February 9, 2011
Michael Oher, an offensive tackle for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, never really wanted to write a book. “I’m a football player first,” he tells NPR’s Neal Conan. “I didn’t want to be … bothered with it.”
But Oher isn’t just a typical football star — he was the inspiration for the feature film The Blind Side, which won an Academy Award for Best Actress and inspired millions of Americans to take an interest in his story. The movie told the tale of a poor (and hulking) kid growing up with a crack-addicted mother, moving from home to home and school to school, until he found familial love and support with an adoptive family. He then went on to become a football star. It is a seemingly perfect story, wrapped up in a bow of sporting success.
With the film’s tremendous reception — Sandra Bullock won the Oscar for playing Oher’s adoptive mother, Leighanne Tuohy — the letters from former foster kids kept piling up. Oher knew that he needed to do more than just play football to inspire the children looking to him for answers.
“I started to get so many letters … hundreds and thousands of letters,” he says. As Oher heard from more and more former foster children, he realized that sharing his story in his own words had the power to help others.
“The outlook is pretty bleak for kids like me,” Oher writes in his book, I Beat The Odds: From Homelessness to The Blind Side and Beyond. “I want to provide a voice for the other half-million children in the foster care system who are silently crying out for help.”
Oher wrote the book with assistance from author Don Yaeger, and together they did extensive research on the fate of young people who age out of America’s foster care system. Oher and Yaeger were sobered by what they found — high levels of homelessness and post-traumatic stress syndrome — and very low college attendance rates.
“We found numbers that were unbelievable,” says Oher. “I was supposed to have been part of it … but I had a strong will and I was not going to be a part of that cycle.”
One of the many challenges for kids navigating the system, Oher says, is a stigma that foster children are “problem kids.” Many social workers are too quick to label children, he says: “They think that this kid’s bad and … they automatically give them a bad name.”
But many young people, Oher argues, “want to do right … and live on the right path. Not everybody in the inner city is bad.”
Oher knows that, conversely, foster children can also misinterpret their caseworkers. Growing up, Oher and his siblings were terrified of their own social worker. “We thought she was a terrible bounty hunter,” he says. “Always trying to separate us.”
It was only when Oher decided to write I Beat The Odds that he sought out that caseworker, Bobbie Spivey, hoping that she could help him fill in gaps in his childhood memories. When he sat down with her as an adult, he realized Spivey had only been trying to do what was best for his family — even when that meant separating Oher and his 11 siblings.
Oher hopes his story will help other young people identify the adults who can help them find their way.
“I knew that I wanted this book to be more than just a story about my early life,” he writes. “I wanted it to be a guidebook for kids like me and the adults who want to help them.”
Excerpt: ‘I Beat The Odds’
by Michael Oher with Don Yaeger
PROLOGUE: Reaching Back
I felt myself breaking into a sweat as I walked up to the doors of the Department of Children’s Services office, and it had nothing to do with the fact that it was summertime in Memphis. I never would have dreamed a dozen years ago that I would walk willingly up to those doors. To me, they seemed to stand for everything that had gone wrong in my childhood, every bad memory, every feeling of hopelessness and loneliness and fear.
And now I was headed inside.
It was a different office from the one I remembered. The big state government building downtown was the one that always stayed in my mind, and that was where I thought I was headed until the directions I’d been given had me turn into an old strip mall lined with a payday advance center, a grocery store, and a lot of potholes in the parking lot. I’d driven past this shopping center I don’t know how many times in my life and had never really paid that close attention to what all was there. That afternoon in July, as I drove up for my appointment, I just circled past the stores in my car, looking for a place to turn back out onto the road because I knew the directions had to be wrong. But then I saw the familiar DCS logo on the glass door toward the end of the mall and I knew I was in the right place.
Suddenly, I lost about three feet and two hundred pounds and became a scared little kid again.
I was a few minutes early, but I was ready for this to happen. There was no use sitting in my car to kill that time. I had come here as part of my work to write this book and I had an appointment to meet, for the first time in my adult life, the woman who spent years as the state’s caseworker on my file. I needed to go in while I still had the nerve, so I parked and walked to the building, past all the other cars parked outside, past the waiting room full of plastic chairs, and up to the little reception window that looked kind of like a bulletproof barricade that you see in convenience stores in the worst parts of town.
“Hi,” I said to the woman checking people in. I had to duck down so she could see my face through the glass. “My name is Michael Oher and I’m here to meet with Ms. Bobbie Spivey.”
“Ooh! It’s so nice to meet you!” she almost shouted. “Come on in! We’ve been expecting you! Ms. Spivey’s office is back here.”
A security guard opened the door and led me through a metal detector and back into a big room full of cubicles and offices. As I walked to the conference room where our meeting would be, a number of women crowded around — all DCS workers — and said hello or told me how much they enjoyed the movie The Blind Side. I shook hands and said hello, but none of the faces looked familiar.
