Written by Michael Lewis (Moneyball & Liar's Poker) . . . Michael Oher is a top football prospect, but there are a lot of things that had to go right for him in life to get there . . . after a lot of things went wrong . . . it's a very very long, but worthwhile read . . .
Terrible to think that a lot of people are given up on . . .
The Ballad of Big Mike
September 24, 2006
By MICHAEL LEWIS
I. Looking for the Next Anti-Lawrence Taylor
As he drove into Memphis in March 2004, Tom Lemming thought that everything about Michael Oher, including his surname, was odd. He played for a small private school, the Briarcrest Christian School, with no history of generating Division I college football talent. The Briarcrest Christian School team didn’t have many black players either, and Michael Oher was black. But what made Michael Oher especially peculiar was that no one in Memphis had anything to say about him. Lemming had plenty of experience “discovering” great players. Each year he drove 50,000 to 60,000 miles and met, and grilled, between 1,500 and 2,000 high-school juniors while selecting All-American teams for ESPN and College Sports TV. He got inside their heads months before the college recruiters were allowed to shake their hands. Lemming had made some calls and found that the coaches in and around Memphis either didn’t know who Michael Oher was or didn’t think he was any good. He hadn’t made so much as the third-string all-city team. He hadn’t had his name or picture in any newspaper. Had Lemming Googled him, “Oher” would have yielded nothing on Michael. The only proof of his existence was a grainy videotape some coach had sent him out of the blue.
From the tape alone, Lemming couldn’t say how much Michael Oher had helped his team, just that he was big, fast and fantastically explosive. The last time he met a player with this awesome array of physical gifts was back in 1993, when he went to the Sizzler Steakhouse in Sandusky, Ohio, and interviewed a high-school junior working behind the counter named Orlando Pace. “Michael Oher’s athletic ability and his body — the only thing you could compare it to was Orlando Pace,” Lemming said later. “He kind of even looked like Orlando Pace. He wasn’t as polished as Orlando. But Orlando wasn’t Orlando in high school.” Pace had gone from Lemming’s All-American teams to Ohio State, where he played left tackle and won the Outland Trophy, given to the nation’s finest college lineman. In 1997, he signed the largest rookie contract in National Football League history, to play left tackle for the St. Louis Rams, and later signed an even bigger one (seven years, $52.8 million). Pace became, and remained, the team’s highest-paid player — more highly paid than the Rams’ star quarterback, Marc Bulger; the star running back, Marshall Faulk; and the star wide receiver, Isaac Bruce. He was an offensive lineman, but not just any offensive lineman. He protected the quarterback’s blind side.
When Tom Lemming walked into the football meeting room at the University of Memphis looking for Michael Oher, the ghost of Lawrence Taylor was with him. The great New York Giants linebacker of the 1980’s was the first of a series of speedy and exceptionally violent pass rushers who tilted the finances on the N.F.L.’s line of scrimmage. The players on the blind side of a right-handed quarterback — both offensive and defensive — became, on average, far more highly paid than the players on the visible side. By 2004, the five most highly paid N.F.L. left tackles were earning an average of nearly $3 million a year more than the five most highly paid right tackles and more than the five most highly paid running backs and wide receivers.
When Tom Lemming looked at left tackles, he thought in terms of others he had selected for his All-American teams who went on to be stars in the N.F.L.: Pace, Jonathan Ogden, Tony Boselli, Walter Jones. These people looked nothing like most human beings or even like the football players Lemming interviewed in the late 1970’s and 80’s. Among this population of giants, the left-tackle type still stood out. Freak of nature: when he found one of these rare beasts, that’s the phrase that popped into Lemming’s mind. When Lemming put the high-school junior Ogden on the cover of his annual prep report in 1992, Ogden was 6-foot-9 and weighed 320 pounds. (He would fill out in college.) When he did the same with Pace the next year, Pace stood 6-foot-6 and weighed 310 pounds. (And hadn’t stopped growing.) The ideal left tackle was big, but a lot of people were big. What set him apart were his more subtle specifications. He was wide in the rear and massive in the thighs: the girth of his lower body lessened the likelihood that Lawrence Taylor, or his successors, would run right over him. He had long arms: pass rushers tried to get in tight to the blocker’s body, then spin off of it, and long arms helped to keep them at bay. He had giant hands: when he grabbed a defender, it meant something.
