At the end of 2004, Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy become Michael Oher’s legal guardians. They send out a Christmas card including Michael, and it never occurs to Leigh Anne that many of her friends will wonder who Michael is. Leigh Anne is a “warrior princess”—fiercely loyal to her family, which now includes Michael. Unlike a lot of talented, ambitious football players, Michael isn’t very interested in money—Leigh Anne and Sean take good care of him, and he’s going to inherit millions as the child of a successful businessman.
The Tuohys seemingly adopt Michael Oher because they genuinely love him and consider him a part of their family. He’s very close with Leigh Anne and Sean Junior, and seems to think of Sean as a father even before Sean becomes his legal guardian. Even though other people consider the Tuohys decision odd, the book presents their decision as the logical next step in their relationship with Michael—for all intents and purposes they’ve been his guardians for some time now.
As Michael nears the end of high school, he faces great offers from college coaches. Privately, Sean and Leigh Anne want Michael to play for their alma mater, the University of Mississippi—“their lives were as intertwined with the place as if they’d founded it.” Hugh Freeze, however, pursues talks with the University of Tennessee on Michael’s behalf. Michael also attends LSU’s summer football camp with Justin Sparks, another talented, rich Briarcrest player. When Sparks wins an elite football scholarship from North Carolina State, Michael begins considering the college.
Although the Tuohys obviously want Michael to play for their alma mater, they don’t do too much to influence Michael’s decision, at least not right away. Indeed, Michael is clearly considering some other colleges, based on where his friends will be playing football—suggesting that, while he loves the Tuohys, he isn’t just choosing whatever college they tell him to choose.
At the same time that Michael is considering his options for college, he is being tutored by a woman named Sue Mitchell, a Mississippi alumna herself. Mitchell tells Michael, half-jokingly, half-seriously, that the University of Tennessee is involved in an experiment to study decomposing human bodies, and buries corpses below the football field.
Sue Mitchell’s joke is a good example of the extent to which Michael’s parents and other friends influence his decision to choose Ole Miss. Yet while they clearly want Michael to attend their alma mater, and don’t always hide how they feel, they’re not actively pressuring him to go there.
Meanwhile, local news stations hang on Michael’s every word for a hint about where he’ll play ball. Michael receives so many calls from coaches that Sean and Hugh Freeze have to designate a special phone-answering time of the week. Michael becomes used to flying in Justin Sparks’ family’s private jet to play games at different colleges—so much so that, when he finally has to fly in a commercial plane, he can’t understand why the trip is taking so long. A Mississippi coach notices, during one of his many visits to Memphis to watch Michael, that Michael is close with Sean Junior; he tells Sean Junior that, if Michael goes to Ole Miss, Sean Junior will get an all-access, round-the-clock pass to the school.
Throughout this chapter, we get a sense for the elaborate lengths to which coaches will go to recruit top athletes, and for the huge sums lavished on the football recruitment process in particular. Coaches are so desperate to recruit Michael that they try to curry favor even with Michael’s younger brother, Sean Junior. Notice also that Michael has become so accustomed to his upper-class lifestyle with the Tuohys that he doesn’t understand slow commercial flights. Strangely, as the adopted son of wealthy parents, Michael is—at least in some ways—as distanced from a middle-class American frame of reference as he was when he lived in the inner-city.
Leigh Anne is nervous that, if accepted to an elite football college, Michael won’t be able to cope with the pressure, or with being so far from the Tuohys. The tragic fact is that Michael hasn’t had the life experiences that other high school students take for granted. Leigh Anne takes it upon herself to show Michael how to live life like an adult. She takes him to a restaurant and orders every dish on the menu to show Michael the different foods. In all, Leigh Anne is doing for Michael “what economists had been trying to do, with little success, for less developed countries for the last fifty years.” She tries to help Michael adjust to “white Christian entrepreneurial Memphis,” teaching him how to buy clothes, score golf, and read a wine list. Leigh Anne also gives Michael a sense of his new social class: she calls poor white people “rednecks.” Less than two years after meeting the Tuohys, Michael has begun to fit in with his community. He goes to Grace Evangelical Church every Sunday and improves his grades with Sue Mitchell’s help. He adjusts to upper-class Memphis life because he has a family that loves him.
