The year is 2004, the Briarcrest Saints football team is beginning its season, and Michael Oher has spent four months adjusting to the idea that he’s a football star. He’s received more than a thousand letters from college programs, almost all offering him a scholarship. Tim Long has taught Michael some of the fine points of the game.
Michael Oher is improving at football: with the help of his coaches, he’s learned how to use his size and strength optimally. As a result, it’s becoming highly likely that he’ll play football for a big Division I college.
While college football coaches fall over themselves to court Michael, Leigh Anne and Sean have doubts about Michael’s football future. Michael is dependent on Leigh Anne and Sean for food, shelter, and emotional support, and he seems quiet and passive. He also doesn’t play football aggressively because he’s not an aggressive person. This changes after Michael plays in a game against Munford, another Tennessee school, and Michael faces off against a Munford player who mocks Michael for his size. Over the course of the game, Michael becomes increasingly angry with his opponent, who continues mocking him relentlessly. During one play, Michael lifts the 220-pound Munford player off the ground—a legal block—and carries him sixty yards backwards in mere seconds. Michael is calm even after the coach penalizes him, absurdly, for “excessive blocking.” Tim Long is so impressed with Michael that he has to fight the temptation to giggle. It occurs to Sean that “there might be a fire in this belly after all.”
A great football player must be aggressive and ambitious, not just big. One sign that Michael might have the personality, not just the body, for the NFL comes when he faces off against Munford. Michael channels his obvious anger into the game of football, even while remaining calm and orderly off the field. The fact that the referee penalizes Michael for “excessive blocking” (a made-up penalty) doesn’t prove that Michael was breaking the rules—rather it shows that Michael is so far beyond the other players in the game that it’s just easier for the referee to assume that he’s cheating.
At school, Collins Tuohy, Leigh Anne and Sean’s daughter, notices that Michael is becoming more outgoing—he no longer looks at the floor all the time, and seems to enjoy joking with the other students. Michael asks Leigh Anne to get him a driver’s license, and Leigh Anne realizes that Michael doesn’t have “any evidence he ever existed.” Leigh Anne tries to get Michael a Social Security card, but a man at the Social Security office tells Leigh Anne that there’s “no such person as Michael Jerome Oher.” The man tries “Michael Jerome Williams” and learns that someone with this name—which Michael claims is his own—has been issued six Social Security cards in the last two years. Reluctantly, the man prints Michael a card. Michael visits his mother and gets his birth certificate, which lists his name as Michael Jerome Williams. Leigh Anne still needs to get proof of address, which means that she’s going to need to visit Michael’s mother herself.
As Michael becomes a better athlete, he seems to also become more comfortable in his new life with the Tuohys. However, his past remains murky. Leigh Anne realizes that she doesn’t even know Michael’s real name, which would appear to be “Michael Jerome Williams.” It’s interesting to consider that, so far, Leigh Anne has refrained from visiting Michael’s mother or family. It may be that she just doesn’t want to, and would rather Michael forget about his past (and his biological family) and start over new as a Tuohy.
To obtain proof of address, Michael calls his mother in advance, and Leigh Anne drives him to the house where she leaves. Michael’s mother, whose name is Denise, is very drunk, and doesn’t invite them inside. Michael says nothing to his mother. With Denise’s permission, Leigh Anne takes a single electricity bill, then leaves with Michael. On the ride back, neither she nor Michael says anything. Leigh Anne drives Michael to the DMV, where Michael takes his written driver’s test.
Denise seems to be a negligent parent who has no particular love for her child. Although Leigh Anne still says that she’s not Michael’s true mother, it’s becoming increasingly clear that she’s acting as a mother figure for him, as the person who cares for him and loves him unconditionally. She’s the one, after all, who takes Michael to get his license.
While Leigh Anne waits for Michael to take his test, she thinks about the flak she’s gotten from her friends about essentially adopting a “huge young black man.” Some of her more intolerant friends are skeptical that Michael can behave himself around Leigh Anne’s beautiful seventeen-year-old daughter, Collins. Leigh Anne always insists that Michael’s relationship with Collins is brotherly, and snaps, “You just need to mind your own business.”
Leigh Anne is fiercely loyal to Michael, whom she seems to consider a member of her own family. Leigh Anne’s friends’ fear that Michael will behave improperly with Collins seems to reflect the old racist trope of black men being unable to control themselves around white women. Thankfully Leigh Anne ignores her friends when they bring this up.
Leigh Anne also thinks about Michael’s bad grades: he has a GPA of 1.56, but needs a GPA of 2.65 to play college football. This is a huge problem—even if Michael gets straight A’s for the rest of high school, he won’t qualify. She spends hours going over Michael’s homework assignments with him, but to no avail—he still makes D’s. One problem with Michael’s schoolwork is that he doesn’t tell Leigh Anne he’s having trouble learning—he’s quiet about his personal life. It’s occurred to Leigh Anne that Michael might be gay, and perhaps this is why he’s so private. Then Michael appears—he’s passed his driving test, meaning that he’s become the first person in his family to get a license.
This passage raises a number of questions, some of which Lewis answers later in the book (like how will Michael make the grades to go to college?), some of which he doesn’t (Is Michael gay?). It’s also one of the only extended passages in the book that’s narrated in the third person, strictly from Leigh Anne’s perspective, meaning that readers get a better idea of the depth of Leigh Anne’s love and concern for Michael. Specifically one gets the sense that Leigh Anne constantly wonders about Michael’s upbringing, but also has the decorum not to pepper him with personal questions.
