THE BLIND SIDE: Evolution of a Game
By Michael Lewis.
Norton, $24.95, 299 pp.
In liberal Flint, Mich., birthplace of the UAW and more racially segregated than just about any city in the nation, I can't count the times a "progressive" has used the fact that I attended a Christian to disqualify me from offering a legitimate opinion on public education.
The assumption – it's not even framed as an accusation but as an everybody-knows-this matter of fact – is Christian schools are just another example of white flight by closet segregationists. Once, a public schoolteacher called the newspaper I freelanced for and stated that because my children attended Christian schools, I should not be allowed to review books – especially books by Christina Hoff Sommers.
If I were king for a day, I'd give every one of those pusillanimous twerps a required reading assignment: Michael Lewis's latest book, The Blind Side. This instant classic about a gentle giant of a black boy who was about to be socially promoted into literal oblivion by the Memphis public schools before being rescued by a Christian school and their white conservative patrons, is the perfect antidote to liberal smugness.
Lewis – whose past works include Moneyball, a great book about the business of baseball, and Liar's Poker, a bestselling memoir about life on Wall Street – had intended to write a sports book about the latest football phenomenon, the superstar left defensive tackle. Then he stumbled onto the story of Michael Oher.
Thanks to monster pass rushers like Lawrence Taylor, who can literally destroy quarterbacks by rushing them from the blind side, what used to be one of the lowest-paid positions in the NFL is now one of the highest. The left defensive end, a position once thought interchangeable with the rest of the unit, is now considered a skill position.
It is, however, a position that requires a particular, not to say peculiar, set of characteristics: a 300-pound-plus lineman who is quick, fast, and athletic.
When a concerned adult brought Michael Oher to apply for enrollment at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis, no one thought he would ever be eligible to play high school sports, let alone become one of the most sought-after college recruits in the country.
Michael was not just unsuited for the academic rigors of Briarcrest; he wasn't ready for life in general. The depths of his ignorance could not be plumbed: He didn't know what an ocean was, what his real birthday was or even his legal name. He could barely converse about anything other than basketball.
Even after Michael had somewhat adjusted socially, when football ratings guru Tom Lemming came to interview him for his 100 Prep List, Michael sat through the session and barely said a word. The one thing he had learned from his time on the streets and in his interaction with public institutions was not to answer questions about himself. He would say the bare minimum to make the questions stop and make the questioner go away.
Briarcrest's faculty had no notion of helping their football team. Instead, a series of adults could not bring themselves to send Michael away -- knowing that the system had already failed this kid, and he would end up derelict, a criminal or dead. Out of Christian duty, each went out of his or her way to try to make something out of this shy giant.
Briarcrest, like many other private schools in the Memphis area were indeed established in the 1970s in reaction to a forced busing decree. But the racial element has been defused. Briarcrest's students were so welcoming of "Big Mike" that the introverted young man was a little freaked out by it at first.
Sean Tuohy, the best basketball player to come out of Ole Miss, became an unofficial assistant coach for Briarcrest once his business of owning 90 or so Taco Bells could mostly run itself. His first real contact with Michael came when he saw the boy hanging around the lunch room but not eating. After Michael denied that it wasn't because he could not afford lunch, Sean quietly told the cafeteria staff to run a tab for the boy on him.
Not long after, Sean was driving with his wife, Leigh Anne – a former Ole Miss cheerleader who, as Michael and everyone who got in her way would find out, is 100 pounds of unstoppable energy – when they saw Michael walking down a wintry street in athletic shorts. Michael first told them he was heading to a nonexistent basketball practice, then admitted he was going to the gym because it was warm.
Lewis writes, "As they drove off, Sean looked over and saw tears streaming down Leigh Anne's face. And he thought: Uh, oh, my wife's about to take over." Leigh Anne insisted on taking Michael to buy him shoes and clothes, "God gives us money to see how we handle it," was Leigh Anne's motto. During the course of the day, she discovered that Michael had no permanent residence. He had a whole network of people - increasingly from the school -- that he would spend a night with, then move on.
That day, Michael Oher was not only as well outfitted as any kid at Briarcrest, he had a home - and, in short order, a rich, white Republican Evangelical family.
Michael went from having no home to staying in one of Memphis's most lavish residences and from having a dozen or so half-siblings with different fathers and mothers to having a popular cheerleader sister and a little brother to play video games with (and who would later shamelessly work the angles of having a top recruit for a big brother).
Meanwhile, he went from a system that labeled him borderline retarded with an 80 IQ to working with tutors who would make him a legitimate, if unorthodox, student.
Lewis may have started The Blind Side as another sports business book. He still makes a stab at the subject that originally interested him – the evolution of the position of left tackle – but readers who are attracted by other parts of the story and don't care about football history can easily skip chapters 5 and 9, and get back to the inspiring story of Michael Oher and the Tuohys.
If the book has a weakness, it's that while Lewis writes that there was no question that the people in the school cared more about Michael's soul than his football skills, he doesn't engage directly what that means. Lewis goes into great detail about how individual teachers tutored Michael, but he does not attend a chapel service or relate any conversations about how a kid who walked in off the street would be taken in by the staff of this "evangelical" school. The closest he comes is when a teacher says, "Michael was saved at Briarcrest."
That means Lewis avoids the heart of the matter and deals with the Christian culture of Briarcrest from a safe distance. He gets close, just not close enough.
That said, The Blind Side is a perfect holiday gift for anyone who likes the against-the-odds sports story or enjoys real-life Horatio Alger stories. In Hollywoodspeak, it's Rudy meets Finding Forrester meets The Miracle Worker.
The Blind Side is a great American story.
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