Leigh Anne thinks that it’s her duty to teach Michael how to live a mature, adult life—not just play football. However, as the passage shows (whether consciously or not is unclear), Leigh Anne’s idea of what constitutes a normal life is extraordinarily out of touch with the way most Americans live. Lewis seems to admire Leigh Anne’s devotion to her adopted son and even approve of her methods of helping Michael (hence the comparison with economic development), but the passage also seems to question Leigh Anne’s parenting methods, particularly the intolerant way that she looks down on people who are poorer than she. Michael responds to Leigh Anne’s encouragement by fitting in with his community. However, the passage might suggest that because he’s so loyal to his adopted mother, Michael is becoming spoiled or out of touch with how less prosperous people live.
One day, Leigh Anne gets a call from Collins—there’s been an accident. Leigh Anne learns that Michael, while driving Sean Junior out to play basketball, hit another car. She finds Michael in the middle of the accident, sobbing, and tells him, “This could happen to anybody.” Then, she sees what Michael’s sobbing about: Sean Junior’s face is covered in “swollen, oozing flesh.” Sean Junior has to go to the hospital, but he’s fine, and, much to the doctors’ confusion, hasn’t even broken one bone. Later, Leigh Anne realizes what happened: during the crash, Michael reached out his arm to stop the air bag from hitting Sean Junior in the face, sustaining a nasty burn in the process. Not coincidentally, Michael scored in the 90th percentile on his career aptitude test in one category: Protective Instincts.
The passage revolves around a driving accident for which Michael is partly to blame. The fact that Leigh Anne could forgive Michael even for accidentally hurting Sean Junior proves the sincerity of her love for her adopted child. (The incident also foreshadows Michael’s inadvertent injuring of a young child in Chapter Ten). The passage also confirms Michael’s fierce loyalty to his family—he endures a burn to protect his brother from the airbag. This might suggest that the same qualities that make Michael a great left tackle (his job is, in large part, to protect the quarterback) also cause him to develop a close bond with his adopted family.
Shortly after the accident, coaches from three different colleges—LSU, Tennessee, and Mississippi—come to visit Michael in his home. The first coach is Nick Saban, from LSU—a school that Michael considers “a bad place” after spending a night with LSU football stars. Saban comes dressed in an Armani suit, and his manners are impeccable. Saban’s pitch is simple: LSU is going to make Michael not just an NFL star but also a college graduate. Michael says nothing—then, he asks one question: “You staying?” Michael’s question is a good one, since there have been rumors that Saban was offered an NFL job. Saban laughs and said that he hadn’t taken any NFL jobs yet—but three weeks later, he becomes head coach for the Miami Dolphins.
Division I football coaches are so desperate to recruit Michael that they have to “play the politics” in order to convince him to join their program. Saban’s expensive suits and charming manners exemplify football recruitment at its smoothest. However, the fact that Saban equivocates about whether or not he’ll stay on as an LSU coach might suggest that there’s something disingenuous about the coaches’ attempts to recruit Michael: the Division I coaches’ task isn’t simply to make Michael the best offer, but also to bend and twist the truth to make it sound as appealing as possible.
The next coach to visit the house is supposed to be David Cutcliffe of Ole Miss, but Cutcliffe is fired from his job. Phil Fulmer, head coach from the University of Tennessee, moves up his visit and comes to the Tuohy home a few days later—at the exact time when Michael is scheduled to visit Ole Miss. But Fulmer’s bus gets delayed, and he begs the Mississippi recruiter to wait half an hour. In the end, Fulmer shows up at the Tuohy house just as Michael is leaving with the Mississippi recruiter.
Phil Fulmer is less organized than Nick Saban, and he misses his chance to swoop in and impress Michael before Michael goes off to visit Ole Miss. The incident further suggests that Michael Oher is becoming increasingly interested in attending the University of Mississippi and less interested in other colleges.
Later, Fulmer manages to visit Michael at Briarcrest. Fulmer is supposed to be giving a talk at the Tennessee high school football awards ceremony, where Michael will be named Player of the Year, and he convinces Michael to let him drive Michael from his house to the ceremony. When Fulmer shows up at the Tuohy house, he tries to ingratiate himself with Collins and Leigh Anne, but he doesn’t have Nick Saban’s polish. Nevertheless, Fulmer has a big advantage: the coach from Ole Miss has been fired while Nick Saban from LSU has agreed to take a head coaching job in the NFL. At the end of his long visit, Fulmer walks outside with Michael, and Leigh Anne and Sean notice that he and Michael talk for a long time. Fulmer drives away, and Michael comes back inside. Sean demands to know, “Did you commit to Tennessee?” Michael says nothing.
