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I. In search of the next anti-Lawrence Taylor
While driving to Memphis in March 2004, Tom Lemming thought that everything about Michael Oher, including his last name, was strange. He played at a small private school, Briarcrest Christian School, with no history of generating Division I college football talent. The Briarcrest Christian School team also did not have many black players, and Michael Oher was black. But what made Michael Oher especially peculiar was that no one in Memphis had anything to say about him. Lemming had a lot of experience "discovering" great players. Each year, he would drive 50,000 to 60,000 miles and round up and question 1,500 to 2,000 high school students while selecting All-American teams for ESPN and College Sports TV. He got into their heads months before college recruiters were allowed to shake his hand. Lemming made some calls and found out that the trainers in and around Memphis either didn't know who Michael Oher was or didn't think he was any good. He hadn't won as much as the third team in town. He did not have his name or his photo in any newspaper. If Lemming had googled it, "Oher" wouldn't have revealed anything about Michael. The only proof of his existence was a grainy videotape some trainer had sent him out of the blue.
From the tape alone, Lemming couldn't tell how much Michael Oher helped his team, just that he was big, fast and fantastically explosive. The last time she met a player with this incredible array of physical gifts was in 1993, when she went to the Sizzler Steakhouse in Sandusky, Ohio, and interviewed a high school student behind the counter named Orlando Pace. "Michael Oher's athleticism and his body — the only thing you could compare it to was Orlando Pace," Lemming said later. “He even looked like Orlando Pace. He wasn't as polished as Orlando. But Orlando wasn't Orlando at school. Pace had moved from Lemming's All-American teams to Ohio State, where he played left tackle and won the Outland Trophy, given to the nation's best college forward. In 1997, he signed the largest rookie contract in National Football League history, to play left back for St. Louis. Louis Rams, and then signed an even bigger contract (seven years, $52.8 million). Pace became and remained the highest-paid player on the team, better paid than Rams star Marc Bulger; star running back Marshall Faulk; and wide receiver Isaac Bruce. He was an offensive lineman, but not just any offensive lineman. He protected the quarterback's blind side.
When Tom Lemming walked into the University of Memphis football conference room looking for Michael Oher, the ghost of Lawrence Taylor was with him. The great New York Giants linebacker of the 1980s was the first in a series of exceptionally violent and fast passes that influenced the finances of the NFL's scrimmage. Players on the blind side of a right quarterback, both offensive and defensive, became, on average, much higher paid than players on the visible side. In 2004, the five highest-paid players in the N.F.L. Left tackles earned an average of nearly $3 million a year more than the top five highest-paid right tackles and more than the top five highest-paid running backs and wide receivers.
When Tom Lemming looked at the left tackles, he thought in terms of others he'd selected for his All-American teams who became NFL stars: Pace, Jonathan Ogden, Tony Boselli, Walter Jones. These people were nothing like most human beings or even the football players Lemming interviewed in the late 1970s and 1980s. In this population of giants, the left-handed guy still stood out. Monster of Nature: When he encountered one of these rare beasts, that was the phrase that popped into Lemming's mind. When Lemming put high school senior Ogden on the cover of his annual prep report in 1992, Ogden was 6'1" and 320 pounds. (He would complete in college.) When he did the same with Pace the following year, Pace was 6-foot-9 tall and weighed 310 pounds. (And he kept getting bigger.) The ideal left tackle was big, but a lot of people were big. What set him apart were his more subtle specs. He was wide in rump and thick through the thighs: His lower body girth made Lawrence Taylor, or his successors, less likely to run him over He had long arms: Pass-rushers would try to get close to the blocker's body, then spin away from him him, and the long arms helped keep them at bay.He had giant hands: when he grabbed a defender, it meant something.
But size alone couldn't handle the quarterback's blindside threat, because that threat was also fast. The ideal left-back also had big feet. Incredibly agile and fast feet. Fast enough feet, ideally, that the prospect of running it in a five-yard dash made the running backs on the team uncomfortable. He had the body control of a ballerina and the agility of a basketball player. The combination was incredibly rare. And so ultimately very valuable.
Even the N.F.L. of the 2004 season, the N.F.L. Left tackle's salary was $5.5 million a year, and left tackle had become the second-highest-paid position on the team, after quarterback. In Super Bowl XL, played on February 5, 2006, the highest-paid player on the field was Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who was finishing the first season of a new six-year contract worth $8.2 million per year. . The second-highest-paid player on the field was Hasselbeck's blind guard, left tackle Walter Jones, who earned $7.5 million a year.
After viewing the Michael Oher tape, Lemming attempted to contact the boy by phone. He discovered that his last name is pronounced "remo," but that's all he learned. He was used to the social life of high school football stars: the coaches, the harems, the informal counselors, the coaches. The guys Lemming wanted to meet weren't usually hard to find. This kid didn't just lack coaches; he didn't seem to exist outside of school. He was homeless; he didn't even have a phone number. Or so he told Briarcrest Christian School when Lemming called looking for Michael Oher. Briarcrest officials were puzzled by Lemming's interest in their student, but they were also polite and eventually agreed to have someone drive Michael to the University of Memphis football facility for a face-to-face interview. “I'll never forget when he walked into the room,” Lemming told me not long ago. “He felt like a house walking into a bigger house. He walked through the door and barely made it through the door. It wasn't just huge. It was huge in exactly the right way. "There's the big 300-pound blob and the solid guy," Lemming continued. “He was the solid type. You also see big guys, tall guys who are heavy but have skinny legs. They are fine in high school, but in college they will be pushed. He was huge everywhere.
What happened next was the strangest encounter of Lemming's 28-year career as a soccer scout. Michael Oher sat across from him at the table. . .and refused to speak. “He shook my hand and then didn't say a word,” Lemming recalled. (“His hands were huge!”) Lemming asked a few questions; Michael Oher kept looking through it. And soon Lemming decided that further interaction was pointless. Michael Oher walked out, leaving blank forms and unanswered questions. Every other high school football player was dying to be asked by Lemming to play in the US Army All-American Bowl. Michael Oher had left his invitation on the table.
