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Big Mike's large life

Editor's note: This is adapted from The Blind Side, which is being published Monday by W.W.Norton.

In his first nine years of school, Michael Oher was enrolled in 11 different institutions including a gap of 18 months, around age 10, when he apparently did not attend school at all.

At 16, the boy had a measured IQ of 80, which put him in mankind's ninth percentile. His grade point average began with a zero: 0.6.

These were the numbers in the file that lay on the principal's desk at a rich white private school in Memphis named Briarcrest Christian School. His application had landed there through sheer chance.

Oher (pronounced "Oar") was effectively homeless and orphaned. His father had been shot and killed and tossed off a bridge and his mother was a crack addict. Oher had made an art of sleeping on whatever floor the ghetto provided. He crashed for a stretch on the floor of an inner-city character named Big Tony who had a son about Oher's age. When Big Tony's mother was dying, she asked that her grandson, Big Tony's son Steven, go to a "Christian school."

Big Tony figured so long as he was bringing in his son's application, he might as well drop off one for Oher, too. Oh, Big Tony wasn't the only person who was big. Michael Oher, at 16, weighed 344 pounds and was halfway between 6 and 7 feet tall. It was muscle, not fat, and he was not just big but was strong and quick. The football coach didn't know if he could play the game, but thought it was worth a try.

He had asked the principal to take a chance. The principal, Steve Simpson, thought it over and said, Sorry. There was just no way that he could cut it in the 10th grade. The fourth grade might be a stretch.

He gave Oher one ray of hope. Enroll in home study, do well, and the school would admit him the next semester. But homeschooling for a near homeless student didn't work. By the time that was clear, it was too late to enter public school. The principal had effectively taken Oher out of school altogether. After a sleepless night, he admitted him - but no sports.

No one knew it then, but Oher is a physical freak of nature, built perfectly to play left tackle in pro football.

The ideal left tackle is not just big. What sets him apart are his more subtle specifications. He is wide in the rear and massive in the thighs: the girth of his lower body lessens the likelihood that an equally big and fast guy would run right over him. He has long arms: pass rushers try to get in tight to the blocker's body, then spin off of it, and long arms help to keep them at bay. He has giant hands: when he grabs a defender, it means something.

All of this is important because a series of speedy and exceptionally violent pass rushers had been coming at right-handed quarterbacks in the National Football League from their blind side - the left side of the line.

The ideal left tackle also has incredibly nimble and quick feet. Quick enough feet, that the prospect of racing him in a five-yard dash makes the team's running backs uneasy. The combination is just incredibly rare. And so, ultimately, very valuable.

By the 2004 NFL season, the average NFL left tackle's salary was $5.5-million a year, and the left tackle had become the second-highest-paid position on the team, after the quarterback.

Oher, who was called Big Mike, was apparently born to play left tackle in the NFL. But first he had to get through 10th grade.

This was no sure thing.

Big Mike wasn't merely failing tests; he wasn't even starting them. The only honest grade to give him in his academic subjects was zero.

The principal began to sense the dimensions of the void in the child's life experiences. He didn't know what an ocean was or a bird's nest or the tooth fairy. He couldn't very well be taught 10th-grade biology if he had no clue what was meant by the word cell. It was as if he had materialized on the planet as an overgrown 16-year-old.

Lunch money

When Sean Tuohy first spotted Michael Oher sitting in the stands in the Briarcrest gym - watching the practice of a basketball team he wasn't allowed to play on - he saw a boy with nowhere to go but up. The question was how to take him there.

Sean, 42, was an American success story: He had come from nothing and made himself rich. He was a star point guard at Ole Miss, drafted by the New Jersey Nets. And while he didn't make it in the National Basketball Association, he took his preternatural court sense into the business world. He owned a chain of 60 Taco Bells, KFCs and Long John Silver restaurants.

Like every other parent and student at Briarcrest, Sean had been born again, but his interest in the poor jocks might have run even deeper than his religious belief. What he liked about them was that he knew how to help them. "What I learned playing basketball at Ole Miss," he told me once, "was what not to do: beat up a kid. It's easy to beat up a kid. The hard thing is to build him up."