But size alone couldn’t cope with the threat to the quarterback’s blind side, because that threat was also fast. The ideal left tackle also had great feet. Incredibly nimble and quick feet. Quick enough feet, ideally, that the prospect of racing him in a five-yard dash made the team’s running backs uneasy. He had the body control of a ballerina and the agility of a basketball player. The combination was just incredibly rare. And so, ultimately, very valuable.
By the 2004 N.F.L. season, the average N.F.L. left tackle’s salary was $5.5 million a year, and the left tackle had become the second-highest-paid position on the team, after the quarterback. In Super Bowl XL, played on Feb. 5, 2006, the highest-paid player on the field was the Seattle Seahawks’ quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck — who was just finishing the first season of a new six-year deal worth $8.2 million a year. The second-highest-paid player on the field was the man who protected Hasselbeck’s blind side, the left tackle Walter Jones, who made $7.5 million a year.
After he saw the tape of Michael Oher, Lemming tried to reach the kid by phone. He found out that his surname was pronounced “oar,” but that’s about all he learned. He was accustomed to the social lives of high-school football stars: the handlers, the harems, the informal advisers, the coaches. The kids Lemming sought to meet were not, typically, hard to find. This kid not only had no handlers; he didn’t appear to exist outside of school. He had no home; he didn’t even have a phone number. Or so said the Briarcrest Christian School when Lemming called looking for Michael Oher. Briarcrest officials were mystified by Lemming’s interest in their student, but they were also polite and finally agreed to have someone drive Michael over to the University of Memphis football facility for a face-to-face interview. “I’ll never forget when he walked into the room,” Lemming told me not long ago. “He looked like a house walking into a bigger house. He walked in the door, and he barely fit through the door.” He wasn’t just huge. He was huge in exactly the right ways. “There’s the big-blob 300-pounder, and there’s the solid kind,” Lemming went on to say. “He was the solid kind. You also see big guys, tall guys who weigh a lot, but they have thin legs. They’re fine in high school, but in college they’ll get pushed around. He was just massive everywhere.”
What happened next was the strangest encounter of Lemming’s 28-year career as a football scout. Michael Oher sat down at the table across from him. . .and refused to speak. “He shook my hand and then didn’t say a word,” Lemming recalled. (“His hands — they were huge!”) Lemming asked a few questions; Michael Oher just kept staring right through him. And soon enough Lemming decided further interaction was pointless. Michael Oher left, and he left behind blank forms and unanswered questions. Every other high-school football player in America was dying for Lemming to invite him to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Michael Oher had left his invitation on the table.
What never crossed Tom Lemming’s mind was that the player he would soon rank the No. 1 offensive lineman in the nation, and perhaps the finest left-tackle prospect since Orlando Pace, hadn’t the faintest notion of who Lemming was or why he was asking him all these questions. For that matter, he didn’t even think of himself as a football player. And he had never played left tackle in his life.
II. School of Hard Knocks, West Memphis Branch
When the file on Michael Oher from the Memphis City Schools hit his desk in the summer of 2002, Steve Simpson, the principal of Briarcrest Christian School, was frankly incredulous. The boy, now 16, had a measured I.Q. of 80, which put him in mankind’s ninth percentile. An aptitude test he took in eighth grade measured his “ability to learn” and placed him in the sixth percentile. The numbers looked like misprints: in a rich white private school like Briarcrest, you never saw single-digit numbers under the column marked “percentile.” Of course, logically, you knew such people must exist; for someone to be in the 99th percentile, someone else had to be in the first. But you didn’t expect to meet them at the Briarcrest Christian School. Academically, Briarcrest might not be the most ambitious school. It spent more time and energy directing its students to Jesus Christ than to Harvard. But the students all went on to college. And they all had at least an average I.Q.
In his first nine years of school, Michael Oher was enrolled in 11 different institutions, and that included a gap of 18 months, around age 10, when he apparently did not attend school at all. Either that or the public schools were so indifferent to his presence that they neglected to register it formally. Not that Oher actually showed up at the schools where he was enrolled. Even when he received credit for attending, he was sensationally absent: 46 days of a single term of his first-grade year, for instance. His first first-grade year, that is; Michael Oher repeated first grade. He repeated second grade, too. And yet the school system presented these early years as the most accomplished of his academic career. They claimed that right through the fourth grade he was performing at “grade level.” How could they know when, according to these transcripts, he hadn’t even attended the third grade?
