The New Kid
When Sean Tuohy saw the new kid sitting in the high school gym, he saw a boy with nowhere to go but up. Sean had heard about Michael from his daughter, Collins. When she tried to pass the boy in the stairwell at the Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis, Tennessee, she had to back up to the top; she could not fit past him. At 16 years old, sophomore Michael Oher was about 6’4″ and 340 pounds that fall of 2002, the biggest student anyone at Briarcrest had ever laid eyes on. He was huge.
On top of that, this black kid from the poorest part of Memphis barely uttered a peep. He didn’t meet anyone’s gaze. Collins said that everyone was frightened of him until they realized he was far more frightened of them.
Michael Oher (pronounced “oar”) had a family background that was apparently a bad deal. And he wasn’t long into his tenure at Briarcrest before several teachers suggested he should be on his way out. He wasn’t just failing tests; he didn’t even start them. Records from the Memphis public schools showed a poor academic performance, yet Briarcrest had agreed to accept him, provided he could keep up.
There would be no football, no basketball — he couldn’t even join the choir until he proved he could do the schoolwork. Principal Steve Simpson thought Michael showed courage by just being there. “It was unusual to see a kid with those kinds of deficits who wanted an education,” he said. “Who wanted to be in this environment.”
Now, though, even the weightlifting teacher said there were problems: The boy was neglecting to change into his gym clothes. After the third time, the teacher advised Michael, “This is the one class that can help you with your grades. Right now, you’re flunking.”
The situation seemed hopeless, but Sean Tuohy, 43, knew what it meant to be the poor kid in a private school — he’d been one himself, more than two decades ago. After that, he’d attended the University of Mississippi on a basketball scholarship. When he set out for Ole Miss at 6’1″ and 147 pounds, he wasn’t sure he could cut it as a college basketball player. By his final game, he’d set the NCAA record for career assists.
Now, Sean had become a success. He’d been born again and helped to create one of the fastest-growing evangelical churches in Memphis, the Grace Evangelical Church. He’d married the Ole Miss cheerleader who, 25 years later, could still pass for an Ole Miss cheerleader. He owned a chain of some 75 Taco Bells, KFCs and Long John Silver’s restaurants, and he also called games for the Memphis Grizzlies, the pro basketball team. In his spare time, he acted as a kind of life counselor to whatever black athlete stumbled into Briarcrest. He knew how to help kids: Build them up, not tear them down.
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Sean had seen Big Mike a few times. He’d noticed that he wore the same clothes every day, cutoff blue jeans and an oversized T-shirt. And when he saw him sitting in the gym, he thought, I bet he’s hungry.
Sean walked over and said, “You don’t know me, but we have more in common than you might think.”
Michael stared intently at his feet.
“What did you have to eat for lunch today?” Sean asked.
“In the cafeteria,” said Michael.
“I didn’t ask where you ate,” said Sean. “I asked what you ate.”
“Had a few things,” said the kid.
Sure you did, thought Sean. He asked if he needed any money for lunch, and Mike said, “I don’t need any money.”
The next day, Sean went to the Briarcrest accounting department and arranged for the boy to have a standing charge card at the lunch checkout counter. Sean left it at lunch, and at lunch it might have ended. It didn’t.
“Who takes care of you?”
A few weeks later, Briarcrest went on its Thanksgiving break. One cold and blustery morning, Sean and his wife, Leigh Anne — the former Ole Miss cheerleader — were driving down a main boulevard in East Memphis. Suddenly, off a bus ahead of them, stepped this huge black kid. He was dressed in the same pair of cutoff jeans and T-shirt he always wore.
Sean said, “That kid I was telling you about — that’s him. Big Mike.”
“But he’s wearing shorts,” Leigh Anne said.
“Uh-huh. He always wears those.”
“Sean, it’s snowing!”
And so it was. At Leigh Anne’s insistence, they pulled over. Sean reintroduced himself to Michael and then introduced Michael to Leigh Anne.
“Where are you going?” Sean asked.
“To basketball practice,” said Big Mike.
“Michael, you don’t have basketball practice.”
“I know,” he said. “But they got heat. It’s nice and warm in that gym.”
As they drove off, Sean looked over and saw tears falling down Leigh Anne’s face. And he thought, Uh-oh. My wife’s about to take over.
The next afternoon, Leigh Anne left her interior decorating business, turned up at Briarcrest, picked up the kid, and took off with him. A few hours later, Sean’s cell phone rang. He heard his wife’s voice on the line.
“Do you know how big a 58-long jacket is?” she asked.
“Not big enough.”
Raised in Memphis and a graduate of Briarcrest herself, Leigh Anne Tuohy didn’t see anything odd or awkward in taking this boy in hand. For Lord’s sake, he was walking in the snow in shorts. Sure, she had two children of her own — daughter Collins, 16, and son Sean Junior, 9. If her actions struck others as a bit aggressively philanthropic, Leigh Anne felt this was what you did if you had the resources. “God gives people money to see how you’re going to handle it,” she said.