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Steven Malanga
Parenting vs. Poverty
It wasn’t government programs that saved NFL-bound Michael Oher.
10 February 2007

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, by Michael Lewis (W. W. Norton & Co., 299 pp., $24.95)

In football, a quarterback’s blind side is the side of the field opposite his throwing arm—the left side of the field for a right-handed quarterback, for instance. One shouldn’t confuse the blind side with a blind spot, which is what our policy-makers and media often have when discussing American poverty: it is a product of our unjust economic system, they say, and we should fight it with redistributive government programs. These experts would do well to read Michael Lewis’s wonderful new football book, The Blind Side. Though the book’s publisher pitches it as a sports story, it’s more notable as a portrait of the social dysfunction that shapes much of America’s inner-city poverty and, by extension, of the reasons that so many government efforts to alleviate that poverty have come to naught.

At the heart of The Blind Side—in fact, occupying more pages than its ostensible subject, the evolution of college and professional football—is the astonishing life story of National Football League–bound Michael Oher. Oher is born into horrific circumstances that give him little chance at succeeding in our society: his mother is a drug addict who, though unable to care for children, has 13 kids by various men, none her husband. Each of these children fends for himself on the mean streets of West Memphis. Oher’s mother collects her welfare check on the first of the month and disappears for ten days or so, stranding the kids without provisions or supervision. Oher recalls going days with nothing to eat or drink except water, begging food from neighbors, and sleeping outdoors.

Carted off by Tennessee’s Department of Child Services at age seven to live in a foster home that terrifies him, Oher runs away time and again—living intermittently with his mother and siblings, when he can find them, but basically providing for himself. He spends years dodging the authorities, hanging around Hurt Village, a Memphis public-housing complex that Lewis describes as “a portrait of social dysfunction.” Though the community consists of some 450 apartments housing more than 1,000 residents, it has no two-parent families. Most residents are grammar-school dropouts; few have jobs; about three-quarters, researchers say, suffer from “mental illness,” mostly drug addiction. Gangs rule the complex. Oher rarely goes to school, instead spending his days playing basketball for 10 to 12 hours at Hurt Village. Sometimes he and his friends sit on a hillside and watch gang shootouts, as if watching TV.

And then fate intervenes, in a series of astonishing events that transform Oher’s life. He accompanies a friend to Briarcrest Christian School, a private school outside Memphis run by evangelical Christians. The school’s coaches see Oher, a 344-pound teenage “freak of nature,” and realize that he’d be perfect to anchor Briarcrest’s offensive line, though he’s never played football before. Despite the oddity of a massive black kid from West Memphis attending a white evangelical school in wealthy East Memphis, Briarcrest’s coaches are enthusiastic—until they get a look at Oher’s record.

His IQ is 80, putting him in the ninth percentile of intelligence. An aptitude test that he’d taken during one of his rare visits to school places him in the sixth percentile of students in ability to learn. Ds litter his transcript—and Briarcrest knows that even those substandard grades are misleading, a product of social promotion in the public schools, handed out by teachers “to keep the assembly line moving,” as Lewis writes.

Briarcrest admits Michael Oher under intense academic supervision, but even under the watchful eye of the school’s special-needs counselor, he can get nowhere. It’s not that he fails his tests: he doesn’t even know how to take them, and so he simply leaves them blank. He doesn’t know what an ocean is, or a bird’s nest. He’s never heard of a verb or a noun. He can’t even pass his weight-lifting class; he just sits in the locker room in his street clothes, clueless. “There was no chance Michael could cut it in the 10th grade; the fourth grade might be a stretch for him,” Lewis writes.

Then a remarkable couple intervenes in Oher’s life. Sean Tuohy, a former all-American basketball player who parlayed his sports fame into a successful business career, is a born-again Christian with a daughter in Briarcrest. Sean notices Oher around the school wearing the same clothes every day, figures that he’s hungry, and arranges to have Oher’s school lunches billed to his account. He and his wife, Leigh Anne, see Oher wearing shorts in the middle of a snowstorm, and the next day she takes the boy on a shopping spree around Memphis’s big and tall men’s shops. Finally, when Leigh Anne drives Oher home after a track meet, only to find him living in an abandoned trailer and sleeping on an air mattress that he must inflate every night, the pair moves him in with them. “God gives people money to see how they will handle it,” Leigh Anne explains.

Sean remembers that athletics were his own ticket to wealth, and realizes that Oher’s extraordinary physical talents may be able to transform his life. But gradually he also concludes that Oher will never get the opportunity to cash in on those talents without considerable help. Thus begins the Tuohys’ exceptional effort to get Oher through Briarcrest and academically qualified to play college football. From there, everyone is certain, Oher will be able to leap into the National Football League, with a big contract as an offensive tackle protecting a quarterback’s blind side.