And then, all of a sudden, I saw her. There was no mistaking who she was. I was face-to-face with the woman who had been one of the scariest people in all of my childhood.
“Hello, Michael,” she smiled, giving me a hug. She barely reached the middle of my chest as I bent down. “You look so different. You’re a lot taller. And your complexion is better.”
I had to laugh at that. She looked different, too. I couldn’t believe that the woman I’d thought of for years as a relentless “bounty hunter,” always chasing down my brothers and me and trying to take us away from our mother, was really just a tiny, pretty woman with a nice smile and a gentle voice.
We sat down at a table as we went over the rules of our meeting. Any kid who has been in the custody of the state has a right to their information once they become an adult. However, when there are siblings involved, it makes things a little more complicated because the law only allows me to get information about my own life and not about anyone else’s. She explained that rules like that have to be there to protect people’s privacy, so there might be some questions I would ask that she wouldn’t be able to answer. I understood. I was just happy to have a chance to finally start to put together the pieces of all of the memories I hadn’t let myself think about for so many years. Sean Tuohy said one time that one of my strongest gifts was my ability to forget. He was right. I had needed to forget a lot of stuff in order to not get swallowed up by the hurt and sadness. But I had finally decided that the time was right for me to start remembering.
I didn’t write this book just to revisit Michael Lewis’s The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, and it is not meant to be a repeat of Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy’s book In a Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving (which was released while I was working on this one). Lewis’s book was originally aimed at football fans who were interested in some game strategy and a personal story about it; the Tuohys’ book was designed to help carry on a discussion with people who had seen the movie about our lives and were inspired to find their own way to give.
My book is as different from the other two as they are different from each other, and I have a couple of goals that I’d like to accomplish with it. The first is that I want to help separate fact from fiction. After the movie came out, there were a lot of people asking me if my life was exactly how it was shown on screen. Obviously, the moviemakers have to make artistic choices to tell the story in the best way, but some of the details, like me having to learn the game of football as a teenager or me walking to the gym in November wearing cut-off shorts, just aren’t true. Since so many people seem interested in these details, I hope that I can help to make a little more sense out of it all for them.
My second goal with this book, and the much more important one, is that I want to talk about — and to — the nearly 500,000 children in America whose lives have been so rough that the state has determined they’re better off being cared for by someone other than their parents. The odds are stacked against those children. Less than half will ever graduate from high school. Of the ones who drop out, almost half of the boys will be imprisoned for violent crimes. Girls in foster care are six times more likely to have children before the age of twenty-one than are girls in stable families. And of those kids, more than half will end up in foster care themselves. The outlook is pretty bleak for kids like me.
I beat the odds.
Most people probably know my name from The Blind Side. What they probably don’t know — what no one knows — is exactly what happened to me during my years in the foster care system, the years before The Blind Side picked up my story. The things in my life that led up to it; the way I tried to fight back; the emotions that overwhelmed me and left me confused, scared, and alone; all of the memories that no one was able to bring out of me; everything in my life that came before the happy ending — those are the things I want to discuss. All of that, and I want to provide a voice for the other half-million children in the foster care system who are silently crying out for help.
But the one thing I particularly want to stress is that I was determined to make something of myself, and that’s the hope I want to offer to those children and teens, and the adults in their lives who want to help them. This book is designed to tell my story while explaining the lessons I learned along the way and looking at the mind-set I had to succeed, with or without anyone else’s help.
I’ve read some newspaper articles recently where Leigh Anne Tuohy is quoted as saying that I would either be dead from a shooting or the bodyguard to some gang leader if I hadn’t been taken in by their family. I think that had to have been a misquote because despite the sensationalist things that make for a more dramatic story, what my family knows and what I know is that I would have found my way out of the ghetto one way or another.
Failure was not an option for me.
Any person who would suggest that I would have ended up facedown in a gutter somewhere is missing a huge part of the story. The Blind Side is about how one family helped me reach my fullest potential, but what about the people and experiences that all added up to putting me in their path? As anyone in my family will tell you, they were just part of a complicated series of events and personalities that helped me achieve success. They were a huge part of it, but it was a journey I’d started a long time before. And it’s that journey I want to share in this book for other struggling kids who are fighting for their own way out.
I’ve tried to be as honest as I can about the things I discuss here. This book is everything I’ve never spoken about to anyone before, and a lot of things I’ve tried to forget. People used to say that my ability to forget was what allowed me to move on. They were right. But no kid ever truly forgets when they’ve experienced neglect, abuse, and heartbreak. And now, I think I can only succeed in accomplishing something meaningful and important in my life if I share those memories so that other people can learn and understand what growing up is really like for kids like me.
Reprinted from I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness, to The Blind Side, and Beyond by Michael Oher with Don Yaeger by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright 2011 by Michael Oher.