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The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis

theblindsiidecover One of the books I received for Christmas was The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis, a book where one of my favorite authors tackles my favorite sport. In the 1980s rushing linebackers, specifically Lawrence Taylor, became a bigger part of the defensive scheme (at about the same time Bill Walsh was reinventing offensives to make the quarterback more important) This created a problem for the offensive line: protect the valuable & fragile quarterback from the huge, fast outside linebackers like Lawrence Taylor, who you may have seen snap Joe Theismann’s leg before. To stop the unstoppable, you need giant-handed men the size of houses who move like ballerinas to protect the blind side of the quarterback. Thus has the left tackle position become the second-highest paid position in the league behind the quarterbacks themselves.

The book is the story of Michael Oher, a kid from the ghettos of Memphis who somehow ends up at a private Christian school and is taken under the wings of a wealthy family and almost accidentally discovers football (his passion is basketball) and whose combination of strength, size, agility, and speed makes him the kind of left tackle that colleges and the NFL fantasize about. As a confessed NFL-aholic, I have to admit that I loved the X and O’s in the book but in many ways the book is a story of living out the faith.

A big part of the story is about the Tuohy’s. Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy were wealthy white evangelical Christians from the south. They were Republicans and had a daughter in a prestigious private Christian school not known for having a lot of blacks. After Sean initially made sure Michael’s lunches were paid for (lunch isn’t free at private schools), the got more and more involved until on Lee Anne’s initiative they took a 16 year old kid who would not speak, had no social skills and in many ways had no hope into their home. There are a couple of memorable lines from this transition.

The next day in the afternoon, Leigh Anne left her business — she had her own interior-decorating firm — turned up at Briarcrest, picked up Michael and took off with him. A few hours later, Sean’s cellphone rang. His wife was on the other end.

“Do you know how big a 58-long jacket is?” she asked.

“How big?”

“Not big enough.”

theblindside2 Leigh Anne Tuohy grew up with a firm set of beliefs about black people but shed them for another — and could not tell you exactly how it happened, except to say, “I married a man who doesn’t know his own color.” Her father, a United States marshal based in Memphis, raised her to fear and loathe blacks as much as he did. The moment the courts ordered the Memphis City Schools integrated in 1973, he pulled her out of public school and put her into the newly founded Briarcrest Christian School, where she became a student in its first year. “I was raised in a very racist household,” she says. Yet by the time Michael Oher arrived at Briarcrest, Leigh Anne Tuohy didn’t see anything odd or even awkward in taking him in hand. This child was new; he had no clothes; he had no warm place to stay over Thanksgiving. For Lord’s sake, he was walking to school in the snow in shorts, when school was out of session, on the off chance he could get into the gym and keep warm. Of course she took him out and bought him some clothes. It struck others as perhaps a bit aggressively philanthropic; for Leigh Anne, clothing a child was just what you did if you had the resources. She had done this sort of thing before and would do it again. “God gives people money to see how you’re going to handle it,” she says. And she intended to prove she knew how to handle it.

After the Tuohy’s decided that Michael would be moving in with them, there was one big problem where do you put a guy who a fifty-eight long is too small for.

As she organized his clothing, Leigh Anne stewed on where to put this huge human being. The sofa clearly would not do–“it was ruining my ten-thousand-dollar couch”–but she was worried that no ordinary bed would hold him, or, if it did, it might collapse during the middle of the night and he and it would come hurtling through the ceiling. Sean had mentioned that he recalled some of the larger football players at Ole Miss sleeping on futons. That day Leigh Anne went out and bought a futon and a dresser. The day the futon arrived,s he showed it to Michael and said, “That’s your bed.” And he said, “That’s my bed?” And she said, “That’s your bed.” And he just stared at it a bit and said, “This is the first time I ever had my own bed.”

This line kind of blew me away.

From the moment Michael moved in with them, Sean began to stew on his future. (“Because I figured I was going to have to pay for it.”) Michael was approaching the end of his junior year in high school, and while they hadn’t seen his transcripts, they knew his grades were poor. Since Myrtle Beach he’d been good enough of the basketball team that Sean thought he might be able to play at a small college. “And if I figured if he wasn’t, I could make him good enough,” said Sean.

Of course the next year he discovered football and became dominant but his marks were too poor to get into college. That didn’t stop Sean or Lee Anne.

To get into the N.F.L., Michael Oher needed to first get into college. And to get into college, he needed to meet the academic standards prescribed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The N.C.A.A. had a sliding scale of ACT scores and grade-point averages; the higher the ACT, the lower the required G.P.A. Given Michael’s best ACT score, to play college football he would need a 2.65 overall G.P.A. He had finished his sophomore year with a 0.9. A better performance at the back end of his junior year, when he moved into the Tuohy home, raised his cumulative average to 1.564. That’s when Leigh Anne took over more completely. Before Michael’s senior year, she called all his teachers at Briarcrest and asked them to tell her exactly what Michael had to do to earn at least a B in their classes. She didn’t expect them to just hand Michael a grade — though she wouldn’t have complained if they did. But to her way of thinking, a B was the fair minimum to give any normal person willing to take the simple steps. She would hound Michael until he took those steps. Just give me the list of things he needs to do, she told the teachers, and he will do them.