Sean's daughter Collins, a sophomore at Briarcrest and on her way to becoming the Tennessee state champion in the pole vault, had mentioned Big Mike to him. When she tried to pass him on the stairwell, she said, she had to back up to the top because she couldn't fit past him. Without uttering a peep, he had become the talk of the school.

She said everyone was frightened of him at first, until they realized that he was far more terrified of them. Sean had noticed that Big Mike wore the same clothes every day: cutoff blue jeans and an oversize T-shirt. Now he saw him in the stands and thought, I'll bet he's hungry. Sean walked over.

"What did you have to eat for lunch today?" Sean asked.

"In the cafeteria," the kid said.

"I didn't ask where you ate," Sean said. "I asked what you ate."

"Had a few things," the kid said.

Sure you did, thought Sean. He asked if he needed money for lunch, and Mike said, "I don't need any money."

The next day, Sean went to the Briarcrest accounting department and arranged for Michael Oher to have a standing account at the lunch checkout counter. He had done the same for several of the poorer black kids who had come to Briarcrest. "That was my only connection with Michael," he said later. "Lunch."

Shorts in the snow

Sean left it at lunch, and at lunch it might have ended. But a few weeks afterward, the Briarcrest Christian School took its Thanksgiving break. On a cold and blustery morning, Sean and his wife, Leigh Anne, were driving down one of the main boulevards of East Memphis when just ahead of them a huge black male stepped off the bus. He was dressed in the same pair of cutoffs and T-shirt he always wore. Sean pointed him out to his wife and said: "That kid I was telling you about - that's him. Big Mike."

"But he's wearing shorts," she said.

"Uh-huh. He always wears those."

"Sean, it's snowing!"

Leigh Anne insisted they pull over.

"Where are you going?" Sean asked him.

"To basketball practice," Michael said.

"Michael, you don't have basketball practice," Sean said.

"I know," the boy said. "But they got heat there."

Sean didn't understand.

"It's nice and warm in that gym," the boy said.

As they drove off, Sean looked over and saw tears streaming down Leigh Anne's face. And he thought, Uh-oh, my wife's about to take over.

Leigh Anne Tuohy grew up with a firm set of beliefs about black people but shed them for another - and could not tell you exactly how it happened, except to say, "I married a man who doesn't know his own color."

Her father, a United States marshal based in Memphis, raised her to fear and loathe blacks as much as he did. The moment the courts ordered the Memphis City Schools integrated in 1973, he pulled her out of public school and put her into the newly founded Briarcrest Christian School, where she became a student in its first year.

"I was raised in a very racist household," she says. Yet by the time Michael Oher arrived at Briarcrest, Leigh Anne Tuohy didn't see anything odd or even awkward in taking him in hand. This child was new; he had no clothes; he had no warm place to stay over Thanksgiving. For Lord's sake, he was walking to school in the snow in shorts, when school was out of session, on the off chance he could get into the gym and keep warm. Of course she took him out and bought him some clothes.

It struck others as perhaps a bit aggressively philanthropic; for Leigh Anne, clothing a child was just what you did if you had the resources. She had done this sort of thing before and would do it again. "God gives people money to see how you're going to handle it," she says. And she intended to prove she knew how to handle it.

Confused, not angry

Almost by accident Big Mike's teachers figured out that he needed to be tested orally, whereupon he proved to them that he deserved high D's instead of low F's. In his junior year he finally got on to the football field.

The problem there, at first, resembled his problems in the classroom. He had no foundation, no idea what he was meant to do as a member of a team.

During the games he seemed confused, reluctant. Passive, almost.

Hugh Freeze, the football coach, didn't know much about Michael Oher's past, but he knew enough to assume that his player had some kind of miserable childhood in the worst part of West Memphis. A miserable childhood in the worst part of West Memphis was typically excellent emotional preparation for what was required on a football field: It made you angry; it made you aggressive; it made you want to tear someone's head off. The NFL was loaded with players who had mined a loveless, dysfunctional childhood.

The trouble with Michael Oher as a football player was the trouble with Ferdinand as a bull. He was just a sweet kid who didn't particularly care to hit anybody.

