Book review: 'The Blind Side' by Michael Lewis

By Allen Barra,
who writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal
Monday, November 27, 2006


Evolution of a Game

By Michael Lewis

Norton. 299 pp. $24.95

"There ain't much to being a football player," wrote William "Pudge" Heffelfinger, a legendary lineman of the 1890s, "if you're a football player." Michael Oher, the subject of Michael Lewis's exhilarating "The Blind Side" and currently a sophomore at the University of Mississippi, is a football player. More precisely, Oher is an offensive left tackle and, as such, a highly prized commodity in modern college and professional football. The story of the process that made his skills so valuable -- and rescued him from a hellish life in the Memphis projects -- is so improbable that it wouldn't survive a meeting with a producer of made-for-TV movies.

For one thing, who would play Oher? Six feet 5 and 350 pounds as a teenager -- according to the Ole Miss roster, he has slimmed down to 322 -- Oher, in the words of one scout, "looked like a house walking into a bigger house. He walked in the door and he barely fit through the door." In addition to his almost preternatural size and strength, Oher was gifted with astonishing athletic talent (he is a superb schoolyard basketball player and was a record-setting high school discus hurler). The problem with getting him through high school was that, as one of his teachers put it, "for him English was almost like a second language."

Lewis stumbled on the amazing story of Oher and his odyssey from a broken home and near street-person existence to big-time college football, through his friendship with Oher's rescuer, Sean Tuohy, a grade school and high school classmate of Lewis's in New Orleans who became a Memphis businessman. Tuohy and his dynamic wife, Leigh Anne, who are evangelical Christians, came in contact with Oher by what almost seems, in retrospect, to have been divine intervention. At the time they met, according to Leigh Anne, Oher had no identification, driver's license or birth certificate. "There wasn't a shred of evidence he even existed," she noted.

The Tuohys became determined to set Oher on the right path, which in this case meant an education at Briarcrest Christian School (motto: "Decidedly Academic, Distinctly Christian"). Or at least they made an attempt to educate Oher, who, when he entered the school, was as prepared for a formal education as Leigh Anne was to play offensive linebacker in the National Football League. An essay Oher wrote in his senior year expressed his bewilderment with his environment: "I look and I see white everywhere: white walls, white floors, and a lot of white people. . . . The teachers are not aware that I have no idea of anything they are talking about. . . . I've never done homework in my life. I go to the bathroom, look in the mirror, and say, 'This is not Mike Oher. I want to get out of this place.' " But to where? The Tuohys' dogged persistence -- they eventually became his adoptive parents -- paved Oher's way to college and "the one role on the football field the boy was uniquely suited to play."

The book's title, "The Blind Side," refers specifically to a right-handed quarterback's left side, which is vulnerable to the current breed of monster pass-rushers like former New York Giants great Lawrence Taylor, who once said, "If I hit the guy right, I'll hit a nerve and he'll feel electrocuted; he'll forget for a few seconds that he's on a football field." Lewis's narrative, in fact, begins with Taylor's rise to stardom in the mid-1980s as a response to the new passing-dominated offenses created by San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh. The player best positioned to blindside pass-rushers is the offensive left tackle, and to be successful he must be not only remarkably strong but also agile. Oher was both, and thus hugely attractive to major college recruiters.

Michael Lewis is the author of "Moneyball," a groundbreaking study of the Oakland Athletics' general manager Billy Beane and his adroit use of baseball statistics to sign talent on a limited budget. Lewis is on less firm ground on football turf and makes some eye-catching errors: The 49ers quarterback Steve Young won one, not two, Super Bowls; the Buffalo Bills were not AFC champions in 1986; and NFL players won the right to limited free agency in 1989 and full free agency in 1993, not 1994. But Lewis's overview of the evolution of NFL strategy and Walsh's effect on the game is not only sound but shrewder than that of many so-called football insiders who can't see the forest for the trees.

"The Blind Side," perhaps the best book written about a college football player since Willie Morris's "The Courting of Marcus Dupree" (1983), grabs hold of you in several ways. On one hand, you'll be appalled by the tactics used to advance academically unqualified high school and college football players. At the same time, you'll be furiously turning the pages, rooting for Michael Oher to succeed. And the story isn't over: If Oher makes it into the NFL in three years, Lewis should have a dandy follow-up.

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