Getting Comfortable Quickly
One night, when Michael didn’t have a ride, Leigh Anne offered to take him wherever he wanted to go. Off they went — 30 miles into Mississippi. “It was a trailer,” she said. She couldn’t believe there was room enough for him, so Leigh Anne insisted on following him in, to see where he slept.
He showed her his air mattress on the floor. It was flat as a pancake. “I blow it up every night,” he said. “But it runs out of air around midnight.”
“That’s it,” she said. “Get all your stuff. You’re moving in with me.”
Crossing a new line, Michael followed Leigh Anne back into the car.
Leigh Anne had been hoping that what they and other Briarcrest families had done for Michael added up to a decent life. Now she saw it didn’t. She took over the management of that life, completely. “The first thing we did,” she said, “was have a cleansing of the clothes.”
Together they drove to every house in Memphis where he had stashed his clothing. Seven houses and four trash bags later, she was staring at “this pile of stuff people had given him. Most of it still had tags on.”
For a few weeks, Michael slept on the Tuohys’ sofa, and no one in the family stated the obvious: This was Michael’s new home. He was, in effect, a third child. Soon Sean Junior and Michael were vanishing for hours on end into the bedroom to play video games. Just a few months after Michael’s arrival, Leigh Anne pointed to him and said, “That is Sean Junior’s best friend.”
“He got comfortable quickly,” said Collins Tuohy. “Mom asked him if he wanted to move in. He said, ‘I don’t think I want to leave.’ That’s when Mom went out and bought a dresser and bed.”
The day the bed arrived — it was actually a large futon, to accommodate Michael’s size — Leigh Anne said, “That’s your bed.”
Michael said, “That’s my bed?”
She replied, “That’s your bed.”
And he just stared at it. “This is the first time I ever had my own bed,” he said. That was in late February 2004.
Leigh Anne established some rules. She wanted Michael to visit his mother on a regular basis. She also didn’t know who Michael’s friends were, but they were welcome here.
Sean, for his part, had decided that “Michael is trying to forget about yesterday and just get to tomorrow. He’s in survival mode, focused on the next two minutes.” He persuaded his wife to take a more detached view.
“Michael’s gift,” Sean said, “is that the Good Lord gave him the ability to forget. His story might be sad, but he’s not.”
Still, tiny revelations upset Leigh Anne for days, for what they implied about his childhood. Once, she took him and Sean Junior to a bookstore. Shortly after they arrived, Sean Junior spotted Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. “Look, Mom, you used to read that to me when I was little,” said Sean.
And Michael said, “I’ve never had anyone read me a book.”
Toward the end of the boy’s junior year, Sean Tuohy began stewing over Michael’s future. He started writing letters on his behalf. Maybe he’d be able to play basketball at a small college. Then football coach Hugh Freeze called. A scout was coming through town and had agreed, on Freeze’s recommendation, to see Michael. At nearby University of Memphis, the boy sat through more than 15 minutes of questions from a man named Tom Lemming, the scouting expert for CSTV, the college sports channel.
Lemming’s private scouting report was sent to the head coaches at more than 100 Division I college football programs. They learned that this kid from Memphis, whom no one had heard of, was the most striking left-tackle talent Lemmings had seen since he met Orlando Pace. Pace, at that moment, was playing left tackle for the St. Louis Rams, making $7 million a year.
That Michael had never really played left tackle didn’t matter. Left tackle in high school wasn’t a big deal; the passing game wasn’t so important. But in big-time college football and in the NFL, the left tackle was a huge deal. Find someone who could play the position brilliantly — covering the quarterback’s blind side — and you had one of the most valuable commodities in professional sports.
Best in the nation
On the first afternoon of spring football practice, Sean Tuohy drove up in his car to see an unusual cluster of identically dressed men. They stood to one side in their dark slacks and coaching shirts, their schools’ emblems emblazoned on their chests: University of Michigan, Clemson, University of Southern Mississippi, University of Tennessee, Florida State.
At length, out stepped Briarcrest’s most powerful defensive lineman, Joseph Crone. He was 6’2″, about 270 pounds. He didn’t want to go up against Michael Oher, but the drill today had the flavor of heroism. The two players dropped into their defensive stances. Crone’s mind was working overtime. “I’m thinking, I got to get low on him. Got to drive my feet.”
“Best on best!” shouted Freeze, and blew the whistle.
When it was over — and it was over in a flash — five coaches broke formation and made what appeared to be urgent phone calls. At least one coach then offered Michael a full scholarship. After that, coaches came in platoons. Arkansas, Notre Dame, Ole Miss, Miami, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Ohio State. One of the coaches actually called Michael “the best in the nation.” USA Today went on to say the same thing.
In the middle of spring practice, Michael Oher became a preseason First Team High School All-American. Freeze soon informed the boy who had been playing left tackle that he was being moved to right tackle. Michael was taking over his position.
Of course, Michael had never really thought of himself as a football player. He wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. Not long ago, you couldn’t get him to take his eyes off the floor, Collins Tuohy noted. But by his senior year of high school, she saw him smiling, laughing and bantering with other kids, and, in general, playing the big man on campus. When the senior class needed a striking-looking male lead singer for a skit, three girls asked Michael to play the part. He shocked everyone by agreeing. “After hearing, ‘You’re so good,’ ‘You’re so good,’” said Collins, “he started thinking, Maybe I am good.”
He was also calling Leigh Anne “Mama.” Except when he was ticked off at her for making him do something he didn’t want to do, in which case he called her “Ms. Tuohy.” She was now, without a doubt, the one person on earth in whom Michael was most likely to confide. “When I moved in with Leigh Anne and Sean,” said Michael, “I felt loved. Like part of a family.”
And Leigh Anne said, “I loved him as if I birthed him.”
After graduating from Briarcrest, Michael accepted a scholarship to Ole Miss, where he’s now a sophomore playing left tackle. (Collins Tuohy is also a student at Ole Miss.) There’s more good news. In December 2004, Sean and Leigh Anne became Michael’s legal guardians.