Two days into his senior year, he came home, dropped his massive backpack onto the kitchen table and said, “I can’t do this.” Leigh Anne thought he was about to cry. The next morning, she told him to suck it up and pushed him right back out the door. But that’s when Leigh Anne brought in Sue Mitchell, whom she met at a sorority function.

As a tool for overhauling the grade-point average of Michael Oher, as well as for broadening his experience of white people, Sue Mitchell had a number of things to recommend her. In her 35-year career she taught at several Memphis-area public schools. At Bartlett High School, just outside Memphis, she took over the cheerleading squad and whipped it into five-time national champions. She applied to work at the Briarcrest Christian School, but Briarcrest rejected her out of hand because though Mitchell said she believed in God, she had trouble proving it. (“The application did not have one question about education,” Mitchell says. “It was all about religion and what I thought about homosexuality and drinking and smoking.”) She wasn’t born again, and she didn’t often go to church. She also advertised herself as a liberal. When Sean heard that, he hooted at her, “We had a black son before we had a Democrat friend!”

Still, in spite of these presumed defects, Mitchell was relentless and effusive — the sort of woman who wants everything to be just great between her and the rest of the world but, if it isn’t, can adjust and go to war. And that’s what she did. She worked five nights a week, four hours each night, free, to help get Michael Oher into Ole Miss, her alma mater. The Tuohy family looked on with interest. “There were days when he was just overwhelmed,” says Collins, who saw the academic drama unfold both at school and at home. “He’d just close his book and say, ‘I’m done.”’ When he did this, Mitchell opened the book for him. She didn’t care much about football, but she fairly quickly became attached to Michael. There was just something about him that made you want to help him. He tried so hard and for so little return. “One night it wasn’t going so well, and I got frustrated,” Mitchell says, “and he said to me, ‘Miss Sue, you have to remember I’ve only been going to school for two years.”’

His senior year he made all A’s and B’s. It nearly killed him, but he did it. The Briarcrest academic marathon, in which Michael started out a distant last and had instantly fallen farther behind, came to a surprising end: in a class of 157 students, he finished 154th. He had caught up to and passed three of his classmates. When Sean saw the final report card, he turned to Michael with a straight face and said, “You didn’t lose; you just ran out of time.”

A lot of people would have given up at that point.

Now it was Sean’s turn to intervene.

From a friend, Sean learned about the Internet courses offered by Brigham Young University. The B.Y.U. courses had magical properties: a grade took a mere 10 days to obtain and could be used to replace a grade from an entire semester on a high-school transcript. Pick the courses shrewdly and work quickly, and the most tawdry academic record could be renovated in a single summer. Sean scanned the B.Y.U. catalog and found a promising series. It was called “Character Education.” All you had to do in such a “character course” was to read a few brief passages from famous works — a speech by Lou Gehrig here, a letter by Abraham Lincoln there — and then answer five questions about it. How hard could it be? The A’s earned from character courses could be used to replace F’s earned in high-school English classes. And Michael never needed to leave the house!

The book is about football but it is also a story on what the Christian faith looks like in practice. I think many people would look at a Michael Oher when he was 16 and think twice about talking to him let alone adopting him. As Lewis writes the story, it isn’t just his salvation that Tuohy’s were interested in, it was about helping a person for the sake of doing the right thing (something they had a history of doing according to book).

A combination of work, the holiday season, and the book has had me thinking about how to tackle bigger societal problems. I understand what Sojourners is trying to do and I am a liberal and believe that the government has a role in the solution (and helps create problems as well) but I am under no illusions that by fixing the system, one can solve societal problems.

I grew up going to good schools and while there were many idiots there, everyone knew how to read and write. They had learned to learn over the years and while some chose not to, it was their choice. Working at the shelter, I found myself amongst many people who are not in the rat race but are simply struggling to eat and stay warm. That’s it. The system keeps them going one day more at a time and for many that is it for their entire life. Poverty has become a life sentence. Maybe it was caused by fetal alcohol syndrome, untreated mental health issues, abuse, or generations of indifferent parenting but it is going to take a long term effort to work itself out.

For FAS victims alone, they many experience secondary disabilities on top of the FAS.