A flat air mattress

One night after a track meet, Michael was left without a ride home to wherever home was for the night, and Leigh Anne offered to take him wherever he wanted to go. Off they went 30 miles into Mississippi to the home of a classmate. "It was a trailer," she says. She insisted on following him in to see where he slept. He showed her his old air mattress on the floor. It was flat as a pancake. "I blow it up every night," he said. "But it runs out of air around midnight."

"That's it," she said. She told him to gather up all his stuff. "You're moving in with me."

With that, he picked up a single Glad trash bag and followed her back into the car. She took over the management of his life. Completely.

For the next couple of weeks, Michael slept on the Tuohys' sofa, and no one in the family stated the obvious: This was Michael Oher's new home and probably would be for a long time. He was, in effect, a third child - which he eventually became.

"When I first saw him, I was like, 'Who the heck is this big black guy?' " says Sean Jr., who was 8 at the time. "But Dad just said this was a kid we were trying to help out, and so I just said all right." Sean Jr. had his own uses for Michael: The two would vanish for hours on end into the bedroom and play video games.

After she organized his clothing, Leigh Anne stewed on where to put this huge human being. The sofa clearly would not do - "it was ruining my $10,000 couch" - but she was worried that no ordinary bed would hold him. Leigh Anne bought a futon and a dresser.

She showed it to Michael and he just stared at it a bit and said, "This is the first time I ever had my own bed."

Sean, for his part, had long since given up probing into Michael's past. The boy had a gift for telling people as little as possible and also for telling them what they wanted to hear. "The right answer is the answer that puts an end to the questions," Sean told me. He finally decided that Michael did not have "the slightest interest in the future or the past. He's just trying to forget about yesterday and get to tomorrow. He's in survival mode: completely focused on the next two minutes."

They decided to move forward with Michael on a need-to-know basis. "It is what it is," Leigh Anne said. "The past is the past."

She had a big talk with Michael and told him: "We're just going to go forward. There is nothing I can do about whatever might have happened to you before now. If it's going to cause you problems and you're not going to be able to go forward without dealing with it, maybe we need to get help from someone smarter than I am."

He just looked at her and asked, "What does that mean?"

Blocked into thin air

Tom Lemming was a private football scout who drove 50,000 to 60,000 miles and met, and grilled, between 1,500 and 2,000 high-school juniors each year while selecting All-American teams for ESPN and College Sports TV. He knew Big Mike only from a grainy videotape some coach had sent him out of the blue.

But he investigated a bit more, and his report was sent to nearly all the head coaches of Division I college football programs. So more than 100 head college football coaches learned that this kid in Memphis, whom no one had ever heard of, was the most striking left-tackle talent in years. It was only a week or so after Lemming's report went out that the Briarcrest Saints football team met for two weeks of spring practice.

Off to one side was this highly unusual cluster of identically dressed men: college football coaches who had turned up to watch practice. You could tell them by their identical dark slacks and coaching shirts with their school's emblem emblazoned on the chest: Florida State University, University of Michigan, Clemson University, University of Southern Mississippi, University of Tennessee. These weren't head coaches, just assistants. But still. College coaches of any sort weren't in the habit of visiting Briarcrest.

The most complicated set of social rules on the planet - the rules that govern the interaction of college football coaches and high-school prospects - forbid the coaches to speak directly to a high-school junior until the July before his senior year. In the spring of his junior year, they are allowed to visit his school twice and watch him from a distance. So the coaches made a point of not saying anything directly; they just kept off to the side and stared.

Then came the board drill - so named for the thin six-foot-long board on the ground that it's conducted on. It is among the most violent drills in football. The offensive lineman straddles one end of the board and faces the defensive lineman. At the sound of the whistle, they do whatever they must to drive the other fellow off the end of the board.

Facing off against Michael Oher during a football game was one thing: He was often unsure where to go, and you more than likely had help from teammates - if you didn't, there was plenty of room to run and hide. Getting on to the board across from him, for a fight to the death, was something else. No one on the team wanted to do it.

After a while, out stepped Joseph Crone, the team's biggest and most powerful defensive lineman. He was 6-foot-2, maybe 270 pounds, and a candidate to attend college on a football scholarship. "The reason I stepped up," Crone says, "is that I didn't think anyone else wanted to go up against him. Because he was such a big guy."

