- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 14, 2006

THE BLIND SIDE: EVOLUTION OF A GAME

By Michael Lewis

W.W. Norton, $24.95, 299 pages

REVIEWED BY A.G. GANCARSKI

Michael Lewis’ first book since his best-selling and genre-defining 2003 classic “Moneyball,” which inexorably changed the way the lay person looks at the economics of a professional baseball roster, is yet another triumph. “The Blind Side” tells the story of the creation and recruitment of a blue-chip offensive tackle, Michael Oher of the University of Mississippi.

But really, the book is about much more than college football recruitment. Given the incredible details of Mr. Oher’s story, drawn out here by Mr. Lewis with equal parts insight and sympathy, “The Blind Side” is actually about the American dream itself.

Football, and all the perks that came with it, clearly saved Michael Oher from himself. Born in the improbably-named Hurt Village in the seediest slums of Memphis, Tenn., Michael Oher had everything working against him as he approached adulthood.

Tested with an IQ of 80, scoring in the lowest percentiles of every academic aptitude test he ever took, it likely would not be hard to imagine Mr. Oher’s story turning out as sadly as that of many of his contemporaries from the blighted urban areas of the new South. His father had died and his mother had fallen prey to crack rock, and Mr. Oher and his many siblings were bounced around to foster homes.

It would have been easy enough to imagine Mr. Oher becoming a full-time thug, except for one thing. Mr. Oher, even as an adolescent, topped 6 feet 5 inches and 350 pounds. He believed that, if he had a future, it was in professional athletics — as the next Michael Jordan.

Little did he know, when he matriculated at the predominately white Briarcrest Academy outside of Memphis as a hardship case scholarship student, that his future was not in basketball or thug life at all. Rather, as more than one college scout was to put it, he was born to play left tackle.

Left tackle, as every serious football fan knows and as Mr. Lewis details here rather exhaustively, is the most important position on the offensive line. The left tackle is charged with protecting the blind side of the quarterback, ensuring that he is not sacked (or worse, permanently incapacitated, as the Redskins’ Joe Theismann was by New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor back in the day).

The left tackle is so important because defenses tend to tailor their schemes toward attacking the quarterback’s blind side. Someone playing that position must be blessed with optimum size, strength and foot speed. It was clear to the staff at Briarcrest that, even before Mr. Oher played one down of football, he had the makings of a left tackle.

It took a soupcon of persuasion to get the mammoth athlete to even suit up, but to the coaches, it was more than worth it. Prototype left tackles are exceedingly hard to come by, and they very often are the difference between winning and losing on the football field.

A staff member that took an especial interest in Mr. Oher’s development was Assistant Coach Sean Tuohy. This former Ole Miss gridiron star and independently wealthy Memphis businessman, along with his indomitable wife, took it upon himself to help the formerly hapless Michael Oher have the advantages he had lacked previously.

The Tuohys bought Mr. Oher clothes and food and, when they found he was essentially homeless, they took him into their family as one of their own. It was as if they found that, as they molded the football player, they could not help to mold the man. (And mold they did, to such a degree that even his tested IQ increased from 80 to 110.)

Toward the end of the book, we find that Mr. Oher has become part of the family to such a degree that he was named as a beneficiary in Mr. Tuohy’s will. That family story, heartwarming as it is, proves ancillary in the face of the larger narrative, and what it reveals about the business of major college athletics.

For a stalwart prospect like Michael Oher, there is no rest. No rest from the media glare, and no rest from the coaches descending upon him at all times, demanding an audience. Michael Lewis perhaps is at his best here when describing the coaches who would visit Mr. Oher and try to sell their programs.

Characters like the oafish and uncouth Phillip Fulmer of the University of Tennessee exist in direct contrast to professional slicksters like former Louisiana State head coach Nick Saban, currently in the N.F.L. coaching the Miami Dolphins, who engaged Mrs. Tuohy in detailed conversation about the nuances of her interior decorating.

Though the descriptions of these coaches animate the book, the story really is that of Mr. Oher developing into a left tackle and a full-grown man. The processes are symbiotic. Mr. Oher learned, very clearly, to harness his inner rage into drive blocking, and how to clear holes to fill the void within himself.

As Mr. Oher developed, the Briarcrest offense quickly became tailored to the strengths of the phenom: The play they would run, over and over, the “bread and butter,” would be the Gap play, run towards the left side of the line, where Mr. Oher would clear opponents away as if they were bags of mulch.

Mr. Oher ended up attending Sean Tuohy’s alma mater, as one would expect, and is a bright spot on an otherwise horrendous Ole Miss offensive line. In one sense, that is the point of the story.

But in another, more enduring sense, the point is that, given enough effort, even the hardest cases in our nation’s ghettos are not beyond redemption. Kudos all around — to the Tuohys for proving that such redemption is possible, and to Michael Lewis for bringing this incredible story to a mass audience.

A.G. Gancarski is a critic based in Jacksonville, Fla.


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