Simpson, who had spent 30-plus years in area public schools, including 29 in Memphis, knew what everyone who had even a brief brush with the Memphis public schools knew: they passed kids up to the next grade because they found it too much trouble to flunk them. They functioned as an assembly line churning out products never meant to be market-tested. At several schools, Michael Oher had been given F’s in reading his first term and C’s the second term, which allowed him to finish the school year with D’s — they were giving him grades just to get rid of him. And get rid of him they did: seldom did the child return to the school that passed him. The year before Simpson got his file, Michael Oher passed ninth grade at a high school called Westwood. According to his transcripts, he missed 50 days of school that year. Fifty days! At Briarcrest, the rule was that if a student misses 15 days of any class, he has to repeat the class no matter his grade. And yet Westwood had given Michael Oher just enough D’s to move him along. Even when you threw in the B in world geography, clearly a gift from the Westwood basketball coach who taught the class, the grade-point average the student would bring with him to Briarcrest began with a zero: 0.6.
If there was a less promising academic record, Simpson hadn’t seen it. Simpson guessed, rightly, that the Briarcrest Christian School hadn’t seen anything like Michael Oher either. Simpson and others in the Briarcrest community would eventually learn that Michael’s father had been shot and killed and tossed off a bridge, that his mother was addicted to crack cocaine and that his life experience was so narrow that he might as well have spent his first 16 years inside a closet. And yet here was his application, in the summer of 2002, courtesy of the Briarcrest football coach, Hugh Freeze, who offered with it this wildly implausible story: Big Mike, as he was called, was essentially homeless and so had made an art of sleeping on whatever floor the ghetto would provide for him. He crashed for a stretch on the floor of an inner-city character named Tony Henderson, who at nearly 400 pounds himself was known simply as Big Tony. Big Tony’s mom had died and as her dying wish asked Tony to enroll his son Steven Payne at a “Christian school.” Big Tony had figured that as long as he was taking Steven, he might as well take Big Mike, too.
But Big Mike wasn’t like Steven. Steven had a father and a bed and a decent school transcript. He could cope with a conversation. Big Mike, in company, seemed as lost as a Martian stumbling out of a crash landing. Simpson had tried to shake his hand. “He didn’t know how to do it,” he says. “I had to show him how to shake hands.” Every question Simpson put to Big Mike elicited a barely audible mumble. “I don’t know if ‘docile’ is the right word,” Simpson says.
The disposition of Michael Oher’s application to Briarcrest was Steve Simpson’s decision, and normally he would have had no trouble making it: an emphatic rejection. Beneath the Briarcrest coat of arms was the motto: Decidedly Academic, Distinctly Christian. Michael Oher was, it seemed to Simpson, neither. But this was only Simpson’s second year at Briarcrest, and its football coach, Freeze, had phoned Simpson’s boss, the school president, a football fan, and made his pitch: This wasn’t a thing you did for the Briarcrest football team, Freeze said; this was a thing you did because it was right! Briarcrest was this kid’s last chance! The president in turn phoned Simpson and told him that if he felt right with it, he could admit the kid.
Simpson thought it over and said, Sorry. They would take Steven, but there was just no chance Michael Oher could cut it in the 10th grade; the fourth grade might be a stretch. But the pressure from the football coach, coupled with a little twinge inside his own heart, led Simpson to reject the applicant gently. He granted a single concession: if Michael Oher enrolled in a home-study program and performed at a high level for a semester, Briarcrest would admit him the following semester. Since there wasn’t much chance any program would pass him, Simpson suspected that he would never hear from the football coach, or Michael Oher, again.
He was wrong. Two months later — six weeks into the 2002-03 school year — his phone rang. It was Big Tony. It was a sad sight, Big Tony said, watching Big Mike stare at these books sent to him by the Gateway Christian School, which he had enrolled in, without any ability to make heads or tails of them. Big Tony didn’t have the time or the energy to work with him. Big Mike was trying so hard but getting nowhere, and it was too late for him to enroll in a public school. What should they do now?