Rescued By The Gridiron


Evolution of a Game

By Michael Lewis

Norton; 299pp; $24.95

( below)

Editor's Review

Four Stars
Star Rating

The Good A penetrating look at how football has changed, via the story of one underprivileged youth.

The Bad It's noticeably easy on colleges that hand out athletic scholarships to nonscholars.

The Bottom Line An engrossing if anguished story of serendipity and salvation.

Among pro football aficionados, the players who count the most are running backs, receivers, and quarterbacks. These are the "skill position" stars who make the acrobatic plays and get most of the postgame glory. But inside the front offices of the National Football League, another position commands equal respect: offensive left tackle.

Left tackles generally are less photogenic than their more celebrated teammates. They're big and wide, and sometimes their bellies jiggle. (An offensive lineman under 330 pounds is considered scrawny.) Yet players at few positions are more crucial to the success of an NFL team. Just ask the quarterbacks, whose blind sides get protected by left tackles.

In The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, Michael Lewis offers a penetrating tale of how the once-overlooked position has won a lofty status. Skillfully melding striking insights with generally solid reporting and storytelling, the author of Moneyball and Liar's Poker relates how that change was unwittingly aided by coaching whizzes Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells and the sport's all-time most feared pass rusher, Lawrence Taylor. With others, they unleashed market forces that created a new group of multimillionaires--by the 2005 season, the left tackle would be paid more than anyone on the field except the quarterback. They also reordered recruiting priorities for every college football coach.

The search for the next great left tackle can lead almost anywhere, as Lewis poignantly illustrates. At its core, this book is an account of perhaps the unlikeliest left tackle of all: a six-foot-five, 344-pound young African American with virtually no football experience, rescued from the mean streets of inner-city Memphis. Michael Oher barely knew his father, who died when the lad was a teenager. His crack-addicted mother, who spent her public assistance checks on fixes, was unable to care for him and his dozen siblings and half-siblings. He wandered aimlessly through the public school system, missing months of class at a time.

In 2002, at age 16, Oher (pronounced "Oar") arrived on the doorstep of Briarcrest Christian School, an overwhelmingly white, highly selective private school. An adult friend with whom he was living took him there in hopes he would be admitted. Administrators had never faced anyone quite like Oher, whose childhood traumas were evident in everything from his perpetual downward gaze to his reluctance to speak. "He seemed completely intimidated by authority. Almost nonverbal," noted the school's principal.

With many good reasons to say no to Oher--including a startling grade point average of 0.6--Briarcrest Christian said yes. And so began the transformation of a lost child in whom many white teachers, parents, classmates, and, above all, college football coaches took an intense interest.

Oher's salvation was his talent for sports, writes Lewis. For someone so big, he had amazing coordination and grace. He was a natural, excelling at any game he tried, and soon he was the star of the football team. By 2004, he was among the most prized college football prospects in the U.S., one whom big-time programs were courting nonstop.

Undeniably, Oher owed his new life to a committed group of white, mostly wealthy benefactors including Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, who became his legal guardians; Hugh Freeze, the Briarcrest football coach; and a host of tutors and teachers. While acknowledging their good deeds, Lewis explores, in all their complexity, the motives of these new FOM (Friends of Michael). Nothing is simple in Oher's life. Some of the favors extended to the young man appear to be richly repaid, if unintentionally. For instance, Oher ended up playing football at the University of Mississippi, where the Tuohys were alums and rabid fans and, surprise, Freeze became the new assistant coach.

At times, Lewis falters. The book is noticeably easy on the halls of ivy that offered him athletic scholarships though they were aware of his considerable academic shortcomings. And it's unclear exactly which colleges made such offers. Lewis writes that by the opening of the 2004 high school football season, "the only major football school that hadn't offered [Oher] a full scholarship was Penn State." I wondered if that could be true of the prestigious University of California at Berkeley, which finished No. 9 in the final Associated Press Top 25 college football poll his senior year. It isn't, according to a Cal-Berkeley spokesman. Lewis, in an e-mail, told this reviewer he was referring only to "the perennials--like Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida, Florida State...and a half dozen others."

Yet such nits hardly detract from Lewis' overall reporting and analysis. His book is an engrossing, if anguished, story of serendipity and salvation. And as long as Michael Oher is in shoulder pads, it's a story without an end.


By Mark Hyman


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