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It’s probably impossible to know the truth of it now. I’m talking about Michael Oher, starting right tackle for the Baltimore Ravens and subject of a hit movie titled The Blind Side (said film cost $29 million to make and, so far, has earned a domestic gross of $209 million). Three years earlier, Oher was the subject of a Michael Lewis book, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, which got to number 1 on the New York Times bestsellers list. And three years before that, he was attending and played football for a Memphis area private Christian high school, selected First Team Tennessee All-State, and rated as America’s fifth best lineman prospect by Scout.com.

Oher is 23 years old and has been a celebrity for more than a third of his life. Didn’t begin that way. His mom was a crack addict, and he never met his father. Oher was one of 13 children, on his own from the age of seven. He attended 11 schools in nine years, occasionally stayed in foster homes, occasionally homeless, always without a family.

I don’t altogether buy the public version of how this happened, but in 2002 he enrolled in a private Christian high school outside of Memphis. He came in functionally illiterate with a D- grade point average, still semi-homeless, still sleeping around in different houses. That slowly changed when he came across Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy and began staying at their house.

The Tuohys eventually became his legal guardians. They brought in tutors, paid his way, made him one of their own. Michael raised his grades from 0.6 to 2.52, accepted a scholarship to Ole Miss, while there made All-Everything in football and the dean’s list twice. He graduated in criminal justice, was taken in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft by Baltimore (signed a five-year, $13.8 million contract), and has started every game as left or right offensive tackle, in this, his rookie season.

The movie is actually about the white family (dad owns more than 70 Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets) that takes in a black homeless teenager, gives him their love, money, and time. The boy with a D- average goes on to become a college graduate and NFL star.

I’m not saying it’s not a great story — it is a great story, and I’m not saying it’s untrue, I’m just saying it’s a story. Imagine how many interviews Oher, his adopted mom, dad, sis, and brother have given over the past nine years. The December 29 special edition of 20/20 is only the latest broadcast about Oher. Before that there were write-ups in the New York Times, USA Today, Oprah.com, and everywhere else — you get 556,000 “Michael Oher” hits on Google. Movie promotions, book promotions, speaking engagements — “Michael Oher Available For: Corporate Appearances, Endorsements, Speaking & Autograph Signings.” And, “Sean & Leigh Anne Tuohy. Subjects of The Blind Side. Exclusive Representation by Greater Talent Network,” years of it.

Do that many interviews and you become a polished interviewee. Reporters ask the same questions, so you develop the same answers. It’s not that you’re trying to present a false front, it’s more a Pavlovian response. You see the interviewer react positively when you say, “Dog food is too expensive,” and you think, Hmm...that’s a good answer. You repeat your good answer in the next interview and it works again. Do 200 interviews and you no longer remember what the real answer is. Or, to fine-tune, the real answer becomes your good answer.

And there is too much money (Michael Lewis author, Sandra Bullock actor, movie studios, NFL, friends, business managers, publishers, agents, coaches, teammates) mixed up in this to let us get to the bedrock truth. So, we’re not going to find out how it actually was for Michael Oher.

Instead, I’ll offer one anecdote. It concerns Leigh Anne Tuohy, the 5’2” daughter of a U.S. Marshal, Memphis married woman with two kids, who took Oher into her home and, early on, before everybody got famous, began introducing herself as Michael’s mother.

Bob Costas is the studio host on Football Night in America. The Baltimore Ravens were playing Pittsburgh, and Costas ran an interview about Oher in the lead-up. Costas begins by saying Leigh Anne Tuohy is still performing her motherly duties. Cut to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who says, “The first time I met her was we were in an elevator in San Diego. She goes to me, ‘Hi...I’m Michael Oher’s mom. You need to get rid of the ball faster.’”

Oher has said that his next big dream “is to make it to the Super Bowl, win, and celebrate with my team.” He’ll do it.

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Comments

shizzyfinn Jan. 6, 2010 @ 3:48 p.m.

Thank you for calling out the elephant in the room with the Oher story: how, if he didn't possess superstar-caliber athletic potential, no one would have given a damn.

Michael Lewis's story in NY Times Magazine makes it clear that Oher only got a chance at the Christian high school because of what he could do for the school's athletic department. Quote from one of the high school coaches: “When I first saw him, I thought, this guy is going to make us all famous.”

I appreciate how the Tuohys helped Oher: putting them up in their 7,000 square foot house, pushing him to develop his football skills, working relentlessly to help him master the basics of academia. Their efforts show just how much time and work is necessary to help kids with tragic childhoods become effective adults.

A question I'd love to ask the Tuohys: Other kids who have backgrounds like Oher's - do they have to be future pro athletes to be afforded the extensive tender loving care that might help them get on their feet?

In the Lewis article, Sean Tuohy jokes, “We had a black son before we had a Democrat friend!” So maybe I have an answer to my question after all.

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Fred Williams Jan. 6, 2010 @ 8:18 p.m.

They really shouldn't call it "scholarship", but "playership", when the rules get bent to coddle ball players.

Shizzy makes an excellent point.

If this kid wasn't a football standout, nobody would have given a damn.

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shizzyfinn Jan. 7, 2010 @ 7:49 p.m.

I'd wager that was the first response to the little fella who made the insightful comment about the emperor's new clothes.

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