A Natural Athlete
“Walking into the gym, Michael sort of became a different person,” said Harrington. “He moved like he was 165 pounds. My head’s spinning.”
When the first track meet rolled around, Michael hadn’t spent a minute with the coaches. He was earning D’s in his classes and spending five hours a day with tutors, in exchange for being allowed to play basketball in the latter half of the season.
When the track coach, Mark Boggess, led him onto the field for the first meet, he sensed, rightly, that Michael Oher was witnessing the sport for the first time. “He didn’t know what a discus was,” said Boggess. He inserted Michael at the back of the queue of discus throwers from the other schools, and left him to give it a whirl.
Michael never said a word or asked a question. “I just watched them a couple of times,” he said later. “Then I threw it.”
Across the field, Collins Tuohy, daughter of Sean and Leigh Anne and future Tennessee State champion in the pole vault, watched the discus competition. When Big Mike’s first throw landed, she picked up her cell phone. “Daddy,” she said, “I think you better come see Michael throw the discus. It looks like a Frisbee.”
Boggess watched too. “I think I just laughed,” he said. “Man, it flew.”
Michael’s first throw won him first place in the meet.
It wasn’t long before he hit 166 feet and set the Briarcrest record. He would go on to break the West Tennessee sectional record in the discus.
For his first year and a quarter, there was some question as to the best use of Michael’s talents. Once the teachers figured out he needed to be tested orally, he proved that he deserved high D’s instead of low F’s. The administrators stopped thinking they were going to send him back out on the streets, and let him play sports. He joined the basketball team at the end of his sophomore year, and soon after, the track team.
In his junior year, he finally got onto the football field.
“Screaming, moaning and carrying on”
For the first five games of the 2003 season, Freeze let the kid play defense. He wasn’t any worse than his replacement, but he wasn’t much better either. Teammate Joseph Crone thought Big Mike’s main contribution came before the game, when the opposing team stumbled out of their locker room or bus and took the measure of the Briarcrest Christian School. “They’d see us,” said Crone, “and then they’d see Mike and say, ‘Oh, crap.’”
Freeze didn’t know much about Michael’s past, but he knew enough to assume that he’d had some kind of miserable childhood. And a miserable childhood was typically excellent emotional preparation for what was required on a football defense: It made you angry, it made you aggressive, it made you want to tear someone’s head off.
But Michael didn’t exhibit anger. He was just a sweet kid who didn’t particularly care to hit anybody.
The depth of the problem became clear when the team took buses up to Kentucky to play a tough team. Early in the game, Michael caught his hand on an opponent’s face mask and gashed the webbing between his fingers.
“You’d have thought he was going to die,” said Freeze. “Screaming, moaning and carrying on.” Michael ran to the bench, clenched his hand, and refused to allow anyone to look at it.
In the stands, Leigh Anne watched as four grown men tried to coax the boy into allowing them to examine his hand. “He was in a fetal position,” she said. Men were next to useless in getting him to do things; he didn’t trust men. She knew this about Michael by now, and more. She sensed she was glimpsing another sliver of his childhood. “I thought: This kid has never been injured before. Or, if he had, he’d said, ‘I’m not gonna tell anyone about it.’” She thought this might be the first time he’d had no choice but to allow someone else to do something for him.
After their shopping trip, whenever Leigh Anne had turned up at Briarcrest, Michael had sought her out. He told her he hated to be called “Big Mike,” and so from then on, he was, to her and her family, Michael. “I became the person Michael came to,” she said.
Now, she walked down from the stands, crossed the track, walked onto the football field, and went straight to the bench. “Michael, you need to open your hand,” she said crossly.
“It hurts,” he said.
“I realize it hurts. But your head is going to hurt a lot worse when I hit you upside it.” He unclenched his hand, one giant finger at a time. Shortly after that, they took him to the local emergency room while he screamed and wailed like a baby. When the athletic director, Carly Powers, asked Leigh Anne if she thought Michael had medical insurance, she said there was no chance he had medical insurance or any other kind. The Tuohy family would cover it, Leigh Anne suggested.
By now, Michael had spent a few nights crammed onto the Tuohys’ sofa. Other nights he took the bus back to the poorest neighborhood on the west side of town. There he stayed, Leigh Anne assumed, with his mother.
But it was clear Michael had a housing crisis. Sometimes he bunked with teammates, other times with friends. Over several months, Michael spent the night with five different Briarcrest families.