“I Got Your Back”
Michael climbed into her gray minivan.
“Tell me everything I need to know about you,” Leigh Anne implored.
He didn’t answer.
She noticed his sneakers — all beat-up and raggedy.
“Who takes care of you?”
He didn’t answer.
“I’ve noticed in the African American community, the grandmother often helps raise the kids,” she said. “Do you have a grandmother?”
He didn’t, but he didn’t explain.
This wouldn’t do. Leigh Anne was an extreme mixture of tenderness and willfulness. She cried when a goldfish died. On the other hand, she had no trouble confronting anyone who cut in front of her in line at a football game. Sean had decided that, no matter what, it wasn’t worth provoking his wife.
This child’s reluctance to answer her questions had provoked her.
“We’re gonna keep talking about this,” Leigh Anne told Michael. “We can do this the easy way, or we can do it the hard way. Take your pick.”
That worked, sort of. She learned that he hadn’t seen his father in many years. He never had much to do with his grandmother, who was now gone. He had a sister, but didn’t know where she was. His mother may have been, Leigh Anne surmised, an alcoholic. “But he never actually used the word alcoholic. He let me say it, and didn’t correct me,” said Leigh Anne.
After torturing him for a bit, she decided to leave him be. It was only a matter of time before he told her everything.
She asked him, “Where do you buy your clothes?”
He mentioned a place in a less affluent section of Memphis. Not the safest neighborhood. She set off in that direction, heading west.
“You okay going there?” he asked her.
“I’m okay going there with you,” she said. “You’ll take care of me, right?”
“Right,” he said. She sensed a little shift.
The gentlest (and fastest) giant
“I can talk to a wall,” Leigh Anne liked to say. For the next couple of hours, that’s just what she did. She was trying to guess, from his body language, what a 16-year-old child of the ghetto might wear to his new Christian high school. In time, they arrived at the first of several Big and Tall shops, and ran into another problem: Nothing fit him! He wasn’t big or tall. He was big and tall. For 20 minutes, she pulled the biggest articles of clothing she could find off the shelves, without a comment from the boy.
“Michael!” she finally said. “You got to tell me if you like it or not. I can’t read your mind. Or we’ll be here until Christmas.”
She pulled down the biggest shirt she could see. “I think that’s okay,” he said finally. For him it counted as a soliloquy.
She was 5’1″, 115 pounds, blond hair, straight white teeth, wearing the most perfect pink dress. He was black, poor and three times her size. Everyone stared at them. Everyone. At the final Big and Tall shop, on the border of what had just been determined by the 2000 U.S. Census to be one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, Leigh Anne said, “I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never been to this area.”
Big Mike said, “Don’t worry. I got your back.”
When they finished shopping, he was heaped with packages but insisted on taking the bus home. Leigh Anne thought, I am not letting him ride home with all these bags. So she drove him into the worst neighborhood in Memphis. Finally they reached what he said was his mother’s house. It was an ominous red-brick building behind a metal gate. The scrub grass, the flaking paint on the houses — everything looked uncared-for.
She parked and stepped out to help him. That’s when he sprang into action.
“Don’t get out!” he said.
“I’ll just help you with the bags,” she said.
“You don’t need to get out of the car,” he said. He was so insistent that she got back in and promised to stay put, with doors locked, while he went in and got help. A few minutes later, a line of small children streamed out of the gate and, antlike, carried the sacks inside.
He hadn’t given her the first clue of what he thought of her. “Probably,” she figured, “that I’m some nice lady who wanted something from him.” So when he returned to the car to thank her, she said, “Michael, it was my pleasure. You don’t owe me anything.”
And that, she thought, was that. It wasn’t. She couldn’t explain it, but she felt drawn to him. He was just this big old kid who could have been scary and thuggy, but instead was soft and gentle and sweet-natured.
For their part, every Briarcrest coach could recall the moment they realized Big Mike was no ordinary giant. For football coach Hugh Freeze, it happened at a practice; the new boy had just been admitted on academic probation. He simply wandered onto the field, picked up a huge tackling dummy — the thing weighed maybe 50 pounds — and took off with it at high speed. “Did you see the way that kid moved?” Freeze asked another coach.
Freeze’s next thought was that he had misjudged the boy’s mass. No human being who moved that quickly could possibly weigh as much as 300 pounds. “That’s when I had him weighed,” said Freeze. Michael overloaded the scale.
The team doctor drove the boy away and put him on what the Briarcrest coaches were later told was a cattle scale: 344 pounds, it read. On the light side, for a cow; delightfully beefy for a high school sophomore football player, especially one who could run. “I didn’t know if he could play,” said Freeze. “But I knew this: We didn’t have anyone like him on campus.”
The basketball coach, John Harrington, had a similar encounter with Big Mike inside the gym. The first time Michael walked onto the court, Harrington tossed him a ball, to see his reactions. Instead of taking it to the rim or kicking it into the stands, as someone his size might do, Big Mike caught it and swirled like a ballerina. He dribbled three times between his legs, spun, and from the dead corner of the floor, nailed a three-point shot.