What never crossed Tom Lemming's mind was that the player he would soon rank as the number one forward in the country, and arguably the best left tackle since Orlando Pace, had no idea who Lemming was or why he was. asking all these questions. By the way, he didn't even consider himself a football player. And he had never played left back in his life.
II. School of Hard Knocks, West Memphis Branch
When Michael Oher's file from Memphis City Schools arrived on his desk in the summer of 2002, Briarcrest Christian School principal Steve Simpson was frankly incredulous. The boy, now 16, had a measured IQ. out of 80, which puts him in the ninth percentile of humanity. An aptitude test he took in eighth grade measured his "ability to learn" and placed him in the sixth percentile. The numbers looked like typos: at a wealthy white private school like Briarcrest, you never saw single-digit numbers in the column marked "percentile." Of course, logically, you knew that such people must exist; for someone to be in the 99th percentile, someone else had to be in the first. But you didn't expect to find them at Briarcrest Christian School. Academically, Briarcrest may not be the most ambitious school. He spent more time and energy directing his students to Jesus Christ than to Harvard. But all the students went to college. And they all had at least an average IQ.
In his first nine years of school, Michael Oher was enrolled in 11 different institutions, and that included an 18-month stretch, around age 10, when he was apparently not in school. Either that or the public schools were so indifferent to his presence that they forgot to formally record him. Not that Oher actually showed up at the schools where he was enrolled. Even when he received attendance credit, his absence was sensational: 46 days of a single freshman term, for example. Your first year in first grade, that is; Michael Oher reprized the first series. He repeated second grade as well. And yet the school system presented these early years as the most complete of his academic career. They claimed that by fourth grade he was doing at "grade level." How could they know when, according to these transcripts, he hadn't even been in third grade?
Simpson, who had spent more than 30 years in area public schools, including 29 in Memphis, knew what everyone who had brief contact with Memphis public schools knew: They moved kids to the next grade because they felt like it. too much trouble to fail. They functioned like an assembly line producing products that were never supposed to be market tested. At several schools, Michael Oher received an F in reading first period and a C in second period, allowing him to finish the school year with a D: they were grading him just to get rid of him. And they got rid of him: the boy rarely returned to the school that surpassed him. The year before Simpson obtained the file on him, Michael Oher was in the ninth grade at a school called Westwood. According to his transcript, he missed 50 days of school that year. Fifty days! At Briarcrest, the rule was that if a student missed 15 days of any class, they had to repeat the class, regardless of grade. And yet Westwood gave Michael Oher just enough D's to move him. Even when you put the B in world geography, clearly a gift from the Westwood basketball coach who taught the class, the GPA the student would take to Briarcrest started at zero: 0.6.
If there was a less promising academic record, Simpson did not know. Simpson correctly guessed that the Briarcrest Christian School hadn't seen anything like Michael Oher, either. Simpson and others in the Briarcrest community would eventually discover that Michael's father had been shot and thrown off a bridge, that his mother was a crack addict, and that his life experience was so limited that he might as well have past his early years. 16 years in a closet. And yet here was his entry, in the summer of 2002, courtesy of Briarcrest football coach Hugh Freeze, who spun this utterly implausible story: Big Mike, as he was called, was essentially a homeless man, and therefore Therefore, he had made an art of sleeping on whatever floor the ghetto provided. He fell off a flight of stairs onto the floor of an inner-city figure named Tony Henderson, who at nearly 400 pounds was known simply as Big Tony. Big Tony's mother had died, and as a last wish, she asked Tony to enroll his son Steven Payne in a "Christian school." Big Tony figured that since she was taking Steven, he might as well take Big Mike.
But Big Mike wasn't like Steven. Steven had a father, a bed, and a decent academic record. He could handle a conversation. Big Mike, accompanied, looked as lost as a Martian stumbling into a crash landing. Simpson tried to shake his hand. “He didn't know how to do it,” he says. “I had to show him how to shake hands.” Every question Simpson asked Big Mike caused an almost inaudible murmur. "I'm not sure 'tame' is the right word," says Simpson.
The disposition of Michael Oher's Briarcrest request was Steve Simpson's decision, and normally he would have had no problem doing so: an emphatic rejection. Beneath the Briarcrest coat of arms was the motto: Decidedly Academic, Clearly Christian. Michael Oher wasn't either, he seemed to Simpson. But this was only Simpson's sophomore year at Briarcrest, and his football coach, Freeze, called Simpson's boss, the football-fanatic president of the school, and made his proposition: This wasn't something. What you did to the Briarcrest football team, Freeze. he said; This was something you did because it was right! Briarcrest was this boy's last chance! The president, in turn, called Simpson and told him that if he felt well, he could admit the boy.
Simpson thought and said: I'm sorry. They would take Steven away, but there was no chance Michael Oher would make it past the 10th grade; fourth grade might be excessive. But the pressure from the football coach, along with a small pang in his own heart, led Simpson to politely reject the candidate. He made a single concession: If Michael Oher enrolled in a home study program and performed at a high level for one semester, Briarcrest would admit him the following semester. Since there wasn't much chance of any program going through him, Simpson suspected that he would never hear from the football coach or Michael Oher again.
He was wrong. Two months later, six weeks into the 2002-03 school year, his phone rang. He was Big Tony. It was a sad sight, Big Tony said, watching Big Mike look at those books sent to him by Gateway Christian School, where he had enrolled, with no ability to make head or tail of them. Big Tony had neither the time nor the energy to work with him. Big Mike tried hard but got nowhere, and it was too late for him to enroll in public school. What are they supposed to do now?
