Ravens’ Michael Oher tells his side in memoir
By Deirdre Donahue, USA TODAY
February 8, 2011
OWINGS MILLS, Md. — If you saw the monster hit movie The Blind Side, you’re unlikely to forget Michael Oher, the film version.
He was the gentle-spirited Shrek with the sad-sack Eeyore vibe rescued from homelessness and near-illiteracy by Leigh Anne Tuohy, the red-hot Memphis mama/matron played by Sandra Bullock, who won an Oscar for the role.
By the end of the movie, Oher (played by Quinton Aaron) is the Baltimore Ravens’ 2009 first-round draft pick. Good thing his pixie-cute adoptive little brother, S.J. (Jae Head), taught him the game of football using ketchup bottles.
Ah, Hollywood. It has always “enhanced” reality for the sake of a good story.
But the real Michael Oher just might be the first person with more sparkle and good looks than his movie counterpart.
Sitting at a conference table at the Ravens’ training center just outside Baltimore, Oher, 24, is ready to reintroduce himself to the world with his own memoir, I Beat the Odds: FromHomelessness to The Blind Side and Beyond (Gotham, $26), co-written with veteran sports writer Don Yaeger.
It’s not that Oher dislikes the movie. “It’s a great story,” Oher (pronounced Oar) says of the film based on Michael Lewis’ best-selling book.Nor did he write it to compete with In a Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving, the 2010 best seller from his adoptive parents, Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy.
“People who see the movie think they know all about me,” Oher says. But they don’t. “I have more personality,” he says.
Most of all, he wants his book to reach the more than 500,000 American children in foster care, and the millions more living in homes where dreams never come true and few beat the odds because of poverty, crime, drugs and despair.
Kids just like the young Oher, back when he called the Memphis housing project Hurt Village home. Or when he lived in shelters. Or in a car, or under a bridge.
Oher wants them to understand that the road to success didn’t begin the day the Tuohys stopped their silver BMW and took him home. At the time, he was a black teenager attending the same private Christian school as the wealthy white Tuohys’ daughter and son. The couple eventually adopted Oher and helped him earn a football scholarship to their alma mater, the University of Mississippi.
It wasn’t that our mother didn’t love us, or that she was physically abusive. It was just that sometimes she seemed to forget that she had children and that we needed her care, so she’d go off for a while and we kids would be left to take care of ourselves and one another. Since we didn’t know any other way of life, we just adjusted to it the best we could and always tried to back one another. And we weren’t the only kids in the neighborhood who lived like that.
Oher’s success story began when he was 11 and turned away from drugs and gangs. “I would look around and think, ‘There has got to be something better somewhere,’ ” he says.
By 13, he was getting up at 6 a.m. on Sundays to sell newspapers in Memphis to earn money for food and clothes.
Yes, being an NFL offensive tackle with a five-year, $13.8 million contract is incredible, but he’d still be successful “if I was working two or three jobs just to get it done,” he says.
Or, as he writes in the book, he’d be proud to be “the guy taking your order” at Taco Bell, one of the more than 70 fast-food franchises Sean Tuohy owns.
“I would have found my way out of the ghetto one way or the other,” he writes.
I Beat the Odds opens with the adult Oher going to meet a woman he spent his childhood fearing: a responsible Memphis social worker named Ms. Bobbie Spivey. She kept track of Michael, one of 12 children born to a crack-addicted mother. (Oher had almost no contact with his father, who was murdered when Oher was in high school.)
In 1994, when 7-year-old Michael was in the second grade, he and his brother Carlos were put in foster care because his mother would periodically leave her children (including a 14-month-old) alone for days to use drugs.
When he was 11, he moved back in with her, but her drug use made and continues to make her an unreliable mother.
The topic of his mother pains Oher. “We were always loved,” he says. “When she was clean and sober, she took care of us.”
Now they do not speak because of her continuing drug use and her response when Oher used part of his first Ravens paycheck to take his brothers shopping for used cars and work clothes. Enraged, she sold much of what Michael had bought them and left a cruel voice-mail message for him.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” he says.
‘No picture can do justice’
The book offers a harrowing first-person account from a child’s point of view of the Dickensian conditions many American kids endure. Oher describes the terror of being removed from one’s natural family, even when it is necessary. And how much he yearned for a family and a stable home. He urges adults moved by his story to volunteer even a few hours at organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club.
