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The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game would be a dreadful work of fiction, a Disneyfied, feel-good failure. An enormous 15-year-old black kid from an even bigger family in the Memphis ghetto arrives at the doorstep of an essentially all-white evangelical Christian school. The fundies reluctantly accept the kid; he’s eventually adopted by a rich white family; hilarity ensues.
But Michael Lewis writes nonfiction, and hilarity, for the most part, doesn’t ensue. In The Blind Side, we follow the real-life story of Michael Oher (pronounced “oar”) from the time he’s schlepped by a man named Big Tony from Memphis projects—and his home on Big Tony’s floor—to Briarcrest Christian School on the city’s posh east side.
Michael, one of 13 siblings, comes to the school with an 85 IQ—borderline retarded—and years of social promotion keeping him from academic success. Horribly neglected by his drug-addicted mother and failed by the foster system, he’d been on the fast track to a bodyguard job for the neighborhood drug kingpin. But Michael hasn’t developed the me-against-the-world coping mechanism that many children raised in unspeakably awful circumstances adopt. Instead, Michael—by this point 6-foot-5 and well over 300 pounds—stays mum, a silent giant taking in surroundings that must be as foreign to him as those halfway across the world.
What has kept Michael sane and given him hope that another life is possible is Michael Jordan. In his quest to be like Jordan, Michael spent much of his life on the basketball court, teaching himself to dribble between his legs, spin, and fire three-pointers with a precision not often seen from a boy of his proportions. To Michael, basketball greatness is made at the perimeter with speed and footwork, the two things that come most unnaturally to a kid his size.
What he hasn’t taught himself are reading, writing, or doing math. And so, at Briarcrest, he continues to fail test after test and class after class. That’s when the tale takes its Disney turn, and Michael is taken in by basketball-star-turned-fast-food-magnate Sean Tuohy and his wife, Leigh Anne. With their Christian love and seemingly round-the-clock tutoring, Michael emerges as a first-rate human being with, to the shock of school counselors, an IQ above 100. And that’s where the real hurt of this book lies for the reader and for the Tuohys, who quickly make the connection: If this boy, who was thought to be borderline retarded, is actually a charming kid of above-average intelligence, then what about all the rest of the kids stuck in the ghetto? Americans—especially Christian conservatives—are taught that we live in a meritocracy where all things are possible for all people, given the right work ethic. But how does that explain Michael Oher?
For others, though, Michael is more than a political or moral symbol. Though he barely plays for the Briarcrest football team his junior year, the following summer, more than 1,000 letters from college football coaches arrive, most accompanied by offers of full scholarships. Briarcrest runs to a state championship behind Michael, and he becomes the most-sought-after player in the nation, eventually enrolling at Sean Tuohy’s alma mater, Ole Miss.
Lewis, in The Blind Side, has written two books: one about Michael, the other, as the subtitle hints, about the evolution of professional football. Beginning with the cringe-tastic splintering of Joe Theismann’s leg, Lewis traces how NFL executives reacted so that Lawrence Taylor, the New York Giants’ ferocious pass rusher—or any Taylor wannabe—couldn’t do the same to their own QBs. They went out to find the quickest, nimblest, biggest, most athletic men they could to guard their quarterbacks’ blind side. (For right-handed quarterbacks, that’s the left side.) And they paid those men handsomely in return: Left tackles became among the highest-paid positions on the team.
Left tackle is one of those positions that most working people can identify with, because the job isn’t judged by what the person does right, but by his mistakes. It’s the other guys—the quarterbacks, the wide receivers, the running backs—who can screw up over and over again as long as they come up with the big play at the right time. When they do, the cameras are on them rather than on the guys that made it possible. The cameras only focus on the left tackle to analyze a sack, a fumble, or the end of a quarterback’s career.
Lewis has made a career of writing about organizations that capitalize on market inefficiencies and people who are massively affected by shifts in sports markets. In his last book, 2003’s now classic Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, Lewis described the way one baseball team embarked on a new strategy, one that gave once overlooked players the chance to outshine the meatheads that scouts and coaches normally like to draft. In The Blind Side, he tells how shifts in strategy among NFL coaches can percolate all the way down to the Memphis ghetto.
The Blind Side’s two narratives merge when it becomes apparent that Michael’s size, speed, and agility are worth tens of millions to NFL teams, never mind his dreams to play in the NBA. But just as Michael carries his high-school football team, his story carries this book. In one sense, it’s interesting that the NFL’s changing needs for player types suddenly made Michael a hot commodity. But even if left tackles had always been highly prized, the story of Michael Oher wouldn’t lose any sense of drama. It’s not as if the NFL made a worthless kid worth something—as Lewis makes clear by showing Michael’s personal growth throughout the few years he follows him.
That job falls to the Tuohys. (Sean Tuohy and Lewis are old friends; they were classmates at New Orleans’ Isidore Newman School.) Watching these evangelical Christians guide their new son through upper-class Southern Whitedom, there’s plenty to be gleaned about all parties. Leigh Anne Tuohy resolves to teach Michael one new thing about this new world each day, whether it’s the difference between designer labels, how to eat at an upscale restaurant, or, simply, how to drive. Michael becomes best friends—brothers, really—with the Tuohy’s 9-year-old son and also seems to have a natural sibling relationship with their daughter, who is his own age and painted as a stereotypical cotillion girl—except for having an enormous black brother.
Lewis never really gets Michael to open up about himself, so his story is largely told by those who surround him. The author does some of his best reporting from Memphis’ worst neighborhoods, finding out from what awful circumstances Michael came and to what awful circumstances he would have been headed (satisfying the Tuohys’ curiosity as much as his own). In light of those revelations, the pages upon pages spent on the Tuohys’ charmed world can be frustrating. But there’s no denying their importance to this story: Michael Oher would likely never have made it off the Memphis streets were it not for these rich white people, which is this book’s celebration and its tragedy.CP