It was then that Simpson realized that he had made a mistake. In fact, he had taken a child out of the public school system. He tried to deal with this problem in the easiest way, for him, and failed. After a sleepless night, he called Michael Oher, apparently still sleeping on the floor of Big Tony, and told him, "We'll take a chance on you, but you're not playing ball." Neither basketball, nor soccer; he couldn't even sing in choir until he proved to the school that he could handle the job. Michael didn't say much in response, but that didn't matter to Simpson. "My conscience would be clear if we gave it a chance," he says. His thoughts turned to the teachers: how would he explain this mess to them?
third A very large and very blank blackboard
Jennifer Graves directed Briarcrest's program for students with special needs for nine years. “I decided early in my life,” she says, “that Christ was calling me to work with kids who didn't have it so easy.” But her mission took on a different, less hopeful tone when, in the fall of 2002, this huge black boy fell into her lap. She had also seen Michael Oher's file, which came from the public school system. After the transcription, the boy himself arrived, accompanied by Simpson. "He said, 'This is Michael Oher and you're going to work with him,'" Graves recalls.
She took it and placed it in the middle of each classroom. “By sixth period on the first day, everyone knew who she was,” she says. "And she didn't say a word." It was a matter of days before the reports came in from the teachers, each one of them asking her the same question she had asked Simpson: why did Briarcrest let this kid in? “Big Mike had no idea what a real school was,” she says. “He never brought his books, he didn't talk in class, nothing. He had no academic background, no background.”
Michael Oher had only a few weeks left in his tenure at Briarcrest Christian School before several teachers suggested he should leave. He wasn't just failing the tests; he wasn't even starting. The only honest grade he could give her in his studies was a zero.
The situation seemed hopeless and humiliating for everyone involved. News of the new student's various failings inevitably reached Simpson, who also began to feel the dimensions of the void in the boy's life experiences. He didn't know what an ocean or a bird's nest or the tooth fairy was. He couldn't learn biology in tenth grade if he had no idea what the word cell meant, and he couldn't finish tenth grade English if he had never heard of a verb or a noun. He was as if he had materialized on the planet as a 16 year old boy. Jennifer Graves had the same doubts: the boy reminded her of a story she had read in a psychology magazine about a boy who had spent years locked in a closet. “That kid didn't even have tactile sensation,” she says, “but he felt like the same kind of thing. Big Mike was a blank slate."
4. A wealthy white family takes an interest.
When Sean Tuohy first saw Michael Oher sitting in the bleachers of Briarcrest Gym, watching a basketball team practice for which he wasn't allowed to play, he saw a kid with nowhere to go but up. The question was how to get it there.
Sean was an American success story: he came out of nowhere and became rich. He was a star point guard at Ole Miss drafted by the New Jersey Nets. And while he didn't make it big in the National Basketball Association, he took his otherworldly sense into the business world and made his fortune, more or less. He owned a chain of 60 Taco Bells, KFC's and Long John Silver restaurants, along with a mountain of debt. If all goes well, it could soon be worth up to $50 million. If all else failed, he could always call radio games for the NBA Grizzlies, which he had been doing since they came to Memphis in 2001. What Atlanta was to the American South, Sean Tuohy was to the white south. . Prosperous. Always updating the pitfalls of your existence. Happy to trade your past at a great discount for a piece of the future.
It was not enough. The restaurants functioned by themselves; the Grizzlies show was a night job; church was on sundays. He needed a little more action in his life. And now he had all the time in the world for what he still loved more than anything: hanging out in the school gyms and acting as a sort of advisor to the Briarcrest Christian School coaches in their dealings with the players. Like every other parent and student at Briarcrest, Sean was born again, but his interest in poor athletes might run even deeper than his religious beliefs. Sean was interested in poor athletes in the same way that an ex-diva might be interested in opera singers or a Jesuit scholar in polemicists. What he liked about them was that he knew how to help them. “What I learned playing basketball at Ole Miss,” he once told me, “was what not to do: hit a kid. It is easy to hit a child. The hard part is building it."
Sean was 42 years old. His hairline had thinned, but not to the point where he could be called bald, and his belly had expanded, but not to the point where he could be considered fat. He was deeply interested in social status, his own and that of other people, but not in the style of the Old South. Not long after he became a fixture in Memphis, a supposedly wealthy businessman who owned his own jet and was the voice of the Memphis Grizzlies on the radio, had polls from the Memphis Country Club. He didn't encourage them because, as he says, “I don't carry the blues. I'd rather go to a high school football game on a Friday night than go to a country club, drink four whiskeys, and complain about my wife. He delighted in seeing people rise in the world. Country clubs were all about staying in one place.
By the time Big Mike was introduced, Sean was already immersed in the various problems and crises of the few black students at Briarcrest Christian School. Sean's daughter Collins, a sophomore at Briarcrest and on her way to becoming the Tennessee state champion in pole vault, gave them almost constant exposure: she was on the track team; They were on the track team. Collins mentioned Big Mike. When she tried to pass him on the stairs, she said she had to go back up because she couldn't pass him. Without so much as a peep, he became the talk of the school.
She said that they were all afraid of him at first, until they realized that he was much more afraid of them. Sean had seen Big Mike at school three or four times. He noticed that he wore the same clothes every day: cut-off jeans and an oversized T-shirt. He now he saw him in the stands and thought: I bet he's hungry. Sean came over and said, "You don't know me, but we have more in common than you think."
Michael Oher looked down at his feet.
"What did you have for lunch today?" Sean asked.
"In the cafeteria," said the boy.
“I didn't ask you where you ate,” Sean said. "I asked you what you ate."
"I had some things," said the boy.
Of course, Sean thought. He asked if he needed money for lunch and Mike said, "I don't need money."
The next day, Sean went to Briarcrest's accounting department and arranged for Michael Oher to have a permanent account in the lunch box. He had done the same with several of the poorer colored children who had come to Briarcrest. In some cases, in fact, he paid for his tuition by giving money to a scholarship fund for those who couldn't pay. "That was my only connection to Michael," he later said. "Lunch."