“Americans who fell in love with the movie Michael Oher are going to love the real guy even more,” says co-author Yaeger. “The Michael Oher I worked with is one of the sharpest, youngest guys I’ve worked with in years. And I’ve worked with everyone from Walter Payton to John Wooden.” A former editor at Sports Illustrated, Yaeger co-wrote Payton’s Never Die Easy and Tug McGraw’s Ya Gotta Believe, among other books
Oher “has an intuitive sense about people and situations, which doesn’t show up in grades or ACT tests. That intuition is going to carry him to success both on and off the field,” Yaeger says. “And no movie, no picture can do justice to some of the places he came from.”
Oher appreciates that the movie made him famous and inspired people, Yaeger says.
Two “misperceptions” bother Oher: “That he isn’t intellectually capable. As Michael says, ‘I’m not dumb, I just wasn’t educated.’ “
The other: “That he knew nothing about football.”
According to his book, Oher was playing varsity football for a Memphis high school when he was an eighth-grader. He has followed sports his whole life and knew they were his destiny at age 7, when he watched Michael Jordan in the 1993 NBA finals. Basketball, football, baseball — he played and loved them all.
Passionate on the field
Now he’s getting into golf. “I try to win at everything,” he says — including locker room games of cornhole, a beanbag game.
Oher is a fun, chatty guy. He does yoga, “but there’s no incense going on.” The big guy (he’s 6-foot-5 and 312 pounds) is a movie buff. Among his favorites: Titanicand The Godfather.
But gentleFerdinand the Bull departs the moment you bring up the Pittsburgh Steelers and ask what the Ravens could have done differently in their Jan. 15playoff loss against the team that went on to lose the Super Bowl.
“The defeat is still eating me up inside!” he says with fire in his eyes, looking every massive muscle a pro athlete.
It’s ironic, says Sean Tuohy (Tim McGraw in the movie), that there were people in the NFL who thought Oher’s adoption by the Tuohys meant his exposure to wealth would eliminate the hunger needed in the pros.
The Tuohys, who live in Memphis,attend Oher’s Ravens games — they have a private plane — and he spends time with them in the offseason. He owns a house near Baltimore and rents another during the offseason with Viking Jamarca Sanford in Oxford, Miss., so they can work out at Ole Miss. (Any girlfriend? Off-limits topic: “Nothing personal,” says the unmarried Oher with a smile.)
Leigh Anne Tuohy, who has read some chapters in Michael’s book, says: “I think it will be an inspiration.”
Talking to Oher in person and later to the Tuohys by phone can be quite entertaining, a sort of ongoing family comedy routine. Leigh Anne cooks, says Oher, unlike Bullock in the movie.
And what does she whip up for him?
“I’ll cook for the boys,” Leigh Anne admits in a joint interview with her husband.
“But not for me,” Sean puts in.
Is Leigh Anne a take-charge personality like Bullock in the movie? “She gets what she wants most of the time,” Oher says. Leigh Anne says she’s twice as bossy.
Her husband’s verdict on his bride?
“Three times as bossy” as Bullock, he says.
In their book, the Tuohys describe how generous Oher is. He bought his adoptive sister, their daughter Collins, a Louis Vuitton MacBook cover, and he bought their son S.J. a Dodge Challenger. Cars are Oher’s weakness. He owns a BMW, a Hummer and a Camaro.
Sudden wealth has drawbacks. For example, relatives of Oher’s biological father have asked him for money, people “I’ve never spoken two words to before,” he writes.
The gift of forgetfulness
The movie made Leigh Anne Tuohy a media sensation. The blond interior decorator is one of three designers on this season’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. She and her husband speak frequently to groups about their charity and religious faith.
And like parents everywhere, they remember things a bit differently than their kids. Sean says the film version was “pretty accurate” in depicting the withdrawn, homeless teenager.
He’s not surprised Oher disagrees, because one of Oher’s gifts is his ability to forget. “It’s a gift,” Sean says, “because if anyone has the right to be mad, it’s Michael.”
And inside, the teenager already had everything he needed to succeed.
“We’d like to take the credit. But there’s no way we can,” says Sean.Their decision to make Oher part of their family “just let him become who he was supposed to be.
“We really believe that Michael was sent to us — by God.”