  • Mental health problems — Diagnosed with ADHD, Clinical Depression, or other mental illness, experienced by over 90% of the subjects
  • Disrupted school experience — Suspended or expelled from school or dropped out of school, experienced by 60% of the subjects (age 12 and older)
  • Trouble with the law — Charged or convicted with a crime, experienced by 60% of the subjects (age 12 and older)
  • Confinement — For inpatient psychiatric care, inpatient chemical dependency care, or incarcerated for a crime, experienced by about 50% of the subjects (age 12 and older)
  • Inappropriate sexual behavior — Sexual advances, sexual touching, or promiscuity, experienced by about 50% of the subjects (age 12 and older)
  • Alcohol and drug problems — Abuse or dependency, experienced by 35% of the subjects (age 12 and older)

All of these make it extremely function within society which is combined with a relatively low income earning potential. So whose responsibility are those that can not function well in society? Canadians tend to default to the government (our social safety nets) but that only helps a certain percentage. Social workers tend to be overwhelmed since the budget cuts in social services in the mid-90s. Several churches I know have really tried to make a difference but many efforts are programs where the end result is the distribution of goods on a limited scale which can be a good thing but as David Fitch argues effectively in his book, The Great Giveaway it isn’t justice we are performing. We aren’t changing lives (although it is important to help a person continue on until help can be had). The solution isn’t to not help but rather go further and get more involved and work towards something better in community. Of course that sounds a lot easier than what it is to do which explains why it doesn’t happen more.

The church does get bashed unfairly at times because in many ways the inner city ministries and churches that are the most closely situated to the problem often have the fewest resources for dealing with this. Those that have the resources are often a long way removed intellectually and world view from those that have the need. That may make what happened in the book all the more remarkable, someone moved out of their comfort zone and at risk to their family and themselves and became intimately involved in that person’s life. Churches are often hindered by a classroom/lecture style of discipleship (the sermon and class) that is ineffective with people who have never been taught that style of learning (Saskatoon has around 1500 truant school kids according to several reports and when they grow up, I would imagine they would be very similar to Michael Oher and very hard to teach).

I don’t know in the end what to make that part of the book. It is an issue I wrestle with and wonder what I need to be doing to make a bigger difference in more lives. I see an awful lot of pain and suffering and my prayer every morning is that I make some positive difference in the lives I cross at the shelter and at home.

7 Comments

  1. Howie Luvzus says:

    I went to Briarcrest and graduated in 1980. I love this story. Also love your blog.

  2. Mike O says:

    How much is the problem Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, or a more general – Fetal Cahemical Syndrome? Drugs and tobacco, in addition to alcohol?

    Given the low earning potential of many people, what is the potential/practicality of relocating to low cost cities? In general, poor people seem to succeed best in medium-sized cities in temperate climates (places requiring little energy for home heating/cooling and transportation).

    I’m not advocating forced migration, but if alternatives werer presented< what would be the outcome?

  3. Jordon Cooper says:

    Mike,

    I think that happens already. In Canada the lower mainland area of B.C. has a way higher percentage of people who are homeless than in Saskatoon/Regina/Winnipeg.

    I do agree with your point of low cost cities. When I saw the poverty motels in L.A. near Knott’s Berry Farm that had two adults probably working three jobs to get by and thought, “If you worked that hard in Idaho, life would be a lot better for you.”

    Of course the other issue is what was in this month’s New Yorker, many Republican’s don’t like outsiders, especially Mexican immigrants.

  4. Linea says:

    I like your questions. More people need to ask them because FAE/FAS is a big problem. There have been some legal changes that may help – if one is declared to have FAS they get different help rather than just incarceration. Supervised living places would be a big help. Right now they can live in group homes till 18 and then Soc Serv no longer takes care of them. If they are going to work they may need an adult to get them up and out the door each day, provide a real structured environment for them. And I guess they need most people to care.

    So, I guess I just found this post rather interesting and even hopeful.

    Maybe we even have to look at this one kid at a time. And do something – whatever is in our power to do.

  5. Jordon Cooper says:

    I found the book hopeful and a good story of a school and people doing the right thing for the right reasons.

  6. Len Hjalmarson says:

    Inspiring.. keep at it Jordan.. your efforts will pay off in ways you see, and in ways you will never see..

  7. Kevin S says:

    The Church should be at the front in the battle against mental illness. Many people reach out to churches for help and should receive it or advice on how to get the help they need. I would recommend a book called “No Longer Alone – Mental Health And The Church” written by John Toews with Eleanor Loewen.
    “Christian faith can make an important contribution to mental well-being. But being Christian does not guarantee mental health.
    Just as we walk with persons who are physically ill, so we must learn to walk with those suffering mental illness. This book is destined to become a significant resource for individual Christians and congregations.
    In a simple yet careful way, Toews and Loewen draw on their expertise in mental health to address such topics as the interrelatedness of social, emotional, physical, and spiritual selves; emotions that hurt or heal; depression; addictions; schizophrenia; grief; and suicide.”