Four other players, including, oddly, the Redskins’ John Riggins, pile on. They’re good for dramatic effect but practically irrelevant. The damage is done by Taylor alone. One hundred and ninety-six pounds of quarterback come to rest beneath a thousand or so pounds of other things. Then Lawrence Taylor pops to his feet and begins to scream and wave and clutch his helmet with both hands, as if in agony.
In the early 1980s, the notion that a single lineman should be paid much more than any other—and more than star running backs, wide receivers, and, in several cases, quarterbacks—would have been considered heretical had it not been so absurd. The offensive line never abandoned, at least in public, its old, vaguely socialistic ideology. All for one, one for all, as to do our jobs well we must work together, and thus no one of us is especially important.
His name was Michael Oher, but everyone just called him “Big Mike.” Tony liked Big Mike, but he also could see that Big Mike was heading at warp speed toward a bad end. He’d just finished the ninth grade at a public school, but Tony very much doubted he’d be returning for the tenth. He seldom attended classes, and showed no talent or interest in school. “Big Mike was going to drop out,” said Big Tony. “And if he dropped out, he’d be like all his friends who dropped out: dead, in jail, or on the street selling drugs, just waiting to be dead or in jail.”
But Mr. Simpson was new to the school, and this great football coach, Hugh 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 had said, this was a thing you did because it was right! Briarcrest was this kid’s last chance! The president in turn had phoned Simpson and told him that if he felt right with it, he could admit the boy.
By the time [Sean] met Big Mike, he had a new unofficial title: Life Guidance counselor to whatever black athlete stumbled into the Briarcrest Christian School. The black kids reminded him, in a funny way, of himself.
Sean knew what it meant to be the poor kid in a private school, because he’d been one himself.
By the time Michael Oher arrived at Briarcrest, Leigh Anne Tuohy didn’t see anything odd or even awkward in taking him in hand. This boy was new; he had no clothes; he had no warm place to stay over Thanksgiving Break. For Lord’s sake, he was walking to school in the snow in shorts, when school was out of session, on the off-chance he could get into the gym and keep warm. Of course she took him out and bought him some clothes. It struck others as perhaps a bit aggressively philanthropic; for Leigh Anne, clothing a child was just what you did if you had the resources. She had done this sort of thing before, and would do it again. “God gives people money to see how you’re going to handle it,” she said. And she intended to prove she knew how to handle it.
They called him names that neither he nor his coach cared to repeat. Harrington wasn’t shocked by more subtle forms of racism away from the basketball court, but it had been a long time since he’d seen the overt version on it. “I don't think there’s a white coach with a black kid on his team, or a black coach with a white kid, who could have any racism in him,” he said. Big Mike responded badly; Harrington hadn’t seen this side of him. He began to throw elbows. Then he stopped on the court, turned on the fans, and gave them the finger.
One afternoon the Briarcrest players and coaches looked up and saw the strange sight of Tennessee’s most famous coach, Phil Fulmer, from the University of Tennessee, not walking but running to their practice. If ever there was a body not designed to move at speed it was Fulmer’s.
Eventually people must have noticed. As Walsh performed miracle after miracle with his quarterbacks, a more general trend emerged in NFL strategy: away from the run and toward the pass. In 1978, NFL teams passed 42 percent of the time and ran the ball 58 percent of the time. Each year, right through until the mid-1980s, they passed more and ran less until the ratios were almost exactly reversed: in 1995, NFL teams passed 59 percent of the time and ran 41 percent of the time. It's not hard to see why; the passing game was improving, and the running game was stagnant.
From his place on the sideline Sean watched in amazement. Hugh had called a running play around the right end, away from Michael’s side. Michael’s job was simply to take the kid who had been jabbering at him and wall him off. Just keep him away from the ball carrier. Instead, he’d fired off the line of scrimmage and gotten fit. Once he had his hands inside the Munford player’s shoulder pads, he lifted him off the ground. It was a perfectly legal block, with unusual consequences. He drove the Munford player straight down the field for 15 yards, then took a hard left, toward the Munford sidelines.
She’d been taking care of his material needs for a good year and a half, and his emotional ones, to the extent he wanted them taken care of, for almost as long. “I love him as if I birthed him,” she said. About the hundredth time someone asked her how she handled his sexual urges, Leigh Anne snapped. “You just need to mind your own business. You worry about your life and I’ll worry about mine,” she’d said. Word must have gotten around because after that no one asked.
With that, Sean Junior took off on a surprisingly insistent rap. He explained how important it was for him to be near Michael, and how concerned he was that once Michael committed himself to some big-time college football program, he’d become totally inaccessible. Then came the question: if Michael Oher agreed to play football for Ole Miss, what level of access would be granted to his little brother?
“How about we get you an all-access pass?” said the Ole Miss recruiter.
“That'd be good.”