Part of the problem is just getting Oher—who rarely thinks of the future because he never seemed to have one—interested in his own remarkable potential. When a well-known college scout shows up to interview him, Oher just grunts and barely answers his questions. Famous college coaches try to recruit him, but he shows little interest in their pitches, preferring instead to hang out in his bedroom playing video games with the Tuohys’ nine-year-old son, whom Oher calls his little brother (utterly confusing some of the coaches). Oher simply can’t conceive of the world that all these people are offering him.

But what ultimately sets Oher apart from so many kids in similar circumstances, and what gives him a chance to succeed, is that the deprivation and violence he’s lived through have made surprisingly little impression on him, leaving him a blank slate for the Tuohys to write on. A top scout observes that though he has seen hundreds of potential professional athletes with similar backgrounds fail because of deep social problems arising from anger and frustration, Oher has a rare gift that they lack. “[T]he good Lord gave him the ability to forget. He’s mad at no one and doesn’t really care what happened,” as Leigh Anne observes. “His story might be sad, but he’s not sad.”

Still, kids in Oher’s position need more than lunch money, new clothes, and a warm bed. After Sean stays up all night preparing Oher for a test on The Pilgrim’s Progress and he still scores a 59, Leigh Anne takes over his academic routine, badgering his teachers to ensure that they alert her to problems and hiring a tutor to work with him virtually every night. For Oher, such attention is a new experience. On a trip to Barnes and Noble, the Tuohys’ son picks up a book and says to his mother, “You used to read this to me when I was young.” Oher observes: “I’ve never had anyone read me a book.”

But the Tuohys’ education of Oher goes way beyond the heroic task of getting him academically qualified. They embark on the equally challenging task of educating him in the basics of life in our society, things that most kids learn growing up and take for granted, from how to order food in a restaurant to getting a driver’s license. Some of this life education is hilarious. When Leigh Anne refers to someone as a redneck and Oher wonders what that is, she explains that a redneck is “someone who drives a pickup truck with guns in it.” When Oher says that he doesn’t see what’s wrong with that, she tells him, “It’s just not who we are.”

As Oher’s education proceeds, the Tuohys—and the reader—get glimpses of just how marginalized Oher had been as a West Memphis drug addict’s child. Leigh Anne finds herself temporarily stymied in getting Oher a driver’s license because the state has no record of Oher’s birth, and he has no documents proving his identity. Eventually, a search turns up one Michael Jerome Williams, Jr., born on Oher’s birthday. Oher discovers that his mother originally gave him his father’s surname, but later changed it to Oher after the father abandoned the family—though she never bothered to make the change legal.

After a Herculean effort to qualify Michael Oher academically for college sports, he wins a football scholarship to the University of Mississippi. But he and the Tuohys discover more roadblocks on the path to his redemption: his new teammates, who are very different from the evangelicals at Briarcrest. “Michael had left behind inner-city social risks only to find that inner-city social risks had followed him to Oxford, Mississippi,” Lewis writes. One of Oher’s teammates deals drugs in the off-season. Several are already fathers. The school considers about 40 of his teammates, well over half the roster, “academically at risk.” By now, the Tuohys are blunt about reminding Oher of the obstacles that he still faces. When, at a Thanksgiving dinner, a teammate begins talking about the children he’s already had, Leigh Anne tells him, in a most unchristian manner, “If Michael Oher does that, I’m cutting his penis off.” As if to emphasize how much he’s learned, Oher assures his friend, “She would, too.”

Lewis’s story ends with Oher’s freshman year (he has now completed his sophomore year and remains a top NFL prospect). The book’s final episode is a meeting between Lewis and Dwight Freeney, the Indianapolis Colts’ All-Pro defensive end, whose job is to face off against offensive tackles like Oher. “You tell Michael Oher I’ll be waiting for him,” Freeney tells Lewis. In the hypercompetitive world of professional sports, it’s eloquent testimony to the bright future awaiting the abandoned kid from Memphis.

After finishing Lewis’s dramatic and meticulous account of Oher’s redemption, I recalled a speech in which former mayor Rudolph Giuliani remembered the shortcomings of New York City’s child welfare system. Giuliani observed that though government could do its best, no government program could replace fatherhood. Or motherhood, for that matter.

Michael Oher found a family under the most extraordinary circumstances, a family with both the will and the resources to reverse years of neglect. But Lewis makes clear what we already know, especially in an age of rising out-of-wedlock birthrates among the poor: that many more kids like Oher fall behind because no government bureaucracy or program can provide what he received. In case anyone has any doubts, Lewis lays it all out in perhaps the book’s most perceptive lines: “There was a new force in Michael Oher’s life: a woman paying extremely close attention to him who had an eye for detail, a nose for trouble, the heart of a lion, and the will of a storm trooper. A mother.”

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More by Steven Malanga:
Jersey Jihadist
It’s Hard to be Saints in the City
The Cost of New York
More . . .
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