In September 2004, Briarcrest plays against Melrose, another local high school, and loses. After the game, Leigh Anne encourages Hugh Freeze to play Michael more often, and run the ball left instead of right, since Michael is the number one left tackle in the country. Freeze is reluctant to rely so heavily on one player, but Tim Long encourages him to “run Gap”—in other words, favor a play that requires Michael to run down the field and “destroy everything in front of him.” In a way, the controversy over how to use Michael during a game reflects a controversy in football in general. At the time, purists argue that football was a game of brute force, in which the strongest players win. Football “liberals” argue that guile and strategy are more important than force. Freeze is a liberal; Tim Long is more of a fundamentalist.
In the 2004 season, Briarcrest’s football coaches have to decide how to use Michael Oher to the best of his considerable abilities. For Tim Long, this means running the same unbeatable play again and again, allowing Michael to push aside other players. One important aspect of the coaches’ decision-making that the passage doesn’t address is the coaches’ responsibility to improve their players’ talent, not just win the most games. Running “Gap “again and again might be the most successful play, but perhaps it doesn’t train the other players as a more tactical, varied style of play would.
On Friday, Briarcrest prepares for a game with Treadwell, with the head coach from LSU, Stacey Searles, in attendance. Freeze decides to take Long’s advice and run Gap, again and again, making use of Michael. During the game, Briarcrest players score touchdown after touchdown, largely thanks to Michael’s talent. Searles is amazed—he’s never seen anyone like Michael. In the end, Briarcrest wins, 59-20. In the next game, Briarcrest faces Carver High, to which it lost last year; Briarcrest wins, again thanks mostly to Michael. By running Gap in game after game, Briarcrest keeps winning.
Briarcrest wins the game because of Michael’s size and speed, confirming that he’s the most talented player and the likeliest NFL prospect on the team by far. Notice that Freeze’s motivation for running Gap in the Treadwell game isn’t only to win, but also to impress the LSU coach and give Michael a shot at attending a Division I football college.
Even though Michael is critical to his team’s success, he’s oddly underappreciated. Even Hugh Freeze doesn’t realize that Michael is almost single-handedly winning games until a few games have passed. Michael doesn’t run with the ball, but he clears a path for the running back. He’s so quick that some referees assume he must be cheating—but in fact, he’s just bigger and faster than everyone else.
The left tackle isn’t necessarily the most popular, respected position in football—quarterbacks and running backs are usually far more acclaimed. However, Michael is plainly the best football player on his team, to the point where the referees assume that he must be breaking the rules.
Toward the end of the season, other teams come up with a strategy for beating Briarcrest. In the annual game between Briarcrest and its rival, Evangelical Christian School (ECS), ECS’s goal is to tackle Michael. The strategy works, and ECS wins. Later in the season, Freeze compensates by stacking the line with extra blockers, protecting the running back while the opposing players concentrate on tackling Michael.
Even though running Gap is perhaps more monotonous and repetitive than the style of play that Hugh Freeze would prefer, Freeze still gets opportunities to think and play strategically: he’s forced to modify his strategy in response to other teams’ awareness of Michael’s prowess on the field.
Briarcrest makes it to the playoffs in December—three games away from the state championships. In the first game, against Harding Academy, the Harding defensive end tries to tackle Michael, but Michael figures out how to keep the defensive end from tackling his knees, and leads his team to a narrow victory. In the next game, against Notre Dame, Briarcrest wins easily. In the state championship, Briarcrest faces ECS for the second time that year. Freeze’s counter-strategy for dealing with ECS proves successful, and for most of the game, ECS is forced to play Michael “straight.” Briarcrest quickly gains a big lead.
Due to the amount of play he sees in his early days as a high school football player, Michael becomes a much better left tackle. Michael is such an important asset to the Briarcrest team that one of Freeze’s main duties as a football coach is to ensure that Michael doesn’t get blocked early on in plays. Technically, Michael doesn’t score touchdowns for his team, but he’s still responsible for many of them.
As the championship game goes on, Hugh Freeze decides that he wants to try more trick plays, instead of running Gap. Freeze organizes a “fumblerooski,” a play in which the center gives the ball to the quarterback, who then quickly passes the ball to a fullback, and then pretends to be running with the ball. Strangely, during the play, Michael doesn’t move. Later in the game, Michael faces off against a fullback, 165 pounds, named Clarke Norton. By coincidence, Clarke’s parents are friends with the Tuohys. When Michael realizes that it’s Clarke, he greets Clarke kindly, and then lifts Clarke out of harm’s way rather than tackling him. By the end of the game, which Briarcrest wins easily, it’s clear that “Michael Oher was the best football player in the state of Tennessee.”
As it becomes clear that the Briarcrest team is going to win the championship, Freeze takes advantage of his new freedom and experiments with bold new plays. The fact that Michael doesn’t do well in the “fumblerooski” play illustrates some of his limitations as a player—he can be a quick learner, but he doesn’t excel at elaborate plays. Michael is unusually gentle for a football player, as evidenced by his choice not to tackle his friend—but Michael still excels on the field in spite of his gentleness, perhaps because left tackle is sometimes a defensive, protective position that appeals to Michael’s strong protective instincts.