Hugh Freeze can still remember the moment when he realized that Michael Oher wasn’t just big, but also fast: Michael picks up a fifty-pound tackling dummy and pushes it down the field faster than most people can run. After Michael begins playing basketball for Briarcrest, the basketball coach, John Harrington, recognizes that Michael can move faster than athletes half his size. He can also throw a football seventy-five yards and make it look easy.
Michael Oher’s talent goes far beyond his physical proportions. He’s agile and fast in addition to being so large, which makes him an excellent football player.
In his first semester, Michael makes straight D’s, though he’s also working with special tutors so that he’ll be able to play basketball at the end of the season. The track coach, Coach Boggess, recognizes that Michael has the strength to be a shot putter or a discus thrower. When Michael begins competing in track events, he wins first place, even though his form is poor. Boggess also recognizes that Michael learns fast: he watches his peers’ technique carefully and improves his own. Before long, Michael has achieved the longest discus threw in the state of Tennessee in six years. Amazingly, Michael never practices—he’s too busy working with tutors. By this time, Michael is earning high D’s in class, which convinces his teachers to let him play sports.
One of the most surprising things about Michael Oher’s athletic career is that he didn’t think of himself primarily as a football player until fairly late in high school. That Michael succeeded at shot put, discus, and other events suggests how talented he was—especially considering that he never practiced. Furthermore, the fact that Michael learned quickly by imitating his teammates suggests that, contrary to what tests have indicated, he’s not unintelligent.
In early 2003, as a junior, Michael plays defensive tackle in football games. At first, he’s good but not extraordinary—his biggest talent is intimidating the other team. He seems passive and confused during the games, however. Coach Freeze believes that Michael is basically “just a sweet kid”—rarely a good quality for football players. During one game, Michael has a bad accident that leaves his hand cut to the bone; however, he refuses to open his hand. While the men try to reason with Michael, Leigh Anne, who’s watching the game, is able to convince him to open it. In the hospital for his injury, Michael is terrified. The doctors try to calm him down by letting him call someone—and he chooses to call Leigh Anne. Over the phone, Leigh Anne convinces Michael to cooperate with the doctors, assuring him that if he doesn’t he’ll lose his hand to gangrene.
Michael isn’t innately good at football, because football isn’t purely a game of size and strength. A good football player, as Tom Lemming has pointed out, must be aggressive and active, not just strong. All the evidence points to Michael being cautious and timid—when he hurts himself, he feels afraid even to open his hand. Michael has gotten so accustomed to bottling up his pain that he can’t imagine cooperating with doctors to make the pain go away. However, he follows Leigh Anne’s directions, reminding us of the special bond between Michael and Leigh Anne.
In spite of his difficulties on the field, Michael Oher is adjusting to his new life, thanks largely to the help of Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy. The Tuohys, especially Leigh Anne, gave Michael emotional support; moreover, they pay for his transportation, clothes, and food. At first, Michael sleeps on Big Tony’s floor; later on, however, he sleeps on the Tuohys’ sofa.
Michael becomes a more important part of the Tuohys’ life, and vice versa. The book doesn’t provide much of an explanation for why the Tuohys are so generous to Michael, beyond the facts that Sean empathizes with Michael’s poverty, and both he and Leigh Anne are uniquely compassionate people.
A turning point for Michael comes in the winter of 2003. Michael and the rest of the Briarcrest basketball team are playing in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina—this was Michael’s first time on a plane. Generally, Michael plays about half the time—he isn’t good on defense. In Myrtle Beach, however, he steps up after people in the crowd call him names like “Black Bear” and “Nigger.” Michael reacts angrily and then goes on to score 27 points, winning the game against a team that had been expected to beat Briarcrest.
Although Michael seems gentle most of the time, he has an aggressive, competitive streak, particularly when other people antagonize him. The racism and bullying that Michael endures in this scene reflects the broader racism and discrimination in Tennessee society, with which Michael contends throughout the book.
When the team flies back from Myrtle Beach in triumph, most of the players have parents to meet them at the airport. Big Tony’s girlfriend comes to pick up Michael, but Michael refuses to go with her—he tells Coach Harrington that she’d called him a freeloader and said that he was stupid. At Michael’s insistence, Harrington drives Michael to the house where, Michael claims, his mother lives. The house looks deserted, however. The next day, Harrington tells Sean Tuohy about the situation, and Sean realizes he needs to look into it.
During Michael’s time playing football for Briarcrest, the coaches, the other players, and even the Tuohy family knows very little about Michael’s family situation, and seems to understand that it’s not their place to ask. Indeed, The Blind Side doesn’t give a thorough account of Michael’s early life until the penultimate chapter. For now, it’s clear to the coaches that something isn’t right with Michael’s family—but they’re not sure what.
For the next few months, Michael stays with various teammates’ families. One night, after a track meet, Leigh Anne drives Michael, at Michael’s request, to a trailer in Mississippi, where Michael says he sometimes sleeps on an inflatable mattress. Leigh Anne tells Michael, “That's it … you’re moving in with me.”
