Cover Story
Zuma/Newscom

Family man

All-American Michael Oher went from the streets as a 15-year-old son of a crack addict to potential NFL Rookie of the Year on the love and dedication of an adoptive family that wouldn't let him fail. The movie that tells their story hits theaters in time for National Adoption Day-and recognition that about 130,000 Michael Ohers are waiting for a family to adopt them

Issue: "All-American adoption story," Nov. 21, 2009

MEMPHIS-Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy adopted as a family motto, "To whom much is given, much is required," they had no idea just how much would be required, nor that they were adopting far more than words.

Growing up hungry in the projects of New Orleans, Sean Tuohy intimately understood the plight of the poor athlete. When he became a basketball star at the University of Mississippi and then a fast-food millionaire owning over 80 Taco Bell, KFC, and Long John Silver restaurants, he gained the material means to help others. Tuohy's wife, interior decorator Leigh Anne, also gained a reputation for concern about basics for the underprivileged: "I don't care if you have cable or an iPod," she said, "but I care if you have the lights on, gas and water, a winter coat, and food."

Michael Oher needed help with the basics. Semi-raised by a crack addict a block from the Mississippi River in west Memphis, he and his 12 siblings survived by begging food from neighbors and hiding from social services. With no one checking on or caring for him, Oher spent his days on the basketball courts of Hurt Village, a housing project so dilapidated even the city of Memphis abandoned it. In the fall of 2002, at age 15, he was 6-foot-5 and saw himself as the next Michael Jordan-but he also weighed 350 pounds.

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.

Just before Thanksgiving that year, the Tuohys were headed home when their daughter Collins, 16, and then Sean Jr., 9, recognized the African-American boy walking along the street as a newcomer at their school, Briarcrest Christian. Leigh Anne's mama bear instincts kicked in. It is one thing to send a coat or a check to some faceless child a state away. It is another to meet one on a nearby street. Surprised to see Oher wearing shorts and shirtsleeves on a chilly night, Leigh Anne learned later that the boy was heading to the school gym to get warm.

On Monday Leigh Anne, a Type-A daughter of a U.S. Marshal, stormed into the school and demanded answers: The boy's name was Michael Oher (pronounced 'oar') and no one seemed to know why the 15-year-old was at the school. Tall, dark, and wearing the same non-handsome clothes every day, he fit into the stylish, predominantly white student body about as well as a fish in a sandbox. It turns out that Oher had a friend whose grandmother's dying wish was that he attend a Christian school. Big Tony, the friend's father, invited Oher to ride along to check out the school. Briarcrest coaches took one look at Oher filling the doorframe of the school office and saw a future lineman. Both boys were admitted.

At 5-foot-2, Leigh Anne defies the equation that force equals mass times acceleration: "My pet peeve is to see a child alienated." She took over: Within weeks, Oher had moved in with the Tuohys. Leigh Anne saw in Oher not just a wide body but a boy with a huge heart and zero self-confidence. He had drifted in and out of at least 11 schools, so his knowledge base was practically nil-but he was innately smart. She believed he would thrive with love and intervention.

Scheduling Oher's day with military efficiency and organization, Leigh Anne set about establishing what soon became known as Team Oher-tutors, counselors, and friends who saw Michael's potential. A typical day consisted of school, football practice, and a hot shower, followed by dinner while Leigh Anne quizzed him on his Wordly Wise vocabulary and Bible memory verses, ending with three tutoring sessions. One of his tutors, Sue Mitchell, also known as Miss Sue, an English teacher and longtime family friend, fell in love with Oher at first sight. "He was so sweet and caring, with a mind like a sponge," Miss Sue said. "I just love him to death."

Within the year the Tuohys adopted Oher. This meant he had to get used to things like courtside seats at NBA games-Sean Tuohy not only owns all those fast-food restaurants but is also the announcer for the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies-and flying to the Super Bowl in Sean's private plane (dubbed Air Taco). Soon Oher felt so comfortable in the Tuohy family he didn't understand why anyone would dare question him, for example, when telling the worker at the Taco Bell drive-thru to put his food on his dad's bill. "When Michael tells people he's Sean Tuohy's son, they look at him like, 'Yeah, and I'm the Queen of England,'" said Leigh Anne.

Comments

You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading

     

    House divided

    An American couple faces Qatari imprisonment over a tragedy…

    Advertisement