Sean left at lunchtime, and by lunchtime he might be gone. But a few weeks later, Briarcrest Christian School had its Thanksgiving break. On a cold and windy morning, Sean and his wife, Leigh Anne, were driving down one of the main roads in East Memphis when a huge black man got off the bus. He was dressed in the same shorts and t-shirt that he always wore. Sean pointed it out to his wife and said, “That boy you were talking about is him. Big Mike.
"But he's wearing shorts," she said.
"Uh Huh. He always wears it.
"¡Sean, it's snowing!"
So it was. At Leigh Anne's insistence, they stopped. Sean reintroduced himself to Michael and then introduced Michael to Leigh Anne.
"Where are you going?" she asked her.
"For basketball practice," Michael said.
“Michael, you don't have basketball practice,” Sean said.
"I know," said the boy. "But they are hot in there."
Sean didn't understand that.
“It's nice and warm in that gym,” the boy said.
As they walked away, Sean looked up and saw tears streaming down Leigh Anne's face. And he thought, Oh-oh, my wife is about to take over.
The next afternoon, Leigh Anne left her business (she had her own interior decorating business), showed up at Briarcrest, picked up Michael, and left with him. A few hours later, she rang Sean's cell phone. His wife was on the other side.
“Do you know the size of a 58 jacket?” she asked.
"Not big enough."
Leigh Anne Tuohy grew up with a firm set of beliefs about black people, but traded them for others, and she couldn't say exactly how that happened, except to say, "I married a man who doesn't know his own color." ." Her father, a Memphis-based US Marshal, raised her to fear and hate blacks as much as he did. When the courts ordered the integration of the Memphis City Schools in 1973, he had her removed from public school and had placed her at the newly founded Briarcrest Christian School, where she became a student her freshman year."I grew up in a very racist family," she says.However, when Michael Oher arrived at Briarcrest, Leigh Anne Tuohy saw nothing odd or strange about taking him in her hands. This kid was young; he had no clothes; he had no warm place to stay for Thanksgiving. For God's sake, he was walking to school on the snow in shorts when classes were out of school hours, hoping she could get into the gym and warm up. Of course, she took him out and bought him some clothes. For others, maybe a little aggressively philanthropic; for Leigh Anne , dress a child er to exactly what you would do if you had the means. She had done this kind of thing before and would do it again. "God gives people money to see how you're going to handle it," she says. And she intended to show that she knew how to handle it.
V. Adjustment Problems
Coach Freeze remembers the moment he realized Big Mike was no ordinary giant: a football practice this new kid, who had just been admitted on academic probation, served no purpose. Big Mike simply walked onto the field, picked up a huge tackle dummy (the thing was at least 50lbs) and took off with it at breakneck speed. "Did you see that, did you see the way that boy moved?" Freeze asked another trainer. "He ran with that dummy as if he weighed nothing." Freeze's next thought was that he had miscalculated the boy's mass. No human moving that fast could weigh as much as 300 pounds. “That's when I asked to weigh it,” Freeze says. "One of the trainers took him to the gym and put him on the scale, but he overloaded the scale." The team doctor took him away and placed him on what Briarcrest trainers later said was a cattle scale: 344 pounds, he said. On the light side for a cow, deliciously muscular for a sophomore in high school. Especially someone who could run. “I didn't know if I could play,” Freeze says now. "But he knew this: We didn't have anyone like him on campus."
In the first year, it didn't matter. He suspended classes and did not play anything. As far as the Briarcrest teachers could determine, he did not have a thought, fact, or idea in his head. But then, almost by accident, they found out that he needed an oral test, thus proving to them that he deserved high grades instead of low ones. It wasn't clear if he would earn enough credits to graduate with his class, but Simpson and Graves stopped thinking they would send him back to the streets and let him play sports. He joined the basketball team at the end of his sophomore year and soon after the track team (disc and hurling). In his freshman year, he finally made it to the soccer field.
The problem there, at first, resembled his problems in the classroom. He had no basis, no idea what he was supposed to do as a member of a team. He said he played football his freshman year at Westwood, but there was no sign of it in his performance. When Freeze saw how fast he could move, he tagged him as a defensive tackle. And so, for the first six games of the 2003 season, he played defense. He wasn't worse than his replacement, but he wasn't much better either. One of his most successful teammates, Joseph Crone, thought Big Mike's main contribution came before the game, when the opposing team stumbled out of their locker room or bus and took on Briarcrest Christian School. “They'd look at all of us,” Crone says, “and then they'd look at Mike and be like, 'Oh, gosh.
But during the games he seemed confused. When he wasn't confused, he was reluctant. Passive, almost. This was the last thing Freeze expected. Freeze didn't know much about Michael Oher's background, but he knew enough to surmise that his player had a miserable childhood in the worst part of West Memphis. A miserable childhood in the worst part of West Memphis was typically excellent emotional preparation for what was required of a football defenseman: he made you mad; he made him aggressive; He wanted to rip someone's head off. The N.F.L. it was full of players who had dysfunctional and loveless childhoods.
Michael Oher's problem as a footballer was Ferdinand's problem as a bull: he did not show the rage of his breed. He was just a sweet kid who didn't particularly care about hitting anyone. Or, as Freeze puts it: “he just wasn't aggressive. The mentality of him was not the mentality of a defensive player ”.
MOUNTAIN RANGE. find a new home
That fall of 2003, Michael spent nights with at least five different Briarcrest families, including the Tuohys, but most nights were spent with Quinterio Franklin, a Briarcrest teammate. One night after a track meet, Michael was left without a ride home and Leigh Anne offered to drive him wherever he wanted. "Terio's," she said, and they were off. . 0.30 miles on Mississippi. "It was a trailer," she says. She couldn't believe there was enough room inside the place for him. She insisted on following him to see where he was sleeping. He showed her her old air mattress on the floor. It was flat as a pancake. “I blow up every night,” she said. "But it runs out of air around midnight."
