Michael Lewis' "The Blind Side" aims for "both the heartstrings and the funny bone"

October 9th, 2006

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Gamebook
The New York Times
Reviewed by Janet Maslin

Michael Lewis has such a gift for storytelling that it can be dangerous to his nonfiction. He is so much fun to read that he can appear to be shaping an entertaining narrative by sandpapering reality's rough edges. The real-life fable that is “The Blind Side” tells how a mountainous, destitute black teenager morphs into an Ole Miss football hero and becomes a member of a wealthy white evangelical family. Its dialogue is sharp and its anecdotes well chosen. Its aim for both the heartstrings and the funny bone is right on the mark.

But parts of this book feel like prefabricated movie moments, even if they accurately represent the facts. It's not that Lewis is maudlin or unoriginal; it's just that he prefers buoyant details to the bleak ones that are implicit here.

So when Michael Oher, the book's jumbo-size subject, is finally turned loose on a football field, Lewis paints a lively picture of brawn gone wild. He describes Oher's running up to an opponent, lifting him off the ground and carrying him well past the end of the football field. Why? Because Oher won't stop unless a referee's whistle blows.

“The Blind Side” is a careful amalgam of “Moneyball,” Lewis's counterintuitive look at baseball strategy and economics, and the human-interest angle of Oher's strange Cinderella story. “He looked like a house walking into a bigger house,” one witness recalls about his first glimpse of 16-year-old, 6- foot-5-inch (1.95-meter), 330-odd pound (150-kilogram) Oher.

For reasons that would never pass muster in a work of fiction, Oher moved from the squalor of West Memphis, Tennessee, to live with the Tuohy family on the other side of town and wound up being legally adopted by the Tuohys.

“We had a black son before we had a Democrat friend!” hoots the football- loving patriarch, Sean Tuohy. Tuohy and Lewis went to elementary school together, which led Lewis to the genesis of another winner.

“The Blind Side” describes the sequence in which facts about Oher emerge once he finds his way to the Briarcrest Christian School. “I don't know that he'd ever even held a Bible,” the school's special-needs teacher notes in astonishment. The facts about Oher look inconceivable: a grade point average of 0.6, a sixth percentile rating for “ability to learn,” an absentee rate of 46 days in the first term of his first year of first grade. (He took first and second grades twice each.)With or without classes, he walks to Briarcrest in winter just to find a place to keep warm.

So Tuohy's feisty wife, Leigh Anne , decides that Oher ought to be sleeping on a futon at the Tuohy home. She is surprised to find that he makes this bed and folds up its sheets every morning. “It was like God made a child just for us,” Tuohy says. “Sports for me, neat for Leigh Anne.”

“The Blind Side” wonders, just as Oher and the Tuohys do, whether any of this would have happened were Oher not a football prodigy. He turns out to be a rare hybrid: huge and unstoppable, but fast and graceful. Lewis, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, uses those attributes to trace vital changes in how football is played.

He explains why defensive players, who were once thought unimportant, have great value. The position that Oher winds up playing is left tackle. Once, as Lewis puts it, this was “like playing the cantaloupe in the school play.” Now it is vital to protecting the blind side of the quarterback, in a game that involves more passing than it used to and leaves the quarterback more exposed.

The title of “The Blind Side” isn't strictly about the game. It's about the way the world might have ignored Oher's talents. And it's about the determination of the Tuohys to cross racial and economic barriers to reach him, and his own willingness to accept the strangeness of this alien world. Undoubtedly there are facets of this process that Lewis chooses not to stress. It cannot have been as seamless as it sounds.

One thing mostly missing from the book is Oher's own voice; though he spoke with Lewis, he is not garrulous or easily quoted.

Another thing missing, fortunately, is a synthetic happy ending. By the time the book ends, Oher is wealthier than the college recruiters who pursued him. He is headed for a likely bright future in the National Football League. This is the point where the artifice ends and the real world takes over.

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