The passage portrays Leigh Anne’s decision to let Michael live at her house permanently as a sudden, impulsive decision. (In all likelihood, though, the Tuohys took slightly more time to decide to house Michael—perhaps this scene is an example of Lewis taking some artistic license.)
Michael Oher sleeps on a futon in the Tuohys’ house (he’s so big he barely fits on the couch). He bonds with Sean Junior, the Tuohys’ young son—they play video games for hours at a time. Leigh Anne gives Michael some of the “rules” of living with her: he has to visit his mother at times, and he’s welcome to bring friends from his own neighborhood. Sean and Leigh Anne decide that they won’t ask many questions about Michael’s family—that will be done on a “need to know” basis. Leigh Anne senses that Michael has blocked out most of his childhood.
Michael quickly bonds with the other Tuohys—perhaps it’s a sign of his gentleness that he gets along especially well with Sean Junior, the youngest Tuohy child. Notice also that Leigh Anne insists that Michael stay in contact with his mother—she’s taking care of Michael, but she seems not to think of herself as his parent, at least not yet. Leigh Anne respects Michael’s right to privacy, refusing to ask too many questions about his past.
Early on in his time living with the Tuohys, Michael is a hoarder. He’s had to survive from day to day for so long that his first instinct is to store as much food as possible. He’s also a neat freak, which pleases Leigh Anne greatly. Sean notes, “It was like God made a child just for us: sports for me, neat for Leigh Anne.”
Michael’s way of life up until now has been totally foreign to the Tuohys, who don’t want for anything materially. Michael has lived in squalid conditions for so many years that the concept of having extra food is utterly strange to him.
Sean begins writing letters to Division II coaches, imagining that Michael Oher could play basketball in college. Then, Freeze gets word that a football scout, Tom Lemming, is coming to Memphis; he arranges for Michael to meet with him. But Michael doesn’t answer any of Lemming’s questions, and doesn’t even fill out the forms he’s given. In spite of his odd meeting with Michael, Tom Lemming sends a report to more than one hundred Division I college football coaches, saying that Michael could be the best left tackle in the country.
Even at this point in the book, Sean Tuohy doesn’t realize that Michael is a great football player (which, in retrospect, suggests that the NCAA’s theory that he adopted Michael to become a star Ole Miss athlete is nonsensical). We come full-circle, back to where we were in Chapter Two—but even now, after becoming more comfortable with Briarcrest athletics, Michael doesn't think of himself as a football player.
Meanwhile, Michael Oher begins playing more football for Briarcrest. His coaches, Hugh Freeze and Tim Long (a former lineman for the Minnesota Vikings), are amazed by his size. Sean Tuohy also coaches for the team. On the first day of spring practice, Tuohy, Freeze, and Long show up and find a crowd of Division I football coaches who’ve come to watch Michael. Freeze is confused—Michael has barely played football.
In spite of the fact that Michael has little to no experience with the game of football, college coaches are well aware of his potential talents. Michael’s body type makes him a natural lineman, independent of his skills as a player (although Michael’s speed and agility also make him a prized asset for a football team).
The coaches proceed with some drills. First up is Michael Oher on the board drill—i.e., the drill that involves trying to stay on a board while the lineman tries to push you off. Michael does so well in the board drill, pushing the 270-pound defensive lineman off the edge in seconds—that a coach from Clemson College tells Sean that, if Michael wants a full scholarship to Clemson, it’s his. After that, big-time college coaches show up regularly to practices. Tennessee’s single most famous football coach, Phil Fulmer from the University of Tennessee, tells Tim Long that Michael is the best in the country. Although recruiters aren’t allowed to speak directly to Michael, they send Sean scholarship offers for Michael.
Michael quickly acquires a reputation as a great football player. He’s not an aggressive person, but he’s so big and strong that he can take on virtually any opponent, even a big, 270-pound lineman. As a result, college coaches take notice.
Michael Oher continues dominating practices, but he remains a mystery. One day, he falls to his knees in the middle of practice, and tells Sean, “My dad died.” Just before practice, Sean learns, Big Tony had called Michael and told him that his father had been murdered in the west side of Memphis, a full three months ago. Michael never says another word about his father—he doesn’t even skip practice that day.
Michael’s family situation remains unclear: clearly he seems not to have been very close to his father, since he wasn’t told about his father’s death for three months. Notice also that Big Tony has barely been mentioned since Chapter Three, perhaps implying that he was never really a committed full-time guardian for Michael.
Meanwhile, it’s becoming clear to Michael’s coaches that Michael might have a real future in professional football. Michael isn’t just big—he’s quick, making him an excellent NFL prospect. Although Freeze plays Michael as a right tackle at first, he quickly switches Michael to left tackle, where he’ll be more useful.
Michael’s combination of size and speed make him a natural left tackle.