"That's all," she said. She told him to gather all of her things. "You will move in with me."
With that, he grabbed a single bag of Glad trash and followed her back to the car. Until this moment, Leigh Anne had hoped that what they and the other Briarcrest families had done for Michael would result in some semblance of a decent life. She now she knew better. She took over the management of that life. Completely. “The first thing we did,” she says, “was do the laundry.”
Together they drove to every house in Memphis where Michael had hidden his clothes. Five houses and four giant garbage bags later, he was looking at a pile of his belongings. “They were things that people had given her,” she says. “Most still had the tags. Things he would never wear. I mean, there were poles with little penguins. For the next few weeks, Michael slept on the Tuohys' couch, and no one in the family stated the obvious: This was Michael Oher's new house, and probably would be for a long time. He was, in fact, a third son. “When I first saw him, I thought, 'Who the hell is this big black man? "But dad just said he was a kid we were trying to help, so I said he was fine." Sean Jr. had its own uses for Michael: the two of them would disappear for hours on end in his bedroom and play video games. Just a few months after his arrival, Leigh Anne would point to Michael and say, "That's Sean Jr.'s best friend. His sister, Collins, says he got used to it quickly: 'When he stayed and stayed, Mom asked if he I wanted to move out. He said, 'I don't think I want to move.' I bought the dresser and the bed.
After tidying up her clothes, Leigh Anne thought about where to put this huge human being. The couch clearly wouldn't do, "I was ruining my $10,000 couch," but she was worried that no regular bed could accommodate it, or if she did, it might collapse in the middle of the night and might break through the ceiling. . . Sean mentioned that he remembered some of the best Ole Miss football players sleeping on futons. That day, Leigh Anne went out and bought a futon and dresser. When she got the futon, she showed it to Michael and said, "This is your bed." And he said, "Is that my bed?" And she said, "This is your bed." And she just looked at him for a little bit and said, "This is the first time I've had my own bed."
Sean, on the other hand, had long since given up looking into Michael's past. The boy had a gift for saying as little as possible to people and also for saying what they wanted to hear. “The correct answer is the one that ends the questions,” Sean told me. He finally decided that Michael “had not the slightest interest in the future or the past. He's just trying to forget yesterday and get to tomorrow. He's in survival mode: fully focused on the next two minutes." He persuaded his wife to take a more impartial view of the question: Who is Michael Oher? and Leigh Anne agreed, at least in principle. " What does it matter if he doesn't know the names of his brothers and sisters?" he said lamely. "Or where did he go to school? Or did he go to school?
They decided to go ahead with Michael on a need-to-know basis: if they needed to know any details about his past, they would hound Michael until he gave her an answer. If they didn't, and they mostly didn't, she would leave him alone. "It is what it is," she said. "Past is past." She had a great conversation with Michael and said, “Let's move on. I can't do anything about what happened to you before. If this is going to get you in trouble and you're not going to be able to move on without dealing with it, maybe we need someone smarter than me to help."
He just looked at her and asked, "What does that mean?"
And she thought that her past didn't really matter that much to her. "Like a woman blocks childbirth," she now says, "I think he just blocked out a good part of her childhood."
VIII. The scouts are impressed
Tom Lemming's private observation report was sent to nearly every head coach in Division I college football program and thus over 100 college football coaches learned that this boy from Memphis, no one had ever heard of, he was the most impressive left-handed player. face the talent since Orlando Pace. And Pace was now making more than $6 million a year playing left back for St. Louis. Louis Rams. Just a week after Lemming's report was released, the Briarcrest Saints football team met for two weeks of spring training. Hugh Freeze was there, of course, since he was the head coach and ran practices. Tim Long was there, too, because he coached the offensive line. Like several of the coaches, Long fathered Briarcrest, but he was also a former 6-foot, 300-pound left tackle at the University of Memphis and a third-round draft pick by the Minnesota Vikings. Long was impressed by Michael Oher's raw ability immediately. "When I first saw him," he says, "I thought, this guy is going to make us famous." But then he coached him in the final games of his freshman year, after Michael was moved to right tackle on the offensive line, and Long wondered why he wasn't a better player. In one game, he took Michael out and benched him because he thought it was better for the team to play another guy.
The only other coach in Briarcrest spring training with any college or professional sports experience was Sean Tuohy. Hugh Freeze asked Sean to help out as an assistant coach, which meant his usual role as coach to the coach and unofficial advisor in the lives of the players. When Sean told Leigh Anne that he planned to coach football, she laughed at the idea: her husband couldn't tell the back of a game pass. The first thing Sean learned about soccer training was that you shouldn't do it in a BMW. He came home the first day and told Leigh Anne, “I need to buy a truck. I'm the only one without a truck. A few days later he bought one.
On that first afternoon of spring practice, Sean pulled up in his new truck to find the players lined up and stretching. The other trainers were already there. But there was another, highly unusual group of identically dressed men: college football coaches who had turned up to watch practice. They were off to the side, but you could tell by their identical dark slacks and sweat shirts with their school emblem emblazoned across the chest: University of Michigan, Clemson University, University of Southern Mississippi, University of Tennessee, State University. from Michigan, FL. . These were not head coaches, just assistants. But also. College coaches of any stripe weren't in the habit of visiting Briarcrest. The Briarcrest soccer field was in the middle of nowhere. At first few of the players had any idea why these men were present. The Briarcrest trainers knew why, because Freeze had just told them, but they were still as surprised as the players. “I don't know why they were there,” says Tim Long. "I think his size got him noticed."
