on 10 March 2011
I am surprised at how many people have chosen to mis-categorise this story as heart-warming and uplifting when, in fact, it is the complete opposite. It is, in fact a story of unadulterated greed from almost all the principal characters. It is also (and perhaps it is unintended, though I could never be sure of Lewis' intentions), a damning indictment of what is wrong with the American Dream particularly as it impacts on African-Americans.
The Blind Side is a story that exemplifies all that is wrong for inner-city, underprivileged African-Americans: that the only routes out are through gangs/drugs or sporting excellence. Michael Oher gets lucky because he is built to play left tackle. As a result, he comes under the influence and support of the Tuohy family. Would he have been supported and tutored had he been 5 foot nothing and a physical weakling? Of course not. This is a story about how if you are underprivileged and a physical freak you get the breaks and the rest are left in the projects. In other words, it's about money and greed. Oher is destined for sporting stardom, everyone sees his potential and jumps on the bandwagon.
What is so thoroughly depressing is that by the end, even Michael Oher himself doesn't recognise the injustice of the system. He too has been brainwashed in the ideals of meritocracy or social Darwinism (i.e. that if you work hard enough anyone can be make it and if you fail, you deserve it). At the end of the book, Oher is reported as commenting that he has little contact with his mother and siblings and remarks that they are lazy, need to hear the word "No", and, most damningly, he remarks that they had the same chances he had (seriously!).
This is, of course, utter nonsense - Oher was adopted by a millionaire family, privately educated, privately tutored and groomed for college based on his physical potential alone while his siblings were left to run away from foster homes and live rough in the projects. So instead of giving a helping hand to his family and others in need, he adopts exactly the sort of mantra and mindset of the super-rich white Republican milieu he now moves in: "I made it because I worked harder than you, you choose to live in the ghetto on welfare so don't come to me for handouts".
That Oher doesn't recognise that his assent from the street to the penthouse is not a simple matter of merit and hard work and everything to with blind luck and a social/economic system that places higher value on sporting achievement is disappointing, but given the interactions reported in the book, hardly surprising.
I am also surprised that so few people found the relationship between Oher and the Tuohys slightly disturbing. Obviously Oher would not have come under their wing had he not been a prospective lineman, but there is merit in what the Tuohys do, certainly, and they must be applauded for their charity and generally caring attitude. But it's the details that make them appear so unlikeable, like telling Oher when he learns that his father has died that it's for the best as when he becomes successful his father would only have made claims on his money. The things that the Tuohys value and think Oher should know and appreciate are also puzzling: Ms Tuohy orders everything at an Italian restaurant so Oher can appreciate the difference between pesto and puttanesca. Well that will avoid embarassment at the country club I suppose. They buy him a backpack that is the preserve of little rich kids, and when Oher questions their choice, he's informed that he is himself now a little rich kid. Charming. The Tuohys come across as treating Oher like a pet or a worthy social experiment rather than a human.
What the Blind Side does reveal is the naked greed of everyone involved in Oher's rise as a left tackle and the appalling disparity of wealth and influence in the US. Like the high school and college coaches who drool over him and offer what amount to little more than bribes to get him to play for them. Or Sean Jr demanding privileges from prospective college coaches and then questioning why his sister and Oher aren't written out of his parent's will as they are/will be independently rich.
The disparity between rich and poor is shocking. On one side of Memphis there are the ghettos, on the other families with private jets whose daughters date the billionaire owners of FedEx. For a poor black boy, the only way he can move from one to the other is a result of sporting prowess. This is not something to celebrate, it is an indictment on society, as is the fact that by the end, the poor black boy thinks this is how it should be.
