Once in a while the Box recommends a book for your consideration. It has to be a sports book and it has to be brilliant. At hand is such a book: The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, by Michael Lewis (W.W. Norton, 299 pages, $24.95).
You've probably heard of and might have read Lewis's 2003 work, Moneyball. The star is Billy Beane, Oakland A's general manager. Oakland's 2002 team payroll (the year Lewis spent with them) was $40 million, the 28th lowest payroll of 30 major league ball clubs. (The Padres' 2002 payroll was $41 million and change, 26th lowest.) Yet, the A's made the playoffs in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2006.
Beane found an anomaly in baseball's marketplace. He understood that the number that counted was "on base percentage." He didn't care if the player was old, fat, chain-smoked, or spent a decade in the minor leagues. Didn't care if his batting average was .240. If the man had an OBP of .350, whether by walk, hit, bunt, error, or bribe, that's the player Beane wanted. And Beane got them cheap since his competitors were looking at batting averages. (There is much more to this. Buy the book.) Anyway, Lewis wrote it up and he writes beautifully. Moneyball changed how fans see baseball and how teams see players.
The Blind Side is about football. Lewis didn't find an anomaly this time. Instead he brought to life a slice of the game few fans follow, the position of offensive left tackle. The book's star is a West Memphis African American kid, Michael Oher. Oher has been described as a freak of nature: 350 pounds, 6'5", with great foot speed, coordination, long arms, and huge hands. One in a million.
According to Lewis, what made Oher one of the most recruited high school seniors in memory occurred the year before he was born with the destruction of Joe Theismann. Theismann was the starting quarterback for the Washington Redskins on the night of November 18, 1985. It was a Monday Night Football game. Theismann, 36, was playing in his 163rd consecutive game for the Redskins, when New York Giants 250-pound linebacker Lawrence Taylor (himself a prototype of what the new linebacker will be) made a hit on Theismann that I still recall vividly and cringe when I do. Lewis writes, "...heard what sounded like a gunshot -- the tibia and fibula in Joe Theismann's right leg snapping beneath Taylor...Theismann's bone lay exposed, and his blood was spurting straight up in the air."
Theismann never played again. Lawrence had set upon him from his blind side, which, for a right-handed quarterback, is the left side. Lewis writes, "When a star running back or wide receiver is injured, the coaches worry about their game plans. When a star quarterback gets hurt, coaches worry about their jobs."
So, protecting the quarterback became Job 1, and that means having a left tackle who is well over 300 pounds, very fast, very tall, and has "the body control of a ballerina." The NFL knows the importance of left tackles. Last year, the number one and two highest paid players were Atlanta's quarterback (Michael Vick, at $23.1 million) and Seattle's quarterback (Matt Hasselbeck, at $19 million). The third and fourth highest paid players were St. Louis left tackle Orlando Pace at $18 million and Seattle left tackle Walter Jones at $17.7 million.
Michael Oher not only has a one-in-a-million body but has lived a one-in-a million life. The kid has an IQ of 85, grew up in the "third poorest zip code in the United States," West Memphis, Tennessee. He was one of 13 children. His mother, addicted to alcohol and crack cocaine, was usually stoned or in rehab. He never knew his father. Michael lived in foster homes and crashed in other people's houses, attended 11 schools.
What is freaky is how he found his way into Briarcrest Christian School, a thoroughly white, academically prominent private school, originally formed to keep white children out of desegregated public schools. Of course, they don't want to let him in. Not because of race, but because Oher is 16 years old, reads on the third-grade level, and has a D- average. He's got no money, no home, no birth certificate. He's never played organized football. He has the social skills of a cement floor.
The book tells the story of how he made it in school, in football, and on to college. If I have one complaint, it's that the story is too good to be taken as true. People are doing noble things for the right reasons, and outcomes are what we want to happen. There have been questions about Oher's adoptive parents and how he got into the University of Mississippi.
Questions, but no convictions. Lewis is a gifted writer and this is a great story.