One of the backstories of Super Bowl 50 is the ongoing rags-to-riches story of Michael Oher. The outstanding left tackle for the Carolina Panthers will be working for his second championship ring in seven years.
Michael Oher has something to prove.
He always has something to prove.
Many have seen the 2009 movie The Blind Side, about a destitute Memphis black kid who was all but living on the street until he was taken in by a wealthy white family from across town. That kid, Michael Oher, went on to become a highly-recruited high school lineman and an All-American at Ole Miss, and was selected in the first round of the NFL draft.
Most people love the movie, but Michael Oher is not one of them. Based on the Michael Lewis book, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, it focuses primarily on the Tuohy family, who adopted Michael and who continue to have a powerful presence in his life. In fact, they will be together in San Francisco for the Super Bowl.
But, as Michael puts it, the movie is what you’d expect from Hollywood, with a lot of overtly fictional elements. Then there is Michael’s book, I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness to The Blind Side and Beyond, which I just finished reading. While the movie characterized Michael as an unintelligent and unambitious young man who had to be taught the game of football, the truth is that he was already focused on sports and rising above his surroundings when he was walking the streets of Memphis. The Tuohy family just gave him opportunities he would have otherwise never had.
In his book, he gives a little perspective on the balance between opportunity and success.
“When I was drafted in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens, I knew I had done the impossible. I hadn’t just beat the odds; I had blown them out of the water. But the story isn’t just about arriving at the pros. My goal had never been just to get the offer, or to sign the contract, or to get the paycheck. I wanted to do something, to know that I was working each day to do something with my potential, pushing myself to make sure that I was always giving my all. Making it to the pros wasn’t the finish line for me. The world is full of people who got their big shot and then never did anything with it. It had come too far to just let being drafted be the end of my story.”
From the start of his book, two things stand out that show that Michael was serious about his future: First, he was determined to rise above the options he was given as a child. Second, he knew the importance of surrounding yourself with people who watch out for you, and he realized the need to commit to them as well.
He knew that he could have become a bodyguard for one of the two local gangs and made a name and lots of money for himself. But that wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted out, and at an early age he realized that sports would be his ticket. His big goal was to get a scholarship for a junior college and get an education so he could get a job that would take him out of the neighborhoods where everyone was stuck and life was just a matter of survival.
The power of family
Michael was one of ten children. Never mind that they didn’t have the same father. When Mom would lock them out of the house and disappear for days on end, they stayed together, finding food to eat and places to sleep. They would even hide from social workers who sought to give them a better life. They weren’t sure they could trust outsiders, but they knew they could rely on each other.
Despite the heartache and disadvantage his mom’s irresponsibility brought to him and his siblings, Michael didn’t resent her. He knew she was caring when she wasn’t strung out on drugs. In fact, when Child Protective Services eventually caught the kids and put Michael in foster care, he would run away to be back home with his mom and his siblings.
Even though his family was dysfunctional, it was family. Even though no one ever said, “I love you,” he knew they did. They stuck together because they knew that family is the heart of so much in life. And through exposure to more “normal” families through foster care and TV shows, Michael desperately wanted to have a family like that and clung to what he had in that hope.
For seven or eight years, Michael was taken into numerous homes — some that were good, some not. Many were opportunities to begin to exercise discipline that would lead him to his goal of finding a better life. But they were all temporary, and there were times in between where he would live on the street.
When the Touhy family took him in and eventually adopted him, they helped give him the structure and the opportunities to pursue his dream and hone his natural talents. And they showed him unconditional love. It was the first time he ever felt he had found the stable family he had dreamed of.
Something to prove
Michael was always a student of athletics. Though he never was one to say much, he was always thinking and learning the intricacies of whatever sport he was playing, whether basketball, baseball, football, or track and field. But Michael did just enough to barely get by in the classroom
When he and a friend got their big chance to play sports at Briarcrest Christian Academy, the academics came back to bite Michael. The only way he would be allowed to enroll is by spending a year at an alternative school to bring his grades way up. After three months, Briarcrest allowed him to enroll, not because his grades had improved that much but because he was putting forth incredible effort. But he would still have to prove himself; he would have to attend special ed classes to learn study skills, and he wouldn’t be allowed to play sports until his grades came up.
