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.
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.
"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.
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.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.