The story of Michael Oher’s intellectual development is also the story of his body type. Michael Oher is rare. Huge. A freak of nature. He’s also an anomaly of nurture and it has taken a village to raise him. The Blind Side by Michael Lewis chronicles Oher’s turbulent childhood, his unlikely ascent into professional football and the importance and evolution, largely monetary, of the left tackle position in the NFL. The position Oher would come to play in college for Old Miss and, currently, the Baltimore Ravens.
Using a mixture of stark language and deftly placed insight, Michael Lewis describes the evolution of the left tackle with the language and rationale of free market capitalism. In the early nineties, the N.F.L.’s free agency system meant that teams could “buy the players they needed,” but as would soon become obvious, not all positions were created equal. “The price of protecting quarterbacks was driven by the same forces that drove the price of other kinds of insurance,” Lewis writes. “It rose with the value of the asset insured, with the risk posed to that asset.”
The person charged with protecting that million-dollar golden boy needed strength, speed, agility and bodily bulk— a massive butt and legs as well as long arms—to give the quarterback a few extra seconds in the pocket was unlike the other offensive lineman. It’s rare for someone to have all these specific physical traits, and for the players who had them, the price was high. Very high.
Oher’s athletic potential catches the attention of important folks at Briarcrest, a predominantly white, Christian private school in a very different part of Memphis from the one in which Memphis grew up. Initially, it’s the high school’s football coach, Hugh Freeze, who has big ambitions. But Oher also lands on the radar of Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, a wealthy white couple with children at Briarcrest who eventually become Oher’s adoptive parents. Reviewers aren’t colorblind, so there’s a tendency (as I did) to focus on the race of the wealthy Republican family taking in a poor black kid with the sad life story he’s not keen on sharing. Yet the book is peppered with the idea of a Christian imperative to help those who cannot help themselves; that is, socially conscious practice proctored by religious belief that is sometimes at odds with Republican talking points.
For example, Briarcrest principal Steve Simpson, having admonished himself for initially giving Oher “false hope” that the poor, nominally sheltered Oher could attend his school, conditionally admits Oher in order to “clear his conscience.” According to Simpson, “it was really unusual to see a kid with those kinds of deficits that wanted an education…a lot of kids with his background wouldn’t come within two hundred miles of this place.” It’s a line that makes me shudder. Simpson, I say to myself, a lot of kids with Oher’s background wouldn’t have the resources to come within two hundred miles of your school.
Sean Tuohy, a self-made man who is less motivated by religion the other people in the book, feels a certain kinship to the black students at Briarcrest. He knows what it is like to be the odd man out; in fact, Tuohy often relishes it. His affinity to Oher is akin to both his impulse to conquer and the intimate understanding of what it means to go without basic resources. Sean’s wife, Leigh Anne, is an impossibly willful woman and a far cry from the docile stereotype of the good Christian woman. She is a straight talker and also Oher’s emotional guide. (In another shudder moment she puts on a station that “plays black music” in an effort to get Oher to relax and open up to her.)
With the help of a private tutor — and teachers and coaches who figured out that Michael learns through observation — his GPA would rise from a 0.9 to a 1.54 in a school year. That wouldn’t amount D’s. The jump in Oher’s ability to process information is emblematic of a blog post written by Malcolm Gladwell called “Race and IQ ” which was a companion piece to an article he wrote in the NewYorker on the same subject. “There are studies showing that if a child of a very poor family, [is] adopted at birth into a wealthy family, [that child] will have a much higher IQ than his or her siblings, or his or her parents, who remain in poverty.” Oher’s eventual academic achievement and intellectual growth — his I.Q. jumps from mild mental retardation to the normal range after a few years with the Tuohys — underline Gladwell’s point.
So here are some questions. When the motives appear (mostly) pure* but the approach is slightly prejudiced, does it tarnish the outcome? And what of the value of his body? Had Freeze and Sean Tuohy not seen Oher’s athletic potential would they have taken such an interest in him? Is the miracle of this story that the universe thrusted Oher into the community of people who had a very particular use for his intimidating presence?
*Oher eventually settles on Ole Miss, a college that might not have had a serious chance at landing Oher were it not for the fact that it was the Tuohys’ alma mater. If one wanted to read it cynically, their adoption of Oher could be framed as a way for a prominent university booster to mold and deliver a blue chip recruit to his team.