The two players dropped into their stances. Joseph Crone's mind was working overtime, he says: "I'm sitting there thinking: Man, this guy is huge. I got to get low on him. I got to drive my feet."

"Best on best!" shouted Coach Freeze and blew his whistle.

When it was over - and it was over in a flash - the five college coaches broke formation and made what appeared to be urgent private phone calls. The Briarcrest athletic director, Carly Powers, turned to his left and found that one of them, in his bid to separate himself from the others, had wandered up beside him. "He was whispering into his phone, 'My God, you've got to see this!' "

It could have been a training film. Big Mike had picked up 270 pounds and dealt with them as he might have dealt with thin air.

In the middle of spring practice his junior year, Michael Oher became a preseason First-Team High School All-American.

Freeze now understood that in big-time college football and in the NFL the left tackle was some kind of huge deal. You find the freak of nature who can play the position brilliantly, and you have one of the most valuable commodities in professional sports.

Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy had their doubts. When thrown into games during his junior year, he spent most of his time wandering around the field in search of someone to fall over. He looked completely lost and passive.

Don't mess with Big Mike

Michael's first test was not an official game but a preseason scrimmage at home at the start of his senior year, against a team from Munford, Tenn., 25 miles outside of Memphis.

From the first play of the game, the Munford defensive end who lined up directly across from Michael targeted him for special ridicule. The Munford player was about 6-foot-2 and couldn't have weighed more than 220 pounds, and yet he wouldn't shut up. Every play, he had something nasty to say.

Hey, fat a--, I'm a kill you!

Hey, fat a--! Fat people can't play football! I'm a run your fat a-- over!

The more he went on, the angrier Michael became, and yet no one noticed. The first quarter and a half of the scrimmage was uneventful - until the coach called a different sort of play.

The coach had called a running play, around the right end, away from Michael's side. Michael's job was simply to take the defender who had been jabbering at him and wall him off. Just keep him away from the ball carrier.

Instead, he had fired off the line of scrimmage and gotten fit - which is to say, gotten his hands inside the defender's shoulder pads - and then lifted the Munford player off the ground.

So here were 19 football players running down one side of the field after the Briarcrest running back with the ball. On the other side of the field Briarcrest's No. 74, Big Mike, was racing at full speed in the opposite direction, with a defensive end in his arms.

From his place on the sideline, Sean watched in amazement. It was a perfectly legal block, with unusual consequences. Big Mike drove the Munford player straight down the middle of the field for 15 yards, then took a hard left, toward the Munford sidelines. "The Munford kid's feet were hitting the ground every four steps, like a cartoon character," Sean says.

As the kid strained to get his feet back on the ground, Michael ran him the next 25 or so yards to the Munford bench. When he got there, he didn't stop but piled right through it, knocking over the bench, several more Munford players and scattering the team. He didn't skip a beat. Encircling the football field was a cinder track. He blocked the kid across the track and then across the grass on the other side of the cinder track. And kept going - right to the chain link fence on the far side of the grass.

Flags flew, grown men cursed and Sean called Michael over to the sidelines.

"Michael," said Sean, "where were you taking him anyway?"

"I was gonna put him on the bus," Michael said.

Parked on the other side of the chain-link fence was, in fact, the Munford team bus.

"The bus?" Sean asked.

"I got tired of him talking," Michael said. "It was time for him to go home."

Sean thought he must be joking. He wasn't. Michael had thought it all through in advance; he had been waiting nearly half a football game to do just exactly what he had very nearly done. To pick up this trash-talking defensive end and take him not to the chain-link fence but through the chain-link fence. To the bus. And then put him on the bus. And Sean began to laugh.

Trying to learn

While Sean handled the sports end of things, Leigh Anne took over Michael's academic life. Every day, without fail, she went through his North Face backpack. He would fail a quiz or get a D on a paper and never think it worth mentioning.

That was the biggest problem at first: Michael wouldn't tell you when there was a problem. He had the most intense desire to please without the ability to do the things that pleased. He had spent his whole life treating his mind as a problem to be covered up.

