Book World: Michael Oher's 'I Beat the Odds' is story of redemption

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011; 6:10 PM


From Homelessness to the Blind Side and Beyond

By Michael Oher with Don Yaeger

Gotham. 250 pp. $26

By the time Michael Oher got around to telling it, The Michael Oher Story was already well-known and seemingly devoid of new angles. Oher, an African American who plays offensive tackle for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens, had been the subject of Michael Lewis's "The Blind Side" (2006), a bestseller-turned-film that earned Sandra Bullock an Oscar for Best Actress as Oher's adoptive mother. A second book, written by the adoptive parents, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy (with the help of Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins), told the story of Oher's redemption from the perspective of the redeemers.

But what was largely missing from the story to that point - the books, the movie and the many feature stories about Oher's remarkable life - was his own voice, that of the redeemed. The other projects were someone else's telling of his story, and rarely was the shy and soft-spoken Oher quoted extensively about himself. He may simply not have been ready to talk about his life, particularly his youth, before the Tuohys took him in as a high-schooler.

With the release of his memoir, "I Beat the Odds," Oher finally takes ownership, filling in the gaps in the familiar narrative and somehow managing to make his journey from the streets to stardom seem even more amazing and compelling. A cynic would surmise he did so to finally cash in himself after so many others already had. But that would imply the book was simply thrown together with minimal effort for maximum profit, which doesn't appear to be the case. "I Beat the Odds" is thoughtful and heartfelt, a young man coming to grips with an amazing journey that required the distance of years and perspective to fully grasp.

It's an odd book, so ambitious that, at times, it doesn't seem to know what it wants to be. At its core, it's a straight-ahead memoir, and a heartbreaking one at that, as Oher details his mother's destructive crack habit, his perilous childhood that teetered between near- and actual homelessness, and the nightmarish experience he and his brothers and sisters endured in the overburdened Memphis foster-care system.

At other times, it borders on investigative journalism, as Oher and co-author Don Yaeger, a veteran sportswriter who has ghostwritten several other athlete autobiographies, comb through records and interview social workers to piece together bits and scraps of his history, interspersed with statistics about foster children and poverty.

And at still other times, it reads like a self-improvement book, with Oher imploring readers to get involved in charities that help poor children and offering young readers from backgrounds similar to his a blueprint for trying to rise above their surroundings, as he did. And, oddly, Oher spends an inordinate amount of time complaining about the referees who worked his high school basketball and football games, and who apparently were quick-triggered when it came to calling fouls on him - Oher figures it was because of his size. (He is listed as 6-foot-4, 313 pounds now and was always huge for his age.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, the book grows less compelling the further Oher gets from his troubled childhood, as the setting shifts from the streets of inner-city Memphis to the tree-lined mansions of the wealthy outskirts, and into the well-worn story of his redemption. But the best part of the book - at least to anyone whose loves include sports, books and movies - comes at the end, as he describes how the Lewis book and the film came together, including a priceless anecdote about seeing the film for the first time, some two months after its release, in a theater packed with other moviegoers and getting upset about what he perceived to be inaccuracies in its storytelling. "I watched those scenes thinking, 'No, that's not me at all!' " he writes.

In "I Beat the Odds," he gets his chance to set the record straight. But, thankfully, he spends far less time correcting that record than he does telling a story that no one but he could properly tell.

Sheinin is a sportswriter for The Washington Post.

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