Since I'd greatly enjoyed Lewis' baseball book "Moneyball", I figured this would make a nice companion to read during the NFL playoffs. The book's subtitle is "Evolution of a Game", so I expected a somewhat similar book looking at the transformations underway in professional football. And to a certain degree, that content is there, via a brief discussion of the rise of the passing game and Bill Walsh's crucial role in this, as well as Lawrence Taylor's impact on the game. The book opens with a blow-by-blow of LT's famous leg-snapping sack of Joe Theisman -- an event I vividly recall watching on TV as a 12-year-old Redskins fan. This leads off the discussion of role of the left tackle and this position's counterintuitive rise in the NFL pay scale. All of which segues into the book's main subject: Michael Oher.
Oher is one of thirteen children born to an alcoholic, drug-addicted mother in the West Memphis ghetto. He grew up in total poverty with her, in and out of various foster homes and various public schools. Along the way, he filled out into a 6' 6" 340 pound behemoth with natural grace and speed unnatural to those of his size. He also came to the attention of Lewis' old elementary school classmate, and ex-college star point guard Sean Tuohy. Now a successful businessman and pro-basketball announcer, Tuohy takes an interest in MIchael and works the system to get him into his daughter's elite Christian prep school.
The lily-white conservative Tuohy family's quasi-adoption of Michael, along with his meteoric rise to prominence in college football recruiting circles forms the central storyline. The Tuohy's basically work their upper-crust and sports connections to shepard Michael along, pressuring people, exploiting loopholes, and using their money to smooth his path. Lewis originally wrote about this for the New York Times Magazine, and in many ways, the book feels like an extended magazine piece. It's essentially a very smooth and readable extended human interest profile. The main problem is that the book has no ending -- it ends with Oher a sophomore at Mississippi. The more natural ending would have been two years later, with Oher getting drafted and about to get enter the maelstrom of the NFL.
Imagine that you are a large (over 300 pounds) African-American teenager who lives in the worst part of Memphis. You never knew your father (and he will soon be murdered). Your mother is addicted to drugs and doesn't do much to provide for you. You have no bed. You don't know where your next meal is coming from. You haven't gone to enough school to know how to do much of anything.
What do you want out of life? You want to be Michael Jordan . . . just like millions of other teenagers. You've spent endless hours on the playgrounds practicing as a shooting guard.
What will you become in a handful of years? One of the most heavily recruited college football players in the United States and a top professional prospect who people are watching as you learn how to be a left tackle.
The story of how Michael Oher made this transition is one of the most amazing, moving, and fascinating real-life stories it has ever been my pleasure to read. Whether or not you like football, you'll find this book to be impossible to put down.
Michael Lewis does a remarkable job in telling the story. Mr. Lewis was fortunate to have a long-term friendship with Sean Tuohy, one of the many people who helped Michael Oher fulfill his potential. As a result, Mr. Lewis enjoyed amazing access to the people involved in Michael's life . . . and eventually got some help from Michael as well.
The Blind Side is four stories in one:
1. Michael's life before he met the Tuohy family.
2. Michael's progress from being ignorant to becoming a highly recruited college football prospect.
3. Michael's adjustment to college.
4. The changes in American professional football that created an irresistible demand for someone with Michael's physical capabilities.
Each of these stories would make a fine book. To be able to pursue all four stories at the same time is an unexpected delight.
But the story's not over. Michael is now a sophomore at Ole Miss. Will he make it to the NFL? You can follow his career and find out. Perhaps other amazing chapters lie ahead. Who knows?
There's another story this book doesn't tell, but implies: The world is full of talented youth who could make great contributions . . . but they need a lot of help from people who care and are determined to help the youth succeed. For ever Michael Oher, there must be millions who languish. How can we change that? You'll be haunted by that question after you read this book.
If you are looking for keen insights into American football that you don't already have, you'll probably be disappointed. Any fan of professional football knows that a team's potential chances of success are only as good as the blocking of the offensive line. Clearly, the left tackle is the best insurance against a maimed right-handed quarterback, something no fan wants. You've probably noticed that the top left tackles get paid almost as much as quarterbacks. The history of how the Bill Walsh-type passing offenses have become so important is something you've lived through.