Although his grades didn’t improve much, all his teachers witnessed him putting initiative into his schooling. One by one they saw was that he needed more individual effort to overcome all his deficiencies. They offered their extra attention, and he responded with extra effort. He had to learn to stop coasting and to exercise his brain in the classroom like he had always done in sports. Sports was his ticket out, but he had to pay for the ticket through academics.
Three months later, his grades had improved enough that he was allowed to play sports. He became a standout, not just at his first love, basketball, but in track and field and in football. He gave his all, mentally and physically, in practice and in the weight room. His dream was expanding, not just to play junior college or college ball, but to play pro. But that required more of him. As Michael says in his book, it’s one thing to want to be pro athlete, but those who make it are the ones who work to be pro athletes. And once again, the main focus was his grades; they just weren’t good enough to pass NCAA recruiting standards.
He retook classes online to replace earlier grades and bring his GPA up to NCAA eligibility standards. Once again, he had something to prove to others and himself, and he did it.
Recruiters didn’t doubt his skill — there were less than a handful of offensive linemen in the country rated higher than Michael Oher. But they thought he wasn’t smart enough to learn the complicated playbook of major college football. But once at Ole Miss, he had something to prove. Not only did he master the playbook and his position, but he excelled in the classroom as well, twice making the Dean’s List.
After being named first-team All-American, Michael was projected to be an early first round draft choice. Again, doubts arose in the press about his ability to master the much more complicated NFL playbook. Despite a good showing at the NFL Combine, his stock slipped and he was taken by the Baltimore Ravens late in the first round.
Michael started at right tackle for the Ravens that year. Near the end of his rookie season with the release of the movie, The Blind Side, Michael again felt the sting of the label that had followed him since high school — that he was just an athletically talented, intellectually slow kid who had to be taught the game of football. At least he had proof that he was beyond that, finishing second in voting for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
The following year, Michael saw some action at left tackle, the most physically and emotionally demanding position on the line, and maybe the toughest one on the field after quarterback. But coaches weren’t convinced he was good enough for the task and moved him back to right tackle after the previous starter returned from injury. Still, Michael excelled at the position, and in 2013, earned his first Super Bowl ring.
The following year, he signed a new contract with the Tennessee Titans, but at the end of the season, a toe injury sidelined him, and his position rating in the league dropped to near the bottom. The Titans cut him after one season. Was he on his way out? Again Michael had just another thing to prove, and maybe he just needed someone willing to give him the challenge.
That would be the Carolina Panthers, who saw him not only as a top lineman, but as their go-to guy. Rather than signing a much-needed tackle in the draft, they drew the ire of critics by offering a risky contract to a risky Michel Oher. While he was waiting to make a decision, Michael got a phone call from Panther’s quarterback Cam Newton, urging him to sign. “I need you.” Like at Briarcrest and Ole Miss, he would have the chance to protect the quarterback’s blind side. He took the challenge.
Don’t count people out
With Michael at left tackle, the Panthers have only lost one game this season, and Oher has only been penalized three times and allowed just four sacks in 18 games. From being cut at right tackle to being the starting left tackle in the Super Bowl, you can never count Michael Oher out. So says his adoptive mom, Leigh Anne Tuohy:
“The greatest validation is the fact that so many people counted Michael out last year and here is a life lesson for everyone: Don’t count people out. Don’t look at that person because they didn’t do what you think they should’ve done or what you think they should’ve been doing and say they’re done or they’re toast. Don’t label that person because you don’t know their story,” she said. “When people are determined and they work hard, you don’t know what can happen. Here’s a kid who didn’t listen to what people said about him. He kept working. He kept focused, and he kept doing the right thing.”
Michael Oher has one more something to prove before this football season ends—that he can handle the NFL’s toughest defense in the league’s biggest game at the game’s toughest position. He’s already risen way above the surroundings of his childhood. This would just put him head and shoulders above just about everybody.