Leigh Anne Tuohy was trying to do for one boy what economists had been trying to do, with little success, for less developed countries for the last fifty years. Kick him out of one growth path and onto another. Jump-start him. She had already satisfied his most basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and health care. He had pouted for three days after she had taken him to get the vaccines he should have had as a child. It was amazing he hadn’t already died some nineteenth-century death from, say, the mumps. (When she tried to get him a flu shot the second year in a row, he said, “You white people are obsessed with that flu shot. You don’t need one every year.”) Now she was moving on to what she interpreted as his cultural deficiencies.
Leigh Anne listened to the doctors discuss how bizarrely lucky Sean Junior had been in his collision with the airbag. Then she went back home and relayed the conversation to Michael, who held out his arm. An ugly burn mark ran right down the fearsome length of it. “I stopped it,” he said.
Then he looked around, as if soaking in every last detail of the Olde English and Country French furnishings, and said, “What a lovely home. I just love those window treatments.” I just love those window treatments. He didn't say, “I just love the way you put together the Windsor valances with the draw drapes,” but he might as well have. Right then Leigh Anne decided that if Nick Saban wasn't the most polished and charming football coach in America, she was ready to marry whoever was.
No one ever mentions Steve Wallace’s name. The cameras never once find him. His work is evidently too boring to watch for long without being distracted by whatever’s happening to the football. Worse, the better he does his job, the more boring to watch he becomes. His job is to eliminate what people pay to see—the sight of Chris Doleman crushing Joe Montana.
In 1995, Steve Wallace of the San Francisco 49ers became the first offensive lineman to sign a contract worth $10 million. The quarterback might still get all the glory. But the guy who watched his back would be moving into a bigger house.
It was probably true that the NFL couldn’t lengthen the arms or stretch the torsos of fully-grown men. On the other hand, they could wave millions of dollars in the air and let the American population know that the incentives had changed. Boys who thought they might make careers as power forwards, or shot putters, might now think twice before quitting the high school football team. Huge sums of money were there for the taking, so long as you met certain physical specifications.
A big part of the tutor’s job was to steer the players away from the professors and courses most likely to lead to lack of performance. The majority of the football team wound up majoring in “Criminal Justice.” What Criminal Justice had going for it was that it didn't require any math or language skills. Criminal Justice classes were also almost always filled with other football players.
The circumstances were that the Ole Miss football team, like the Mississippi State football team, consisted mostly of poor black kids from Mississippi. When the Ole Miss defense gathered in a single room, the only white people were coaches. On the football field the players became honorary white people, but off it they were still black, and unnatural combatants in Mississippi's white internecine war.
Michael beat Antonio around the face and threw him across the room as, around the room, huge football players took cover beneath small desks. That's when a lot of people at once began to scream hysterically and Michael noticed the little white boy on the floor, in a pool of blood. He hadn't seen the little white boy—the three-year-old son of one of the tutors. Who had put the little white boy there? When he’d charged Antonio, the boy somehow had been hit and thrown up against the wall. His head was now bleeding badly. Seeing the body lying in his own blood, Michael ran.
As [Denise] had no income except for whatever the government sent her on the first of each month, the children had no money for provisions. They had no food or clothing, except what they could scrounge from churches and the street. Surprisingly often, given the abundance of public housing in Memphis, they had no shelter. When asked what he recalls of his first six years, Michael said, “Going for days having to drink water to get full. Going to other people’s houses and asking for something to eat. Sleeping outside. The mosquitoes.”
But Big Zach’s girlfriend had already given birth to their first child. She didn’t want to go to Florida State, and the truth was he didn’t really feel like doing his schoolwork or making his grades. Surrounded by friends who told him that he’d be wasting his time to even try college, he quit. He never even finished high school.
And, after a long round of fulsome apologies and ten hours of community service, Michael was restored to his former status of model citizen—and the incident never even hit the campus newspaper. It just went away, the way it would have gone away for some well-to-do white kid. Of course, lessons were learned and points of view exchanged. Coach O, for instance, pulled Michael into his office to discuss The Responsibilities of Being Michael Oher. Rather dramatically, Coach O extracted from his desk a thick folder stuffed with newspaper clippings, and dropped it with a thud. “Dajus da crap dey wrotebout me last sittee days!” he boomed. (That’s just the crap they wrote about me in the last sixty days!) He went on to lecture Michael on the burdens of conspicuous success. “Let me tell you something, son,” he concluded (in translation). “It is lonely at the top.”
Then and there Leigh Anne made a decision: she wasn't finished. “I want a building,” she said. “We're going to open a foundation that’s only going to help out kids with athletic ability who don't have the academics to go to college. Screw the NCAA. I don't care what people say. I don't care if they say we're only interested in them because they're good at sports. Sports is all we know about. And there are hundreds of kids in Memphis alone with this story.”