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BOOK REVIEW: ‘I Beat the Odds’

- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 6, 2011

By Michael Oher (with Don Yaeger)
Gotham Books, $26.00 272 pages

Life turns out vastly different for those wishing for success versus those working for it. In the newly released "I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness to the Blind Side and Beyond," author and NFL offensive tackle Michael Oher (with Don Yaeger) takes us through his challenging life from ghetto to gridiron greatness, writing in a tone both matter-of-fact and moving.

Born into a world of near-total disadvantage, Mr. Oher felt - even as a small boy - that he had a drive inside him that would one day beat the odds. In a family of 11 brothers and sisters, no live-in father and a mother often chasing her crack habit, young Michael and his siblings struggled not only to find food on a daily basis but also to avoid the bottomless pitfalls of poverty - gangs, drugs and crime. The Oher family was constantly on the move, sometimes relocating by the month when the rent failed to be paid.

One time, he and six of his siblings spent about a month living - and sleeping - while piled on top of each other in a car. This perpetual instability extended to his schooling. Michael rarely began and ended a school year in the same building.

In addition to his dysfunctional family, many factors merged to keep Michael trapped in the vacuous cycle of poverty. The governmental child service organizations, the community and the schools in the Memphis, Tenn., area (aptly known as Hurt Village and ironically located near important sites in the life of Martin Luther King Jr.), were simply not designed or motivated to make a difference.

While no one consistently encouraged him early in life, Michael determined in himself that he would succeed. "It's never been about football," Mr. Oher writes, "but about becoming the best and fullest person I could be." He adds later, "I might be working at a Taco Bell. ... But you know what? That would have been all right, too. Because it is a respectable job that doesn't depend on a welfare check, and doesn't involve breaking the law or hurting people."

Perhaps surprisingly, the most important thing in Mr. Oher's childhood life was his family. He didn't see his family as broken; he saw it as loving. It was at home that he learned his first "play book:" His oldest brother, Marcus, developed a plan for how the children would scatter when social workers - bent on placing them all in foster care - descended upon their house. When that day came, Michael and his brothers executed the plan to perfection. However, his younger sisters, who had not been included in the evasive scrimmage, were caught and taken away. (It would be 15 years before Mr. Oher was reunited with one of his sisters.)

Despite seeing social service workers as the enemy when he was a little boy, Mr. Oher opens "I Beat the Odds" with a chapter as affectionate as it is intriguing: his meeting for the first time as a successful adult with his caseworker, Ms. Spivey. This woman turns out to be a very loving, dedicated champion for children's welfare and reveals the insightful care she took at crucial times to help Mr. Oher and his family when he was young. Hearing her perspective, he begins to piece together his painful past.

Among the devoted acts performed by Ms. Spivey was young Michael's placement in a foster home run by a woman warmly known as "Twin" (she had a twin sister also working as a foster parent). Twin kept Michael and his brother Carlos (Ms. Spivey wanted to keep some semblance of family life intact) on a much-needed school, play and church schedule. Here Michael began to learn the importance of routine and discipline.

Throughout "I Beat the Odds," Mr. Oher stresses those things essential to help children in impoverished environments overcome their crushing situations: a strong family foundation, caring teachers and mentors and supportive communities. Many people know of Mr. Oher's happy ending, having read "The Blind Side" and/or having seen the movie starring Sandra Bullock. With "I Beat the Odds," Mr. Oher is intent on making sure his story is not unique. "I want to provide a voice for the other half-million children in the foster care system who are silently crying out for help."

In the last chapters of "I Beat the Odds," Mr. Oher shares stories from many fans of the book and movie who were inspired to beat the odds themselves. Also included are organizations providing ways in which ordinary folks can get involved in the lives of disadvantaged youth.

"It's amazing how a life can turn around with some encouragement, some support, and someone willing to say, 'I believe you CAN do what you've set your mind on doing.' "

"I Beat the Odds" successfully expresses Mr. Oher's winning attitude, with a life story to back it up, and can help many others reach their own magnificent potential.

Albin Sadar is a writer living in New York City.

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