To get into the NFL, Michael Oher needed to first get into college. Given Michael's best ACT score, to play college football he would need a 2.65 overall GPA. He had finished his sophomore year with a 0.9.

Two days into his senior year, he came home, dropped his massive backpack on to the kitchen table and said, "I can't do this." Leigh Anne thought he was about to cry. That's when Leigh Anne brought in Sue Mitchell, whom she met at a sorority function.

A Democrat in the house

In her 35-year career Sue Mitchell had taught at several Memphis-area public schools. At Bartlett High School, just outside Memphis, she took over the cheerleading squad and whipped it into five-time national champions.

She applied to work at the Briarcrest Christian School, but Briarcrest rejected her out of hand because though Mitchell said she believed in God, she had trouble proving it. ("The application did not have one question about education," she says. "It was all about religion and what I thought about homosexuality and drinking and smoking.") She wasn't born again, and she didn't often go to church. She also advertised herself as a liberal. When Sean heard that, he hooted at her, "We had a black son before we had a Democrat friend!"

Still, in spite of these presumed defects, Mitchell was relentless and effusive - the sort of woman who wants everything to be just great between her and the rest of the world but, if it isn't, can adjust and go to war. And that's what she did. She worked five nights a week, four hours each night, free, to help get Michael Oher into Ole Miss, her alma mater.

Sue Mitchell didn't care much about football, but she fairly quickly became attached to Michael. He tried so hard and for so little return. "One night it wasn't going so well, and I got frustrated," Mitchell says, "and he said to me, 'Miss Sue, you have to remember I've only been going to school for two years.' "

His senior year he made all A's and B's. It nearly killed him, but he did it. The Briarcrest academic marathon, in which Michael started out a distant last and had instantly fallen farther behind, came to a surprising end: In a class of 157 students, he finished 154th. When Sean saw the final report card, he turned to Michael with a straight face and said, "You didn't lose; you just ran out of time."

He was going to finish with a grade-point average of 2.05. Amazing as that was, however, it wasn't enough to get him past the NCAA.

The Mormon grade-grab

Now it was Sean's turn to intervene.

From a friend, Sean learned about the Internet courses offered by Brigham Young University. The BYU courses had magical properties: A grade took a mere 10 days to obtain and could be used to replace a grade from an entire semester on a high-school transcript. Pick the courses shrewdly and work quickly, and the most tawdry academic record could be renovated in a single summer.

Thus began the great Mormon grade-grab. Mainly it involved Sue Mitchell grinding through courses with Michael. Every week or so, they replaced a Memphis public school F with an A from BYU. Every assignment needed to be read aloud and decoded. Here he was, late in his senior year in high school, and he had never heard of a right angle or the Civil War or I Love Lucy.

But getting the grades was far easier than generating in Michael any sort of pleasure in learning. He was as isolated from the great works of Western literature as he was from other people. "If you asked him why we're doing all this," Sue Mitchell says, "he'd say, 'I got to do it to get to the league.' "

The Briarcrest Christian School held its graduation ceremony in a church in May 2005. The Briarcrest president explained that when they left the school and went out into the world, they would encounter "all kinds of groups that claim some kind of privilege based on their lifestyles or perversions." (There was no need to say "gay"; they knew all about sodomy.) He spoke sternly about the danger of "seeking false happiness in a variety of narcissistic pleasures." After that final jolt of fear from God, the graduates were called forward to collect their rewards.

All-American at Ole Miss

One year later, Michael Oher was a first-team freshman All-American, the starting left tackle of the Ole Miss Rebels and the most awesome force on a football field that a lot of college line coaches had ever seen, and his sister, Collins, is a cheerleader there as well. Michael is on a collision course with the second-highest-paid job in the NFL. He could read and write. Drowned in nurture, his IQ test score had risen between 20 and 30 points.

And his new parents, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, were so pleased with the results of their experiment that they began to figure out how best to go back into the inner city and do it all over again.

Michael Lewis is the author of Moneyball. This article is adapted and excerpted from his new book, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, to be published Monday. Copyright 2006 by Michael Lewis. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game

By Michael Lewis

W.W. Norton, $24.95, 288 pp

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