The most complicated set of social rules on the planet, the rules governing the interaction of college football coaches and high school students, prohibit coaches from speaking directly with a high school senior until the July before their last year. . In the spring of their first year, they are allowed to visit their school twice and observe it from a distance. So the trainers made sure not to say anything directly; they just stood to the side and watched. "I'll never forget it," Long says. “We did gymnastics and agility. Then train immediately. We've been here for 10 minutes. Miguel is the first.
The plank drill, named for the thin, six-foot-long plank in the ground that you drive on, is among the most violent drills in soccer. The offensive lineman stands at one end of the backboard and faces the defensive lineman. At the whistle, they do what they can to get the other guy off the end of the board. Facing Michael Oher during a soccer game was one thing: you often didn't know where to go, and you probably had help from your teammates; if not, there was plenty of room to run and hide. Getting on the board in front of him to fight to the death was something else. No one on the team wanted to do that.
After a while, Joseph Crone, the biggest and most powerful defensive lineman on the team, came out. He was six feet tall, maybe 250 pounds, and a college candidate on a football scholarship. To him, this new mission, helmet-to-helmet with Big Mike, tasted like heroism. “The reason I stepped up,” says Crone, “is that I didn't think anyone else would want to take him on. Because he was such a big guy.
Crone still didn't think of Michael Oher as an exceptional footballer. But if he hadn't been a force on the field, Crone thought, it was only because he had no idea what he was supposed to do there. And Crone noted that he had improved last season and in the final game he looked really good. “He was figuring it out,” Crone says. “How to move your feet, where to put your hands. How to reach people so they can't run away. But while Big Mike had no idea what he was doing on a football field, Crone considered him an incredible physical specimen. He had a picture in his mind of the few opposing players who had made the mistake of getting tackled by Big Mike. “They looked like pressed pennies,” he says. “They would stand up and their backs would be a giant patch of grass. I couldn't imagine being on the other side of the ball facing Mike.” Now, by default, it was.
The two players took their positions with the eyes of the Southeastern Conference, Big Ten, Conference USA and Atlantic Coast Conference on them. Joseph Crone's mind was working overtime, he says, “I'm sitting there thinking, Man, this guy is huge. I have to go down on him. I have to steer my feet.
“Best at Best!” Coach Freeze yelled and blew his whistle.
When it was over, and it was over in the blink of an eye, the five college coaches broke formation and made what appeared to be urgent private calls. Briarcrest's athletic director, Carly Powers, turned to her left and discovered that one of them, trying to separate himself from the others, had approached her. She “I was whispering into her phone, 'Oh my God, you have to see this! Clemson head coach Brad Scott (who was the former head football coach at the University of South Carolina) ran onto the field, handed Freeze his card, and said, "I've seen everything I need to see." . If Michael Oher wanted a full scholarship to Clemson, it was his. "So," says Tim Long, "the guy from Clemson got in his car and drove eight or nine hours back home."
Freeze was as impressed and surprised as anyone - it could be a training movie. Big Mike lifted 270 pounds and handled it like he couldn't handle anything. Halfway through spring training his freshman year, Michael Oher became a high school first-team preseason All-American. From then on, Freeze had to give up almost everything he was doing and retreat to his office to deal with the long list of college football coaches who wanted to spend quality time at Briarcrest Christian School. In the frenzy, Freeze learned exactly what he had at hand. Not just a great lineman. Not a cinder block, interchangeable with other cinder blocks of similar dimensions. A future N.F.L. left attack.
Freeze put Michael on defense early and then when that didn't work, moved him to right tackle. And then Michael Oher had never played on the left wing. This was understandable: Left tackle wasn't a big deal in high school because the passing game, and thus passing fast, wasn't as important. Freeze now understood that in college football and the N.F.L. left tackle was a big problem. You find the monster of nature who can play the position brilliantly and has one of the most valuable resources in professional sports.
After spring training, Freeze informed the boy who played on the left side that he was going to be moved to the right side. Michael Oher was in his place.
VIII. A force in the field
Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy had their doubts. Michael entered their lives, moved into his house, and quickly became totally dependent on them. He was supposed to be a soccer player, but until everyone started saying that he was a soccer star, he showed almost no interest in soccer. When he played games his freshman year, he spent most of his time wandering the field looking for someone to dump. He seemed completely lost and passive. Left tackle may be the only guy on the field whose job it is to reduce the level of violence. But even the left-back, to be successful, needed to play aggressively. And the few people who did pay attention on the few occasions Michael played football didn't see an ounce of aggression.
Michael's first test was not a competitive game, but a preseason game at home early in his senior year against a team from Munford, Tennessee, 25 miles from Memphis. Leigh Anne took her usual place in the stands at the 50-yard line, two rows up, just below the "N" for "SAINTS." She sat among a group of player moms, all of whom had definite opinions about the quality of Briarcrest's coaching and soccer strategy. They kept a cell phone handy in case, as Leigh Anne says, "we had an opinion or thought about the game that we thought Hugh or Sean needed to know." She was the coach in the box and already watched football games in a way few Americans do: focused on the offensive line. She would have finished a play and she would have completely missed what happened to the ball. "I don't know about 'keep your blocking down' and 'stay fit' and all those little catchphrases football coaches use to talk about what forwards do," she says. “All I can tell is if Michael is lying on top of someone. And if he has his arms outstretched over someone, that's good."
Sean also took his place, just yards from Hugh Freeze's touchline, where he was able to get a different view of the head coach's action. Fully understanding Sean's almost magical ability to boost teenagers' confidence, Freeze taught him football just so he could put him in charge of Briarcrest's quarterbacks. Sean was still watching Michael, but tonight he lost sight of him. From the very first play of the game, Munford's defensive end, who lined up in front of Michael, directed him towards a special taunt. The Munford player was around six feet tall and couldn't have weighed more than 220 pounds, but he couldn't stop talking. With every play he had something nasty to say.
Hey, fat man, I'll kill you!
