America’s unofficial holiday comes around again on Sunday. That’s right, it’s Super Bowl time again. This year, one of York County’s local favorites, the Baltimore Ravens, are one of the teams vying for the NFL championship. As luck would have it, one of the Ravens’ starters was the subject of a recent popular book and movie, so to celebrate, I’m taking a look at “The Blind Side,” which looks at the early life of offensive tackle Michael Oher, his escape from poverty and into the national spotlight and how the changing nature of football factored into this incredible story.
The main plot of both stories center around Oher and how a rich family in Memphis, Sean and Leigh Ann Tuohy, happened to take him in and raise him as one of their own, helping him into the game of football at a well-to-do Christian school in Memphis, then helping him get into the University of Mississippi as one of the sport’s most coveted recruits. Both take a look at the confusing recruiting process, and both show the clash between life in the predominantly black and white sides of Memphis at the time.
The movie plays around with the timeline of events and adds things that the book says did not happen. The movie shows Oher running away from his family and his responsibilities in the wake of the NCAA investigation into their relationship (as the Tuohys were Ole Miss boosters, the NCAA wanted to know if they had adopted Oher just so he would go there to play football). In the book, the investigation went along (relatively) fine, and Oher ran away while he was at Ole Miss after severely injuring a teammate in a fight. The movie also shows a parade of college coaches (all played by the real-life men, including then-Alabama coach Nick Saban sporting his old LSU garb, which alone is terrific for sports fans) coming into the Tuohy home to pitch their schools. The book states the Tuohys and Oher narrowed down the suitors to just three, with the rest simply following him around in the lead-up and constantly mailing and calling him. It also changes the name of the academy after Briarcrest asked its name to be removed.
The movie’s shining light in Sandra Bullock’s performance as Leigh Anne, a very aggressive and vocal mother who is setting out to do whatever is needed to help Oher. She won the Oscar for the role, and it is deserved. However, the movie’s biggest flaw is that it centers most of the plot around her. Leigh Anne Tuohy was the closest one to Oher and the one he felt the deepest connection with, and her often tough love is chronicled in the book as having the most lasting impact in Oher’s life.
But the movie puts so much emphasis on her contributions that it minimizes all the things everyone else did. Coach Hugh Freeze comes off as the prototypical too-big-for-his-own-britches head coach who thinks he knows everything but misses the obvious. The other assistants are barely seen. There is a little bit involving the teachers early on, but nothing really major.
Then there’s Sean Tuohy, whose guidance through the mad world of high school and college sports was the whole reason Oher was comfortable enough to stay at their house in the first place. Sean comes off in the movie as a husband going along with helping this boy largely to appease his wife during one of her projects. That paints entirely the wrong picture of Sean, who is shown in the book as having gone through much — though clearly not all — of the things Oher was going through at the time. There were many people instrumental in his new upbringing, but the movie would have the audience believe it was no less than 80 percent Leigh Anne. While she may have contributed the most to his turnaround, there was a lot more happening than the movie lets on.
It also doesn’t do a lot of justice to Oher’s character. He is played almost as a savant, who isn’t that bright but who just possesses a deep caring and a lot of suppressed aggression and physical prowess. The Michael Oher in the book is a lot more believable as an athlete: He does possess those characteristics, but once he gets comfortable, he walks and talks with swagger and shows an unorthodox level of intelligence. The book shows he needed to be able to visualize something to understand it, or have it explained to him in a language he could comprehend. As long as that happened, he could learn anything. The movie doesn’t really show that, keeping his character as just a big teddy bear.
Like in “Moneyball,” Michael Lewis also has the movie version beat in highlighting the greater context of the main story. The Oher story line is interspersed throughout the book with chapters of how professional football has been changing since the 1980s. The first scene of the movie — in which Lawrence Taylor infamously ended Joe Theismann’s career with a sickening crack — is just how the book starts, as well. It shows the importance of the left tackle in protecting the quarterback’s blind side against dangerous pass rushers, especially Taylor, and how that made left tackle instantly one of the most important positions in the sport. The book goes on to further explain the intricacies of that change, chronicling the San Francisco 49ers under Bill Walsh, and makes Taylor a true character. The movie abandons this thread completely in favor of sappy lines about how the Tuohys’ lives are changing, too.
With all that said, the movie is certainly worth watching. It’s entertaining, and it is moving. But the book offers a much more rounded story and much more information, all with the emotion the movie draws.