The professional football material will, however, be helpful to those who don't know football and want to appreciate why people have been going gaga over Michael Oher.
How can you help an at-risk youth today?
on 11 August 2013
As a non American and non American Football fanatic I was worried about reading this book in the wonder that I would have no clue regarding the terminology and struggle understanding the detail. However this book covers all - it allows those with knowledge of the game to appreciate what Michael Oher is achieving but also allows those (like me) who have no clue, the same ability to appreciate the game and Michael's achievements.
A fantastic read and I'm so glad I wanted to get the more intrinsic detail after watching the film. Whilst the film is AMAZING it does not do the book justice
on 22 April 2015
Another Michael Lewis book, another hit. This and Moneyball change your POV of the two great American sports, but in ways that upend expectations. While Moneyball entertained, this one inspires. So much so, it was also picked up and made into a decent film.This book also asks pointed questions about American society. Michael Oher - the hero - is a huge black kid, physically gifted and mentally, underwhelming to say the least. He is both learning disabled and talented. He is literally adopted by a well meaning, rich white couple, who take him on without any obvious reasons other than the goodness of their hearts. Or so Lewis says.
This is his least honest book. It comes out in the end that Lewis and Sean Touhys were best friends as children (Sean is the father!). Obviously Lewis knows this little fact could compromise the tale, so he buries it till the end. It is probably the reason he gets the story so 'inside', why he believes the Touhys are pure of heart, and not exploiting the poor huge black boy. They are a rich family, so there is nothing to gain from Michael's success.
And what a success he is - he is a physical freak, but a useful one. Huge and very athletic, ideally suited to play the left tackle role so vital to modern American Football. He meets his match in Leigh Anne, the Sandra Bullock character, a controlling uber-bitch like Scarlett O'Hara. Lewis turns this into an entertaining, surprising true story with all the trimmings. He is in his element - money, sports, analytics, and an angle.
Is there anyone better at writing these kind of stories? Not that I'm aware of.
on 24 January 2016
Lewis builds great stories in sections, and this book is a great example of his style. An amazing story and well worth reading even if, like me, you saw the movie staring Sandra Bullock and thought you knew it.
Three decades on from the first regular screening of the NFL on Channel 4, there is clearly a sizeable audience for American football in the UK, as evidenced by the overwhelming interest in the Giants-Dolphins regular season game due to be played at Wembley in October 2007. The people who expressed an interest in that game, amongst others, would do well to read this book, but then even non-aficionados will find plenty to interest them, without prior knowledge of the game.
Nominally about the development of the left tackle position, and principally about one player in that position, it transpires to be about much more.
Michael Oher, the real-life protagonist, spent the first sixteen years of his life in the ghetto of West Memphis, Tennessee. Part of the book is dedicated to relating his extraordinary path from those early deprivations, the knife edge he treads between being sucked into the world of drugs and his actual path of salvation through his apparently innate size, strength, speed and sporting aptitude which ultimately furnish him with his ticket out.
Delivered up to a private Christian school by de facto guardian Big Tony, as an indirect result of Tony's mom's deathbed wish, the school's head and sports coaches immediately see an opportunity to use Big Mike's gifts. Although there is some definite self-interest involved, it is of the enlightened variety, and it is to the school's credit that it gives him the opportunities it does, stressing the boy's education as a priority.
Despite Michael's quite shocking backstory, it results at times in some amusing episodes. The fluid state of Michael's identity (too complex to explain here) compels his new foster mom, Leigh Anne Tuohy, to engage in a day of to and fro intrigue in order to procure sufficient documentation for him to obtain a driver's licence. Michael and Big Tony's son Steven, also enrolled at the school, are incredulous at the casual attitude of white folks to their possessions - they leave them lying around the school as if nobody is going to steal them! And what's more, for a Christian school, isn't it odd that, unlike at public school, there are no free meals? (For some time, Michael's straitened circumstances are completely unknown to the school.)