Hey fat ass! Fat can't play soccer! I'll break your fat ass!
The more he talked, the angrier Michael got, but no one noticed. Freeze called plays that required Michael to block a linebacker or throw and sweep the right end and leave just the defensive end in front of him. The first quarter and a half of scrimmage was uneventful, until Freeze called a different kind of game.
Leigh Anne rose from her seat to move ahead of the crowd at the concession stand, turning her back on the action as the people in the stands around her burst out laughing.
"Where is he taking you?" she heard someone say.
"He won't let that boy go!" someone else yelled.
He turned in time to see 19 footballers running down one side of the field after Briarcrest ran back with the ball. Across the field, Briarcrest's No. 74 Big Mike was sprinting in the opposite direction, a defensive end in his arms.
From his place on the touchline, Sean watched in amazement. Freeze had called for a running play, around the far right, away from Michael's side. Michael's job was simply to grab the defender who was sputtering at him and cut him off. He just keep it away from the ball carrier. Instead, he shot from scrimmage and got into form, which is to say, he reached inside the defender's shoulder pads, then picked up Munford's man. It was a perfectly legal blockade, with unusual consequences. He led the Munford player straight into the middle of the field for 15 yards, then turned left, toward the Munford sidelines. “The Munford boy's feet hit the ground every four steps, like a cartoon character,” says Sean. As the boy struggled to get his feet back on the ground, Michael ran the next 25 yards to the Munford bench. When he got there, he did not stop, but instead ran through it, bringing down the bench, several other Munford players, and scattering the team. He didn't miss a beat. Surrounding the soccer field was a concrete track. He blocked the boy on the lane and then on the grass on the other side of the cement lane. And he went straight to the wire fence on the other side of the lawn.
Flags waved, grown men cursed, and Sean called Michael outside.
"Michael," Sean said, "where were you taking him anyway?"
“I was going to put you on the bus,” Michael said.
Parked on the other side of the fence was, in fact, Munford's team bus.
"The bus?" Sean asked.
"I got tired of him talking," Michael said. "It was time for him to go home."
Sean thought he must be kidding. He was not there. Michael had thought of everything beforehand; He waited almost half a football game to do exactly what he almost did. Take that defensive side of shit and drive it not into the fence, but through the fence. To the bus. And then put it on the bus. And Sean laughed.
IX. passing grades
While Sean took care of the sporting side, Leigh Anne took over Michael's academic life. Every day, without fail, she would search his North Face backpack. She'd fail a test or get a D on a paper and she'd never think it was worth mentioning. She wouldn't trash her homework or her test scores, but she wouldn't volunteer them either. She found the rolled up paper at the bottom of her backpack. That was the biggest problem at first: Michael wouldn't say when there was a problem. He had the most intense desire to please without the ability to do the things that pleased him. He spent his entire life treating his mind as a problem to be covered up. He was so used to not sharing anything about himself, or maybe never being asked about himself, that he didn't even know where to start.
To get into the NFL, Michael Oher first needed to get into college. And to get into college, he needed to meet the academic standards prescribed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The N.C.A.A. had a sliding scale of ACT scores and grade point averages; the higher the ACT, the lower the G.P.A. Given Michael's better ACT score, to play college football he would need an overall GPA of 2.65. He finished his sophomore year with a 0.9. An improved performance at the end of his freshman year, when he moved in with Tuohy, brought his cumulative average to 1.564. It was then that Leigh Anne took over more fully. Before Michael's senior year, she called all of his teachers at Briarcrest and asked them to tell them exactly what Michael needed to do to get at least a B in his classes. She hadn't expected them to give Michael a note, though he wouldn't have complained if they did. But to her, a B was the fairest minimum for any normal person willing to go through the simple steps. She would chase Michael until he took those steps. Just give me the list of things he has to do, she told the teachers, and he'll do them.
Two days into his senior year, he came home, dropped his huge backpack on the kitchen table, and said, "I can't do this." Leigh Anne thought she was about to cry. The next morning, she told him to hold on and pushed him out the door. But that's when she Leigh Anne brought Sue Mitchell, whom she met at a sorority function.
As a tool for checking Michael Oher's GPA, in addition to expanding his experience with white people, Sue Mitchell had several things to recommend. In her 35-year career, she has taught at various public schools in the Memphis area. At Bartlett High School, outside of Memphis, she took over the cheerleading squad and made it a five-time national champion. She applied for a job at Briarcrest Christian School, but Briarcrest turned her down because, although she Mitchell said she believed in God, she had trouble proving it. (“The app didn't have any questions about education,” says Mitchell. “It was all about religion and what I thought about homosexuality, drinking and smoking.”) She was not born again and did not attend church. She also advertised herself as a liberal. When Sean heard this, she yelled at him, "We had a black kid before we had a Democrat friend!"
Still, despite these supposed failings, Mitchell was relentless and effusive, the kind of woman who wants everything to go right between her and the rest of the world, but if it doesn't, she could adjust and go to war. And that's what she did. She worked five nights a week, four hours a night, for free, to help locate Michael Oher at Ole Miss, her alma mater. The Tuohy family watched with interest. “There were days when he was overwhelmed,” says Collins, who has seen the academic drama both at school and at home. She “She'd just close the book and say, 'I'm done. When she did, Mitchell opened the book for him. She didn't care much for soccer, but she quickly took a liking to Michael. There was something about him that made you want to help him. She tried so hard and for so little return. “One night it wasn't going very well and I got frustrated,” Mitchell says, “and he said, 'Miss Sue, remember I've only been at school two years.
In his senior year, he got all A's and B's. It almost killed him, but he did it. The Briarcrest Academic Marathon, in which Michael started last and fell instantly behind, came to a surprising end: In a class of 157 students, he finished 154th. He caught up and passed three of his classmates. . When Sean saw the final report card, he turned to Michael with a serious expression and said, “You didn't lose; you just ran out of time.
