Drive, He Said

Michael Oher opens up about his life before and after The Blind Side.

Remember that scene in the movie The Blind Side — the one that shows Michael Oher, then a high school football player for Briarcrest, being shown different plays and player positions by the son of Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, the East Memphis couple who took Oher in to live with them?

Didn’t happen, Oher wants us to know.

“I know stuff like that makes for a good story on screen,” Oher writes in his memoir I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness to The Blind Side and Beyond (Gotham Books), “but in reality, I already knew the game of football inside and out. . . . I didn’t just watch it as a kid — I studied it, learning the plays and what each position did.”

Oher wants that point understood. But more importantly, he wants readers to know a few facts not about him but about foster children in this country:

Seventy percent of kids who “age out” of the system at 18 say they want to go to college, but less than 10 percent of them enroll and less than 1 percent of them graduate.

Close to half of those who age out of the system end up homeless within a year and a half.

And the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder among children in foster care is twice the rate of American soldiers returning from battle.

Grim statistics, yes, and Oher quotes them in the prologue to his book, written with author and former associate editor for Sports Illustrated Don Yaeger. But in a recent phone interview, it was Oher, who today plays for the Baltimore Ravens of the NFL, alone doing the talking, and he wanted one of his goals in I Beat the Odds made very clear:

“Somebody brought it to my attention that I should write a book. I was like, I really don’t want to. There’s a lot out there about me already,” Oher said, referring to Michael Lewis’ book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game in 2006 and The New York Times Magazine article that accompanied it, the movie that was made of The Blind Side in 2009, and the Tuohys’ own book, In a Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving, from last year.

“But I was reminded,” Oher went on to explain, “that I could reach so many lives . . . so many kids’ lives. If I could help by writing about my own experiences, I thought I should go for it.

“When I was growing up, nobody went to school. Nobody went to work. But I’m trying to reach out to kids in trouble. When they see how I made it, they know they can make it. You don’t have to be rescued by a wealthy family. You can make it on your own. These kids just need an example to show them the way.”

“Show them the way”: That’s a phrase that, coming out of Michael Oher, counts for more than a lot. It counts for everything. His earliest memory, he writes, was walking down a Memphis highway with his older brothers. They’d been locked out of the house, again, by a crack- and cocaine-addicted mother who could be there at home one day and just as suddenly be gone the next and for who knew how long. The boys on that highway needed someplace to stay. Oher was maybe 2 years old.

The pattern continued — whether the family (nine brothers and sisters when Oher was still a child) was finding shelter in North or South Memphis — in the Hurt Village public-housing project, for example, or in the 500-square-foot side of a duplex that Oher estimates the family lived in for maybe six months.

Food, when Oher’s mother provided it, was a matter of grab what you can get before a brother or sister got to it first. Food, when it wasn’t provided, came not exactly courtesy of a Chisholm Trail grocery store. Shoplifting was, Oher writes not to condone but to clarify, a matter of survival.

Schooling? Oher estimates that by the second grade he’d attended five of them, but he admits he could be forgetting a couple. (Cutting school altogether came later.)

Pastimes? There were baseball and football on vacant lots, basketball after scaling a fence onto closed courts, and joyriding in stolen cars, which Oher watched his older brothers do.

Where was Oher’s father? Except for a few visits, he was nowhere in sight. But unlike Oher’s brothers and sisters, he’d at least gotten to know his father, who’d been a cellmate of his mother’s brother.

It was a no-nonsense social worker named Bobbie Spivey, with the Department of Children’s Services, who was the woman to watch and to fear. When Oher and his brother Carlos were called out of class at Coleman Elementary, it was to learn from Spivey that they were following their brothers and sisters into dreaded foster care.

Hand it, though, to Velma Jones. (Oher does.) She did her best to make him and his brother a safe home, with a number of responsibilities attached to it. DCS, meanwhile, did its best to schedule meetings between Oher’s mother and her children. Even so, Oher became a “runner.” That’s a child who repeatedly leaves his foster family to return to his biological parent. It was a pattern that eventually landed Oher inside a local hospital so that observers could get to the bottom of what they took to be his anger. Anger, Oher writes, wasn’t the issue. Sadness was. But sports were to serve as a positive way out, and Oher pinpoints the moment he reached that conclusion. It came during the televising of an NBA finals game between the Chicago Bulls and Phoenix Suns: “If sports could make you so famous that you could always pay rent, then that was what I was going to do.”

