Michael Oher was a young man with a promising football career when Michael Lewis captured his story in “The Blind Side,” a best-selling book that was made into an Oscar-winning movie starring Quinton Aaron and Sandra Bullock.
The character in that narrative — a Black football player from a destitute background who was taken in by a white family and launched into Division I college football and then the N.F.L. — has been frozen in amber since the book came out in 2006.
The real Oher, now 37, has had a more complicated trajectory. On Monday he announced that he is suing to formally end his legal relationship with the family that took him in, claiming he had been tricked into signing away his decision-making powers and rights to his own story.
Critics have noted that blockbuster renditions of Oher’s story seem to charge past his interior life. “One thing mostly missing from the book is Mr. Oher’s own voice,” Janet Maslin wrote in her review of “The Blind Side.” In his review of the screen adaptation, A.O. Scott described it as a “live-action, reality-based version of a Disney cartoon” in which “a wealthy, white Southern family adopts a poor Black teenager, cultivating his athletic gifts and providing him with the comfort and safety of a happy, loving home.”
Oher offers his own view in two memoirs —“I Beat the Odds” and “When Your Back’s Against the Wall” — written with Don Yaeger. The setup is the same: The sport is football, the place is Memphis and the benefactors are Leigh Anne Tuohy and Sean Tuohy, who opened their home to Oher when he was a student at a local private school.
But, in these accounts, the ball is in Oher’s hands.
“I was one of 12 kids,” wrote Oher in his second book. “I don’t remember anyone ever having a job and no one in my family graduated from high school before me. Just about every adult in my life was addicted to crack cocaine. I barely knew my father before he was killed. I was on my own from age 7, going back and forth from foster care to living on the street. I attended 11 schools in nine years.”
Reading these memoirs back to back, you might pick up a few hints at the motivation behind his legal battle. You definitely see the evolution of Oher’s stance on his relationship with Tuohys, which appears to have shifted over time.
On the dedication page of “I Beat the Odds,” which came out in 2011 and spent seven weeks on the best-seller list, Oher wrote, “To the Tuohy family, you are truly a blessing to me. Thank you for helping me to turn my dreams into reality.”
In the book’s prologue, he mentions that the Tuohys’ book, “In a Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving” (2010), came out while “I Beat the Odds” was underway.
Oher alludes to at least one conflict involving the family. “I’ve read some newspaper articles recently where Leigh Anne Tuohy is quoted as saying that I would either be dead from a shooting or the bodyguard to some gang leader if I hadn’t been taken in by their family,” he writes. “I think that had to have been a misquote because despite the sensationalist things that make for a more dramatic story, what my family knows and what I know is that I would have found my way out of the ghetto one way or another. Failure was not an option for me.”
For the most part, though, Oher comes across as optimistic and upbeat, grateful for the many people who helped him over the years: his fourth grade teacher, a foster mother, the former coach who secured his spot at Briarcrest Christian Academy, his caseworkers, his teammates, their families and, of course, the Tuohys.
Oher recalls how they treated him “like a member of the family — a real family — and not just as another mouth to feed or the reason for a monthly support check.”
He emphasizes how he entered into a kind of partnership with them: “I was trying to open doors and they were trying to show me the way through. It never would have worked if it had been one-sided: just me pushing but not knowing what to do with the opportunity; or them trying to guide me but me not being willing to do any of the work. There had to be a give and take.”
The Tuohys had one condition for Oher: “They wanted to make sure I was going to keep a relationship with my birth family. At no point did they want there to be any kind of a feeling like they had taken me away from my mother, or kept me from her and made me cut all ties.”
Oher writes that he believed he became a became a legal member of the Tuohy family the summer after he graduated from Briarcrest. “Since I was already over the age of 18 and considered an adult by the state of Tennessee, Sean and Leigh Anne would be named as my ‘legal conservators.’ They explained to me that it means pretty much the exact same thing as ‘adoptive parents,’ but that the laws were just written in a way that took my age into account. Honestly, I didn’t care what it was called. I was just happy that no one could argue that we weren’t legally what we already knew was real: We were a family.”
Later, Oher describes Michael Lewis as “a childhood friend of Sean’s” who was “in town to talk to Sean for an article he was writing about their high school basketball coach.” He writes, “It seemed to really throw Lewis off to see me in the house with everyone acting as if it was the most natural thing in the world for a big kid from the ghetto to be working through algebra problems at the dining room table.”
In “When Your Back’s Against the Wall,” which came out earlier this month, Oher only mentions the Tuohys by name a single time. They do not appear in the acknowledgments.
The book, a hybrid of autobiography and self-help, has a weary, disillusioned tone. Oher determinedly packages the obstacles he’s encountered — “the wall of the projects, the wall of hunger, the wall of homelessness” — into lessons others can learn from, but admits that he’s had trouble rebounding from challenges, including obesity and a serious concussion. “I found myself in hard times again,” he writes. “The struggles I’ve faced these last few years — job loss and battles with mental health — haven’t really been shared with the public.”
Oher is tired of living in the shadow the movie attached to him: “Honestly, it’s a battle for me these days. Think about what it would be like if everywhere you went, people thought they knew who you were because they’d seen a dramatic big-screen movie version of your life. Your pains and triumphs. Your struggles.”
He continues, “As the years would go on, my workhorse mentality would be downplayed and eventually overshadowed by something that became almost a dirty word to me: fame.”
Oher ended up liking Lewis’s book, which spent 42 weeks on the best-seller list, “pretty well” but he objects to being depicted in “my so-called movie” as a “dumb kid” who needed to be taught how to play football. In fact, he’d long known how to play, and been well aware that sports would be his ticket out of a housing project called Hurt Village.
“Situations get exaggerated for the sake of Hollywood,” Oher writes in “When Your Back’s Against the Wall.” He goes on, “There has been so much created from ‘The Blind Side’ that I am grateful for, which is why you might find it as a shock that the experience surrounding the story has also been a large source of some of my deepest hurt and pain over the past 14 years. Beyond the details of the deal, the politics and the money behind the book and movie, it was the principle of the choices some people made that cut me the deepest.”
Finally, Oher writes, “After the movie came out, the narrative downplayed some of the qualities that make me who I am. That I am self-taught. That I’m intuitive. That I work for things. The fictional story swept all of that away. It made it look like I was sitting there waiting for a handout. It cheapened those countless days of shaking off the cold and getting to class. The years of survival, resisting the streets, making the most of myself. For the sake of a better story, the movie suggested that some of the character traits that most define me are not true.”