29 March 2019

The Blind Side by Michael Lewis

Immediately after I read Moneyball last year I threw every other book by Michael Lewis on my wish list and was lucky enough to get The Blind Side for Christmas. I think Lewis is such a talented author and I'm happy to read any random topic he wants to write about, this time it happened to be football. I am not going to gush about Lewis too much here, you can read my review of Moneyball for that. I will say I loved The Blind Side even more than Moneyball, and I'll go as far as to say it has the most captivating opening chapter of any book I've ever read.

Many of you will have seen the movie adapted by John Lee Hancock, starring Sandra Bullock (she actually won best actress at the 2010 Academy Awards for her performance in it). I barely remember the movie, that's how little of an impression it made, compared to the film adaptation of Moneyball which I love. The Blind Side is about a very poor, homeless, black high school student named Michael Oher who is taken in by a very wealthy, white family and who goes on to play professional football. The film focuses a lot on Oher's story, and the book does too, but the book is also a lot more detailed in regards to football culture in itself and the politics of the game. Oher and the Tuohy family aren't even mentioned in Lewis' opening chapter.

You don't think of fear as a factor in professional football. You assume that the sort of people who make it to the NFL are immune to the emotion. Perhaps they don't mind being hit, or maybe they just don't get scared; but the idea of pro football players sweating and shaking and staring at the ceiling at night worrying about the next day's violence seems preposterous."

I've binged Friday Night Lights start to finish enough times to know that American football is basically a religion. Here, high school football coaches are gym teachers who happen to have some free time. In the USA, high school football coaches are headhunted, moved across the country with their families, given an entire department and staff, and fired when the team loses too often. Lewis opens The Blind Side trying to get readers to understand just how big the sport is to Americans, and just how important scouts, players, coaches, and games are to schools, states, etc. to the point where it's almost  created it's own economy. Understanding the American football phenomenon is crucial to understanding Oher's story, and I think Lewis does a really great job of setting this stage in an interesting and approachable way.

The single most interesting thing about this story to me is the complete selflessness/generosity of the Tuohy family. We're talking about a wealthy, white family in the southern USA who sees a black homeless boy in need, and takes him into their home and gives him every opportunity as though he is their own child. It starts off with Leigh Anne, the family matriarch, taking him shopping for new clothes, as when she's dropping her kids off she notices he's wearing shorts in the winter time. She starts giving him rides places, and eventually letting him stay on her couch. Eventually they renovate an extra bedroom and let him fully move in.

The book had a middle insert filled with photos of the Tuohy family (which I loved- more non-fiction books should take note). The top right photo shows Oher included in the Tuohy family Christmas card alongside their biological son and daughter, which is honestly fucking heartwarming.  

I may be cynical, but this is not an everyday act of kindness. I think every mother in America would at least be apprehensive about moving this man in with her teenage daughter (something we at least never see Leigh Anne express a concern with), but to also go out of her way to hire him a tutor, buy him a car, include him in their family Christmas card- I feel this is an example of over-the-top generosity. The Tuohys children never show a concern about the attention their parents were paying to Oher, a concern about the money they were spending on him, etc. They repeatedly explained that they were helping a man out who needed help and everyone who's in a position to should be equally excited to do the same.

Leigh Anne Tuohy had grown up with a firm set of beliefs about black people but had shed them for another- and could not tell you exactly how it happened, other than to say that 'I married a man who doesn't know his own color.' Her father, a United States Marshal based in Memphis, raised her to fear and loathe blacks as much as he did... Yet by the time Michael Oher arrived at Briarcrest, Leigh Anne Tuohy didn't see anything off or even awkward in taking him in hand. The boy was new; he had no clothes; he had no warm place to stay over Thanksgiving Break... 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... 'God gives people money to see how you're going to handle it,' she said."

I was very, very surprised by this generosity. It just seems so incredibly kind that I found myself TEARY EYED at times thinking about how lucky Oher was to have the Tuohys and how important charity is. Even at the Christian school Oher enrolls in with the other Tuohy children, and on a predominately white football team, the book never mentions racism as being a problem, which is something I could have expected. I will say however, the book doesn't spend a lot of time talking about Oher's integration in this primarily white family-education-sports ecosystem, it mostly focuses on his development as a football player, so perhaps there is more to the story readers aren't being provided.