Oher may have been all of 7 years old at the time of that game, but he was tall for his age. Bigger, broader as well. Smarter too. As he soon understood, “There were the kids who wanted to become something,” he writes. “And there were the kids who were working to become something.” Oher was among the latter, and he had the concentration and observational skills: He studied game strategy. He watched how the athletes moved. But he knew that to get to the big leagues meant college first.

As Oher recalls, it was Big Tony Henderson who arranged for him to participate in an amateur basketball league in Hurt Village. Henderson then pulled some strings and got Oher transferred from Manassas to Westwood High. Henderson took Oher in too when he needed a place to stay. Then Henderson went calling on area high schools that would afford Oher a quality education along with powerhouse athletics.

Briarcrest alone offered a possible solution: If Oher could improve on his academic record, he could enter Briarcrest the following year, which is what he did thanks to remedial work through Gateway Academy. And thanks to football coach Matt Saunders and the Sparks and Franklin families at Briarcrest, Oher had better roofs over his head but still no one roof to call home. Enter Sean Tuohy, volunteer coach for the school’s basketball team, and his wife Leigh Anne. By the summer before Oher’s senior year, he was living at the Tuohys’ house full-time — their daughter, Collins, and son, S.J., to become, Oher writes, “as real a brother and sister to me as the ones I was related to by blood.”

Weighing by this time 300 pounds and standing more than 6 feet tall, Oher may have been the “scariest thing ever to block a shot” on the basketball court, but the football field changed all that. Left tackle, Oher writes, is no position for dummies, and by his last year at Briarcrest, attending Ole Miss on a football scholarship was no pipe dream. But ever careful to give credit where it’s due, Oher does right to recognize the help he received from tutor Sue Mitchell, and he fondly recalls the day the Tuohys became, with the support of Oher’s mother, his “legal conservators,” which is to say adoptive parents.

Oher spends only a few chapters in I Beat the Odds on his career at Ole Miss and his draft pick by Baltimore. And on the phenomenon that was to become The Blind Side and the movie based on it, he has his points to make, but he doesn’t belabor them.

“I didn’t share much information with him,” Oher writes of his working relationship with Michael Lewis. And “in terms of it representing me, that’s where I had a hard time loving it,” Oher writes of the film.

But if Oher feels that neither the book nor the movie adequately illustrated his discipline and inner drive, he’s grateful for both: Each can maybe serve as inspiration for kids growing up with the odds so stacked against them, the same odds Michael Oher was determined, and went on, to beat.


Shelf Life

Prescription Murder: Things were going smoothly in the operating room of Dr. Liza French, chief of OB/GYN at Gates Memorial Hospital in Memphis. Then, in the blink of an eye, things weren’t going so smoothly. So kill the cameras — the cameras that had been filming Dr. French performing this routine hysterectomy. Routine except for the fact that she was doing the surgery robotically (and earning Gates Memorial some hefty income). Cut now to . . .

Dr. Eli Branch. He once was a hotshot surgical recruit at the University of the Mid-South Medical Center. But after he brought down Regency Biotech International (and after he suffered a scalpel-induced hand injury), Dr. Branch is stuck working 12-hour emergency-room shifts in a Whitehaven hospital, “the doctor of choice for nocturnal crazies that roamed south Memphis.” Cut to one of those crazies . . .
Norman Felts. He shows up in that Whitehaven ER complaining that the top of his head is “crawling.” And underneath the wool cap Felts is wearing, there’s good reason for him to complain. But let’s leave it to readers to find out why, because there’s worse:

There’s a string of murders among the medical personnel at Gates Memorial, and they’re related to Dr. French’s surgical career, which is now in jeopardy, and they’re informed by the anatomical art that’s found at the murder scenes — art that is, in turn, related to the manuscript of a sixteenth-century anatomist, all of which puts, eventually, Dr. Eli Branch back in the picture and back into the pages of a medical thriller.

That thriller is Public Anatomy (Oceanview Publishing) by A. Scott Pearson, a follow-up to his debut medical thriller, Rupture, which starred Eli Branch.

Pearson grew up in a rural community outside of Memphis. He graduated from medical school at UT-Memphis. And today he’s on the surgical faculty at Vanderbilt, a school well-known for its literary associations, which makes Pearson and Vanderbilt a good fit: The surgeon/novelist teaches students on the importance of a patient’s narrative.

The narrative in Public Anatomy: It may be hard to take and not exactly pain-free, but it’s true to the thriller spirit and it’s just what the doctor, A. Scott Pearson, ordered. M

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