundry stacked on the washer all the way up to the ceiling," she complained to her mother. Oher in turn whined about her, "She's got shoes all over the house." Leigh Anne mediated over the phone, using their calls to remind Oher to quit talking smack on the field and to keep his elbows off the table. Sometimes Oher got offended at her directness, but his anger was short-lived. "She could out-pout him any day of the week," says Sean.
Oher did well in the classroom, making the dean's list with his 3.5 G.P.A., and on the football field, being named a First Team Freshman All-American and First Team Freshman All-SEC his first year and ending his time at Ole Miss as one of three finalists for the Outland Trophy, the prize given to the nation's top blocker. With Oher on board, Ole Miss Rebels moved from having the 91st-ranked offense in the nation to 29th. The Baltimore Ravens in April of this year made the 320-pounder their first-round draft pick, and this fall he has been named Rookie of the Week every week since the season started, potentially positioning him for Rookie Player of the Year.
Reports on Oher off the field are also complimentary. Soft-spoken, kind, and fiercely protective of those he loves, he defies stereotypes about drunken, brawling behemoths. At a recent dinner with other Ravens players, some shot Patron, a luxury brand of tequila, but Oher, concerned that young kids might be watching him, ordered Shirley Temples. "I'm proud he's been Rookie of the Week and all that," says Leigh Anne, "but what I'm really proud of is his character."
Into this perfect storm of publicity comes a new movie, The Blind Side, due in theaters Nov. 20, based on Lewis' book. Starring Tim McGraw as Sean Tuohy, Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy, Quinton Aaron as Oher, and Kathy Bates as tutor Miss Sue, the film chronicles Oher's journey from the streets of inner-city Memphis to the NFL—and the difference the love of a family has made along the way (see "The Blinded Side").
Leigh Anne has previewed the film but said she might have to watch it again because the interior designer in her came out during her first viewing. "All I could think about was I would not put that vase on the mantle and I do not like those drapes," she said of seeing "her" home in the film. Nevertheless, she likes the implicit message and asks, "How many Michael Ohers are there out there? There are thousands of kids out there, one who might be the next great open-heart surgeon or the next president, but we've deemed them valueless because they don't have the right kind of shoes or drive a particular car or belong to the right clubs."
Sean Tuohy hopes the film can lead to discussion of how inner-city public schools pass kids through classes and grade levels when they are failing: "Our system is set up to guarantee failure for those kids. I don't know how to solve it." Sure, Michael's size and athleticism make him unusual, but that's the point: "If the most obvious success in the city of Memphis can get passed over, imagine who else is too. What Michael's done for us is that we no longer look at a kid and say, 'That kid doesn't have a chance.' We look at him and say, 'Why isn't that kid succeeding? There's no reason that kid can't succeed.'"
Tuohy points out that many who are athletically gifted cannot qualify to play sports in high school because of poor grades, much less graduate with a required 2.5 G.P.A. Often foster care officials will not sign liability forms for children to participate in after-school sports, depriving them of opportunities to develop and excel athletically, and leaving them with huge blocks of free time in which to get in trouble. Often adoptions take up to four years to complete, even though large numbers of children, especially older ones like Oher, languish in foster care. The Tuohys have started the Memphis-based Michael Oher Foundation with home for just those kinds of kids.
At the end of The Blind Side, Lewis writes that Oher's success story came about by way of a series of "social accidents." The Tuohys disagree. They know it was no accident that Oher was born with the genetic potential to become the perfect left tackle. It wasn't "chance" that led him to the doorstep of a man who had spent his childhood starving in the projects of New Orleans and now has the connections and resources to help a young athlete. Nor is it an accident that in October the Tuohys were given the National Angels in Adoption award by the Congressional Coalition for Adoption and that, after months spent navigating around Oher's Ravens schedule and Sean's Grizzlies schedule, the date set for the opening of the movie, Nov. 20, just happens to be the eve of National Adoption Day.
"People call it a fluke, but this is not by chance," said Leigh Anne. "The Lord takes us down paths in our lives that are often hard to understand and we certainly wish we knew where this was all going but it is clear to me that He has a plan for this movie and it is bigger than we are."