Phil Fulmer’s clumsy manners exemplify the importance of polish and public relations in the recruitment process. For all Michael Oher knows, Phil Fulmer could very well be the head of the best football program in America—however, Fulmer’s job isn’t simply to present Michael with the basic facts about the University of Tennessee, but rather to wow Michael and flatter him. Michael remains tight-lipped about where he’ll attend college, to the point where even his own parents and siblings don’t know which college he’s going to choose.
Sean Tuohy, worried that Michael has decided to play for the University of Tennessee, is sorely tempted to intervene in Michael’s football career and ensure that he chooses Mississippi, but he doesn’t want to behave unethically. However, he contemplates encouraging Michael to visit LSU again, perhaps weakening Michael’s interest in Tennessee. In the meantime, he sends Michael to play in the U.S. Army All-American game, organized by Tom Lemming. After the game, Lemming writes that Michael is “far and away the nation’s finest offensive line prospect.” Michael refuses to tell reporters where he’s going to college.
Although Sean clearly wants Michael to attend Ole Miss, he doesn’t intervene in his adopted son’s decision-making process. To the extent that Sean influences the process at all, he does so by encouraging Michael to explore colleges other than the University of Tennessee. Meanwhile, Michael’s refusal to talk about where he’s considering going to college means that it’s hard for Sean to know what Michael is thinking, and therefore, it’s especially hard for him to influence Michael’s decisions.
Two weeks later, Mississippi gets a new head coach, Ed Orgeron. Ed’s first order of business is convincing Michael to play for his college. Orgeron, a “hearty Cajun coach” with a thick accent, visits Michael and pitches him hard—but nobody, including Michael, can understand a word he’s saying. Michael asks Ed Orgeron, “What are you gong to do for the kids that already committed to Ole Miss?”—i.e., people, such as Justin Sparks, who signed on to play before Orgeron became coach. Orgeron replies, “Lemsday,” which means, “Let them stay.” This seems to be the right answer. Michael later says that he’s glad Orgeron won’t dismiss kids who committed to Ole Miss—he asks, “would you play for that kind of person?”
After the excessive politeness and formality of Nick Saban and the awkwardness of Phil Fulmer, Orgeron’s laid-back friendliness feels refreshing. Orgeron is still trying his hardest to convince Michael to play for his school—but unlike Saban or Fulmer, he seems to do so in a relaxed, unrehearsed way. As a result, Michael seems to trust Orgeron more than he trusted either Fulmer or Saban. Notice also that Michael, a kindhearted young man, seems to be basing his decision off of the head coach’s character, not just the quality of the football program.
On February 1, 2005, Michael Oher holds a press conference about where he’ll go to college. Before a sea of reporters, he announces that he’ll go to the University of Mississippi, where his family went. Just a few weeks later, however, the NCAA will begin an investigation of affluent white Southerners “seizing poor black kids” from the ghetto in the hopes that they’ll attend their former schools.
Even after Michael chooses Ole Miss, the idea that the NCAA would investigate the Tuohys for manipulating Michael into choosing their alma mater sounds far-fetched. At least as Lewis presents things, the Tuohys have consciously refrained from influencing Michael’s decision in any major way.
After the press conference, Michael and Sean Junior play miniature baseball. In Sean Junior’s room, there is a framed bloody basketball net, which Sean Tuohy “earned” after scoring points in a legendary championship game (the blood was his). The net, Lewis says, symbolizes the love-hate relationship between the Tuohys and Ole Miss: Tuohy had to steal the net from the Mississippi trophy room late one night. While playing miniature baseball, Sean Junior asks Michael when he decided on Mississippi—all the way back in September, Michael replies.
Michael remains fiercely loyal to Sean Junior, and tells him things that he doesn’t tell anyone else. Also note that the Tuohys’ relationship with Ole Miss isn’t as loyal and harmonious as the NCAA will later allege. Most confusingly, Michael claims to have made up his mind months ago, making us wonder why he chose Ole Miss in the first place, and if he was just enjoying making powerful men from other colleges jump through hoops to impress him.