Cover Story

Family man

"Family man" Continued...

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

More important than all the new socioeconomic status, Oher knew for the first time in his life that he was loved. The Ohers are big huggers. After months and months of Leigh Anne kissing him goodnight and telling him she loved him, Michael finally reciprocated. Shocked, Leigh Anne joked, "Wow. Did that hurt?" For the most part, Michael didn't follow the acting-out pattern of some adopted children who feel abandoned and out-of-place, which leaves adopting parents with the difficult but ultimately rewarding balancing act of showing love while enforcing necessary rules. Members of Grace Evangelical Church in Memphis, the Tuohys said that Oher, who came to Christ in high school, feels actions trump words when it comes to living as a Christian. A quiet guy to begin with, he is more comfortable showing the love of God by being a caring and loving person than by talking about his faith.

As his senior year neared, Sean and Leigh Anne grew concerned. Without a 2.5 G.P.A. upon graduation, Oher would not pass NCAA academic standards to play college ball. Already scouts and coaches saw that he possessed a body seemingly hand-hewn for the team's second most valuable asset, left tackle, the position protecting the quarterback's blind side. He dwarfed his largest teammates, had meat-patty hands, and was wide at the shoulders and rear-but unusually fast. Those years prancing on the basketball courts could prove more useful in the NFL than the NBA, but not unless he brought up his grades.

Team Oher kicked into high gear. "We would ask him to sit at that kitchen table hour after hour and he would do whatever we asked and then do it all over again," said Miss Sue. It wasn't easy. Every couple of months, around test time, Michael would throw up his hands, insist he couldn't go on, and tell them he just wanted to give up and go to military school.

"All right," Leigh Anne would snap. "Let's do it."

Getting on the internet, she looked up the worst ones she could find, showed him pictures of the marching and the drilling and said, "OK, which one of these do you want to go to? I'm paying for it. Come on, which one?" Other times, Miss Sue jokingly threatened him with the wooden spoon. About this time Sean would walk in, start rubbing Oher's shoulders and ask, "How's my Superstar?" He got back to work.

Meanwhile, Oher and the Tuohys were attracting the attention of one of America's most talented writers, Michael Lewis. In writing books on finance and then baseball (Moneyball), Lewis researched undervalued assets and profiled the people who saw their real value. The undervalued assets in baseball a decade ago were disciplined batters who worked pitchers for lots of walks. In The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game (Norton, 2006), Lewis described how left tackles who protected quarterbacks came to be highly valued, and how Oher, a nearly abandoned teenager, came to have great value in the eyes of one family and dozens of college football coaches. Lewis' book title had a double meaning, referring to blindness in both football and society.

In 2005, Oher headed to his adoptive dad's alma mater, Ole Miss, on a full scholarship. His adoptive sister, Collins, went also. They shared a house the Tuohys bought off campus in Oxford. In Memphis, Leigh Anne had loved Oher's obsessive neatness: "He is the only kid who gets up from the table and Windexes it." But that caused tension with his sister: "He's got laundry stacked on the washer all the way up to the ceiling," she complained to her mother. Oher in turn whined about her, "She's got shoes all over the house." Leigh Anne mediated over the phone, using their calls to remind Oher to quit talking smack on the field and to keep his elbows off the table. Sometimes Oher got offended at her directness, but his anger was short-lived. "She could out-pout him any day of the week," says Sean.

Oher did well in the classroom, making the dean's list with his 3.5 G.P.A., and on the football field, being named a First Team Freshman All-American and First Team Freshman All-SEC his first year and ending his time at Ole Miss as one of three finalists for the Outland Trophy, the prize given to the nation's top blocker. With Oher on board, Ole Miss Rebels moved from having the 91st-ranked offense in the nation to 29th. The Baltimore Ravens in April of this year made the 320-pounder their first-round draft pick, and this fall he has been named Rookie of the Week every week since the season started, potentially positioning him for Rookie Player of the Year.


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