A few weeks later, the phone rang late one night. It was a North Carolina cousin. 'All right,' he blurted into his phone. 'I've just had my fifth beer. Who the hell is this black kid in y'all's Christmas card?'"

Once Oher is drafted to a college football team, a rejected college coach puts in a complaint to the NCAA , accusing the family of taking him in and spoiling him so he would one day go on to play football for their alma mater, Ole Miss. In the latter sections of the book the NCAA is conducting a series of interviews with the Tuohy family to try determine if there's any legitimacy to the claim.  Leigh Anne is so insulted by the accusation she won't even participate in the interviews. Got to love a stubborn woman. 

Considering I just wrote an emotional opus about how generous the family is, I clearly believe their motives were pure, but I question why I feel this way, as I mentioned- I usually am more cynical. Lewis wrote about a family that had such pure hearts they took Oher in because it was the right thing to do... but there is a small chance they did it because they knew he would be a great football player. Sean Tuohy was a professional athlete, they obviously are familiar with the inner workings of that 'world', but I just don't buy it. I'd be curious as to whether anyone else read the book / saw the movie and was suspicious of their motives?

He now had these people he loved, who loved him. Through them, other people could get to him. He was no longer just another poor black kid going nowhere. He understood that most people, white and black, treat him a lot differently than they would have if he wasn't a football star. But he couldn't bring himself to be cynical about the Tuohy family. He knew other people, white and black, were saying that these rich white Ole Miss boosters had identified him early on as a future NFL lineman and bought him the way you'd buy a cheap stock or a racehorse. That they might not need his money but they liked his status, and had envisioned how he might serve the Briarcrest and Ole Miss football teams. Michael didn't believe it. 'I wasn't anything when I first got to them, and they loved me anyway,' he said. 'Nothing was in it for them.'"

Something I found interesting is that Lewis and Sean Tuohy are actually friends from college, and for this reason Lewis wasn't even considering writing about Oher and this story. It wasn't until Lewis and his wife were on his way home from dinner at the Tuohys one evening and his wife asked him how he could possibly be writing about anything BUT this, that he finally considered it. I can imagine the elevated sensitivities that must come when the subject matter of your non-fiction novel is a family you're friends with, but I'm sure the Tuohys must agree nobody but Lewis could have done this great a job.

Another page of photos... not sure why I felt the need to insert my sausage fingers displaying a classic case of anxiety-ridden nail-biting, but hey. Lewis makes a point throughout the book to mention the sheer size of Oher as often as he could- I feel like these photos really show how large a guy he is.

Ultimately, I think anyone who appreciates non-fiction would enjoy this book. It's educational, entertaining, and thought-provoking. It would make a great gift for a sports-loving dad or boyfriend who can be hard to buy for and who maybe wasn't interested in sitting through a Sandra Bullock movie, but even people who don't love sports (me) will enjoy this. It is 1000x better than the movie, and in my opinion, better than Lewis' Moneyball, and I can't wait to continue reading Lewis' books.

Jae Head, Quinton Aaron, and Sandra Bullock (left to right) in the film adaptation by the same name

I wanted to leave you all with one last quote from the book. It's from a part where different colleges are pursuing Oher, and Leigh-Anne really wants Ole Miss (her and Sean's alma mater) to leave a good impression on Oher. Other schools have been trying to show off their party culture, and he's not the type of guy who enjoys that stuff, so below is the instructions she provides the Ole Miss coach. What's incredibly funny is that these are word-for-word the same instructions I'd give someone trying to impress Meghan:

'Don't take him to some titty bar and give him shots of tequila. Don't put him with guys who want to show him how to have sex in eighty-five different positions. Don't feed him a steak: he hates steak. Take him to Ole Venice and feed him Fettucine Alfredo with chicken. Take him to a movie- and not The Texas Chainsaw Massacre because he'll just hide his face in his hands the whole time. And then let him go to bed.'"

1 comment:

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