He had a really strange academic career: nothing but Ds and Fs until the end of his junior year, when he suddenly became a trusted member of the Briarcrest honor roll. He would finish with a 2.05 grade point average. However, as incredible as it was, it wasn't enough to get him past the N.C.A.A. He needed a 2.65. And without more classes to take, he obviously wouldn't make it.
Now it was Sean's turn to intervene.
Through a friend, Sean learned about the Internet courses offered by Brigham Young University. The B.Y.U. the courses had magical properties: it took just 10 days to earn a grade, and could be used to replace an entire semester's grade on a high school transcript. Choose courses wisely and work quickly, and the most impressive transcript can be renewed in a single summer. Sean scanned the B.Y.U. catalog and found a promising series. It was called "Character Education." All you had to do in this "character course" was read a few short passages from famous works (a Lou Gehrig speech here, a letter from Abraham Lincoln there) and then answer five questions about it. How hard could it be? The A's earned in character courses could be used to replace the F's earned in high school English classes. And Michael never had to leave the house!
Thus began the great collection of Mormon notes. She mainly involved Sue Mitchell working on the character courses with Michael. Each week, they replaced an F from Memphis Public School with an A from BYU. Each task needed to be read aloud and decoded. She there she was, at the end of her senior year of high school, and she had never heard of a right angle, the Civil War or "I Love Lucy." But getting the grades was much easier than instilling any kind of learning pleasure in Michael. When Briarcrest gave him a list of selected books to write a report on, Mitchell, thinking she might pique Michael's interest, chose "Great Expectations." “Because of Pip's character,” she says. “He was poor and an orphan. And someone found it. I just thought Michael could relate. He couldn't. He tried "Pygmalion". Once again, he didn't have the slightest interest in the thing. They managed to get the job done out loud, with Michael assigned the role of Freddie. “He does wonderful memory work,” says Mitchell. “It is a survival technique. You can give him anything and he will memorize it. But that's all he did. Engaging with the material in a deeper way seemed impossible. He was as isolated from the great works of Western literature as he was from other people. “If you ask him why we're doing all this,” she says, “he'd say, 'I have to do this to make it to the league.'
There was one last unfinished piece in Michael Oher's Briarcrest career. The senior yearbook picture of him was out of date and Michael didn't have one. It was a Briarcrest tradition for all seniors to have their baby picture at the senior program. The lack of a baby photo for Michael drove Leigh Anne crazy. "You don't want to be the only senior who doesn't have a yearbook baby picture of him!" She told him. She had Michael name it after the foster home she admitted to living in when he was 8 years old. She called his adoptive mother, who seemed vague; anyway, she had nothing against him. She went to her biological mother's apartment and harassed her into taking photos of her. Later, she finally found a photo, taken by an employee of the Tennessee Department of Children's Services when Michael was about 10 years old. She brought it home and gave it to Michael.
Michael looked at him and exclaimed, "Mommy, it's me!"
"Are you sure it's you!" she said.
So he took it to the burrow and stared at it for 15 minutes.
But the photo did not solve the problem. It wasn't a baby photo. One spring night, Leigh Anne had an idea. She turned on her computer, went online, and found, as she puts it, "the cutest picture of a black baby I could find." She downloaded the photo of the stranger and sent it to Briarcrest.
Briarcrest Christian School held its graduation ceremony at a church in May 2005. The Tuohys were all in the audience, of course, and they brought Sue Mitchell with them. Steve Simpson was there, as was Jennifer Graves, who says she's never seen anyone work as hard for a role as Michael Oher did to get his title in Briarcrest. Big Tony was there, although his son, Steven, didn't graduate until the following year. The Briarcrest president delivered a long speech filled with many words of caution to the graduating class. He explained that when they got out of Briarcrest and out into the world, they would find "all kinds of groups that claim some kind of privilege based on their lifestyles or kinks." (There was no need to say "gay"; they knew all about sodomy.) He spoke scathingly about the danger of "seeking false happiness in a variety of narcissistic pleasures." After that final jolt of awe from God, the graduates were called to receive their rewards. Steve Simpson called their names one by one; one by one, they stepped forward. Michael wasn't called up until almost the end. He was sitting waiting in the last row, his upper lip glued to his lower, stifling his emotion or calming his nerves.
“Michael Jerome Oher,” Steve Simpson said and smiled.
XII. Faculty Limit
The N.C.A.A. he still needed his proof of Michael's new and improved GPA by August 1st. Ole Miss was willing to admit Michael Oher as a student, but the N.C.A.A. came between them somehow. First, he opened an investigation and expressed suspicions that the Tuohys became Michael's guardians and placed him in his will as equals to his own children just so he could play left back at his alma mater. Then the N.C.A.A. said his GPA was too low to play college football. On July 29, Michael performed his last B.Y.U. test: another course of character. Sean sent the test to Utah via Federal Express and BYU. the people promised to have the note ready at 2 pm the next day. “Mormons could go to hell,” Sean says. "But they really are good people." With Michael's last A in hand, Sean took the entire package to the NCAA offices in Iowa. The NCAA immediately lost it. Sean threatened to blow up his plane with another copy and sit in the lobby until it was processed, prompting the N.C.A.A. to find Michael's file. Although he remained suspicious and did not close his investigation, the N.C.A.A. On August 1, 2005, he informed Michael Oher that he would be allowed to go to college and play soccer.
A year later, Michael Oher was a first-team freshman All-American, the first left tackle for the Ole Miss Rebels, and the most incredible force on a football field many college coaches had ever seen. He was on a collision course with the second highest paying job in the NFL. He was literate and now mixed so well socially with the rich white Memphis that the rich white Memphis almost forgot he was black. Drowned in creation, your I.Q. test scores increased by 20 to 30 points. And his new parents, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, were so pleased with the results of their experiment that they began to think about the best way to get back to the center and do it all over again.
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