It is March 2004, and Tom Lemming, a famous football scout, has just received a tape. Lemming, who’s discovered all kinds of football legends, receives thousands of tapes from aspiring players who want to impress him. The latest tape he’s received is from Michael Oher, who plays for a small private school, Briarcrest, which has no real history of producing football talent. Nobody in Memphis football seems to have heard of Oher. Based on the tape, however, Lemming sees that Oher is big and fast, comparable with NFL athletes he’s discovered in the past.
From the moment he’s introduced in The Blind Side, it’s clear that Michael Oher is something special: he’s so big and so fast—or at least appears to be on video—that he catches the eye of one of the most important football scouts in the country.
Tom Lemming walks into the football meeting room at the University of Memphis, and waits to meet Michael Oher—meanwhile, “the ghost of Lawrence Taylor” is waiting. Taylor’s legendary performances in the NFL in the 1980s changed football, leading to a spike in salaries for players on the quarterback’s blind side. Fifteen years ago, it would have been strange to think that certain linemen would be paid more highly than others. But now, the blind-side lineman, usually the left tackle, is often the highest paid.
Michael Oher’s success as a football player reflects the legacy of Lawrence Taylor in the sense that, had Taylor not created a demand for big, sturdy left tackles, Oher’s skillset wouldn’t have been so highly valued in NFL games. Nowadays, coaches recognize the importance of hiring left tackles like Oher to protect against metaphorical descendants of Taylor.
In 1978, Tom Lemming began searching America for the best football talent. At the time, the idea of a single scout traveling the country for high school football was unheard of, but soon, Lemming had a devoted following—he was, in effect, the only national scout in high school football. Division I coaches would beg Lemming for tips about prospective players, and many sports fans subscribed to his newsletter. By the nineties, Lemming was no longer traveling the country as much—coaches sent him videotapes of their players. He’d acquired a reputation for being very accurate with his predictions of who would and wouldn’t make it to the NFL.
In this section, we get a sense for the big, booming industry surrounding the game of football. Football consists of much more than just an audience watching the game—behind the scenes, there’s an elaborate economic system whose sole purpose is the acquiring and trading of talented prospective players. Thus, coaches rely on people like Lemming to decide which players are most talented and most worthy of joining their programs.
Lemming was particularly fond of fast, violent pass rushers, many of whom wound up playing in the NFL. He also supported especially big linemen, with a lot of girth in the lower body (which made it harder for Lawrence Taylor-types to run past him). Lemming also knew that left tackles had to be fast, so that they could keep up with the offense.
The new demand for big left tackles creates a demand for a certain body type, which wasn’t as highly valued in previous decades. Large linemen with girth below the waist are suddenly worth more, and Lemming is critical in bringing coaches’ attention to high school players whose bodies fit the type.
At the time, football was becoming a bigger industry than ever before. Good quarterbacks, even rookies, regularly commanded salaries in the tens of millions, paid out over the course of seven years. As a result, it became especially important to protect quarterbacks; thus, left tackles commanded high salaries, too. But Lemming wants to meet Michael Oher in person, because he knows that sometimes videotapes can be deceptive. Furthermore, he recognizes that football is a team sport, meaning that players with poor character will never be great. Football often attracts big, aggressive people—in many ways, the people who were most likely to get into trouble outside the game.
With tens of millions of people watching football every year, football is a bona fide industry. As in any industry, businesspeople want to protect their assets. Therefore, they spend millions of dollars on talented left tackles who can protect the most important asset of all, the quarterback. But there’s more to being a great football player than body type: football favors certain personalities, in particular those who, like Lawrence Taylor, are highly aggressive.
When he first meets Michael Oher at the University of Memphis, Lemming realizes that Michael is so big he can barely fit through the door. He has the perfect body for a left tackle. Lemming asks Michael questions, but Michael doesn’t say anything; he just shrugs and refuses to speak. Not once in Lemming’s quarter-century career has a player refused to talk to him. Lemming is confused—he can’t tell if Michael is aloof, rude, shy, or something else. It never occurs to Lemming that Michael doesn’t say anything to him because he has no idea who Lemming is, has never thought of himself as a football player, and has never even played left tackle.
Michael Oher has the perfect body for a left tackle, but it’s not entirely clear if he has the temperament for NFL play—ideally, he should be aggressive and ambitious. Michael Oher seems so unambitious (or perhaps just uninformed about football) that he has no idea who Tom Lemming is, or whether he himself would made a good football player. This is just the first of many unlikely things about the life of Michael Oher.