- The Washington Times - Friday, April 24, 2009

The compelling tale of Michael Oher is available in bookstores and coming to a theater near you, but the story continues to unfold.

An All-American who played at Mississippi, Oher (pronounced “oar”) likely will be one of at least four offensive tackles picked during the first round of the NFL Draft on Saturday, maybe by the Washington Redskins. Specifically, he plays left tackle, the position crucial to keeping a right-handed quarterback intact by protecting his blind side.

The importance of the left tackle in professional football became such that author Michael Lewis (“Moneyball”) decided to write about it. But his best-selling “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game” is not merely a football book. As his focal point, Lewis discovered Oher, an exceedingly large, poor black teenager whose father had been murdered and whose mother was a crack addict.

One of 13 siblings, he shuttled between Memphis, Tenn., foster homes and the street as well as nearly a dozen schools. He seemed destined for endless trouble until a former Mississippi point guard, Sean Tuohy (a Memphis Grizzlies broadcaster), and his wife, Leigh Anne, took in Oher. They enrolled him in a private Christian high school and eventually adopted him.

With a lot of help, Oher, who stands 6-foot-4 and used to weigh much more than his listed 309 pounds, turned his life around. He became a prep phenom, a star at Mississippi and a capable student. Now he will attend the draft in New York.

“The Blind Side,” meanwhile, is being made into a movie directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Rookie”) and starring Sandra Bullock. Shooting started this week in Atlanta. Quinton Aaron, a 6-7 actor who weighed close to 500 pounds before starting a rigorous conditioning program, plays Oher.

“What he went through and what he’s overcome and what he’s become, it’s a pretty incredible story,” Mississippi offensive line coach Mike Markuson said.

At the NFL scouting combine in February, Oher said he had not read the book. But since then, he said he has.

“It was all right,” he said. “I don’t have too many complaints. I see where some people reading it might think I’m not as smart, because that’s how the book read. But people write books to sell books, and they’ve got to put some things in it to make it interesting.”

He added: “It was a good book. It did real well in stores. I can’t complain about a book. Really, not many people get a book written about him.”

Amid the reams of draft analysis, nfldraftscout.com went so far as to say Oher has a “learning disability.” Other reports note that he might have difficulty learning the NFL playbook, and ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay called him one of the “three riskiest” picks, citing “character issues.”

But given that he could barely read when he moved in with the Tuohys, who hired tutors to work with him, Oher has progressed remarkably. He said he is 14 credit hours short of a degree and reportedly made the “chancellor’s list” at Mississippi, which requires a 3.5 grade-point average.

Entering the combine, every NFL team knew about Oher’s background and education. It was all in the book, but he claims they did not grill him about it.

“They just told me they just wanted to talk football,” he said. “It’s all about playing football and becoming an NFL player.”

Oher considered leaving school and entering the draft after his junior year but decided to return after Mississippi hired former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt. It worked out for all concerned: The Rebels went 9-4 and upset Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl, and Oher graded at 95 percent or better in three of his last four games.

“There was refinement,” Markuson said. “We protected the passer better, we ran better, and some of that was because of Mike. As the year went on, he got better and better. I thought the second half of the year, he was exceptional. We could really see a difference. He kept working, kept working. It was a neat story how it all unfolded.”

Markuson said Oher compares to the best offensive linemen he has ever coached, including Philadelphia Eagles All-Pro guard Shawn Andrews.

“Michael’s right up there,” Markuson said. “He’s very athletic; he’s gotten more physical. He’s a very fluid athlete. He can run. He looks like a left tackle.”

Markuson said a better comparison is with former Arkansas tackle Tony Ugoh, who now protects Peyton Manning’s blind side. Markuson calls them “foot athletes,” referring to their quickness and agility. “Both can run well,” he said.

Markuson leaned on Oher to prime his competitive juices and harped on him for “playing on his toes,” which hinders balance. Also, Oher “can become a more physical guy,” he said. “It’s always about being physical.”

But it’s also about the person. The Tuohys “did an exceptional job of raising him and helping him in his life,” Markuson said. “He’s well-rounded. Whatever’s gonna happen to him, he’s gonna take it, he’s gonna run with it, he’s gonna embrace the moment and try to be the best NFL player he can be.”

While sitting on a runway in Memphis preparing to take off on a recruiting trip in January, Markuson got a text message from Oher.

“He said, ‘Coach, I really want to thank you for coming to Ole Miss,’ ” Markuson said. “He was at the Senior Bowl at the time. He said, ‘Thank you for helping me be the kind of guy I am.’ It was one of those heartfelt deals. I didn’t ask him to do it. It was pretty neat. It put a smile on my face.”

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