But the backstory also provides a fascinating exposé of the scandalous lack of a social safety net for Michael and people like him in the world's number one economy.
A part of the book's strength is that Michael Lewis plays with Oher's story's chronology. This achieves dramatic effect as we are able to share Oher's benefactors' shock at the discovery of some of its details.
The other thing Lewis does well is to intersperse the left tackle development story, also shaken up chronologically, with Michael Oher's, from Bill Walsh's (qualified) invention of the West Coast Offense (pardon spelling here), the role of the linebacker (notably Lawrence Taylor) in suppressing it, and the consequent need to protect the quarterback (exemplified in blood-curdling fashion by the book's opening sequence in which LT is involved in the termination of Joe Theismann's career, an event I, and probably many of my fellow UK-based football fans, recall with a shiver).
The book ultimately operates on several levels: as a biography, as a book about football, and as a social documentary. Despite my personal misgivings about faith schools, the one that takes Michael in impresses with its philanthropy. My one caveat is the revelation at the end of the book that Lewis and Sean Tuohy, ultimately Oher's adoptive father, are old college friends, disqualifying the author from role of neutral bystander.
But it's undoubtedly entertaining and well-written, and Lewis has a fine sense of humour - his comment about Sean Tuohy, that he would know a poem being "as likely as Sylvia Plath hitting a jump shot at the buzzer", had me laughing out loud (on a plane). However, he misses the opportunity to capitalise fully on a mention of Pygmalion on the same page. But that just gives me the opportunity to draw the comparison between the stories of Michael Oher and Eliza Doolittle.
The book ends before Michael's NFL career begins to take shape. Is that too soon? Well, I guess it gives Lewis a chance for Blind Side 2, but in truth the Pygmalion story ended when Michael went off to college. Job done. If you want to know more you can go to First Down, Sports Illustrated or NFL.com. Lewis has told, and told well, the story those guys won't be covering.
on 25 April 2016
An excellent heart-warming story which confirms that fact is often stranger than fiction. The "warts and all" portrayals of the characters involved is greatly to the credit of the author who has resisted the temptation to idealise them. A glossary explaining the abbreviations used would be of great assistance to British and other non-US readers.
on 16 March 2015
I've never taken any interest in American Football until I saw the file 'the Blind Side' and saw the extras including the discussion between the film's Director/sreenwriter ant the author of this book. This in turn led me to read this book and am so pleased I did. I now know something about football, not much but I will learn more. Also the appalling waste of talent of poor black southern state Americans and their lack of education opportunities
What an inspiration is Michael Oher, and Sean and Leigh-Anee who cared for him when he needed it and they could. Glad I wasn't filmed during my reading of this book, not nice to see a man in his mid seventies in tears.
on 1 May 2009
I'm a huge football fan but actually don't read that many books which are football related. Normally they are the usual ghost written ramblings of some former player or coach which have the odd interesting after dinner type anecdote but generally are very formulaic.
Not this book.
I was attracted to it from some word of mouth recommendation. Really glad I bought it.
Gives some really interesting back ground on the evolution of the passing game, o-line play and blind side pass rush in the NFL. Also gives some insite into the College recruiting process. Which is good if you are a football fan.
But more than that it tells a fascinating human interest story of a poor black kid from New Orleans with a drug and alcohol addicted dead beat mother, multiple brothers and sisters from various absent fathers and zero education. This kid just happend to be 6-5 and weigh 300+ lbs at age 14 and have great athletic ability.
Taken in by a rich white family who support him through high school this story tells of his journey adapting to a middle class upbringing, his education and of course the development of his footbal career.
As a postscript the book ends with him being recruited to Ole Miss a Division 1 College football programme on a full scholarship. He was just drafted to the NFL by the Baltimore Ravens with the 20th overall pick in the 1st round of the 2009 NFL draft.