A Freak of Nurture

Michael Lewis (author of the must-read Liar’s Poker and Moneyball as well as the somewhat less terrific New New Thing) recently published The Blind-Side: Evolution of a Game. Despite the title, this book is only partly about football.

Lewis likes to describe an industry undergoing a fundamental transformation (Wall Street during the late 80’s, Major League Baseball or internet companies during the 90’s) and to profile someone helping lead the change (John Goodfriend at Salomon Brothers, Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s, Jim Clark of Netscape). He has a great sense of humor and an unfailing eye for comic detail.

The Blind Side adheres to the formula then manages to transcend it — which is why this is Lewis’ best book yet. Lewis chronicles a series of profound shifts in professional football that originate with the West Coast Offense. In the 1980s, Bill Walsh notices that the running game in football is like a mature industry: performance does not improve with the application of resources, innovation, or world class talent. For decades, NFL rushers had averaged 4-5 yards per carry and fumbled about 3% of the time. Runners became bigger and faster, plays became more complex — but defensive players adapted. Four decades after Ohio State’s Woody Hayes pioneered the “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense, the running game was still about the same. So Walsh focused on pioneering a new approach to the passing game. By the time he became head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, he had built a novel and highly productive offense around short, wide passes. It represented a fundamental change and the results transformed professional football. Suddenly Joe Montana and Jerry Rice — along with other quarterbacks and tight ends — become household names.

The new offense gave rise to defensive tactics aimed squarely at the quarterback. The West Coast Offense produced Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants “Big Blue Wrecking Crew”. Taylor was the most fearsome defensive football player of all time — a huge, fast, and exceptionally violent outside linebacker. He didn’t just sack quarterbacks, he crushed and occasionally crippled them. Taylor terrified his opponents, reshaped football’s defensive game, and forced Walsh and others to refine the West Coast Offense.

As QB injuries soared, the obscure position of left tackle suddenly became very important. A left tackles guards a right-handed quarterback’s blind side from maniacs like Taylor. But effective left tackles are born, not made — and they are not born looking much like the rest of us. Notes Lewis:

“The ideal left tackle was big, but a lot of people were big. What set him apart were his more subtle specifications. He was wide in the rear and massive in the thighs: the girth of his lower body lessened the likelihood that Lawrence Taylor, or his successors, would run right over him. He had long arms: pass rushers tried to get in tight to the blocker’s body, then spin off of it, and long arms helped to keep them at bay. He had giant hands: when he grabbed a defender, it meant something.

But size alone couldn’t cope with the threat to the quarterback’s blind side, because that threat was also fast. The ideal left tackle also had great feet. Incredibly nimble and quick feet. Quick enough feet, ideally, that the prospect of racing him in a five-yard dash made the team’s running backs uneasy. He had the body control of a ballerina and the agility of a basketball player. The combination was just incredibly rare. And so, ultimately, very valuable.

Not many people were cut out for the new left tackle — but those who were went from being the lowest paid players on the team to being the second highest paid after the quarterback himself. (Why not just recruit left tackles to be quarterbacks? After all, most of these guys are faster and have better arms than the QBs do. Lewis dances with the question briefly but doesn’t discuss in depth).

Lewis tells this story, for the most part, not as the saga of Bill Walsh but as the remarkable story of Michael Oher, a kid who thinks he is a basketball player but was actually born to play left tackle in the NFL. Oher is 6’4″ and 350 pounds with enormous arms and hands — and a quickness that is completely uncanny.

We meet Oher as a 16 year old from inner city Memphis whose childhood has been an epic disaster. His Dad disappeared and turned up murdered years later. Mom is a crack addict with 13 kids by five different fathers. Michael has never had parenting, steady meals, teachers worthy of the name, health care, clothes that fit, or anybody who cared about him consistently. Nobody in his family has ever had a driver’s license and most, like him, have never had a bed to call their own. As a small child, Oher fled from all manner of foster and institutional care and soon barely existed in the Memphis “social services” bureaucracy. He is, not surprisingly, an intellectual and emotional mess. He is not a simple person to get to know, much less write about.

In a storyline made for Hollywood and sure to end up there, Oher ends up getting adopted first by Briarcrest — an all-white Evangelical high school that banned him from sports until his grades improved and then by Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohey — a rich, white, Republican, Evangelical Christian couple. It is clear from his writing that Lewis knows the Tuoheys and thinks highly of them. Soon we see why.

Although Oher was obviously large, the school and the Tuoheys discover to their surprise that he has astonishing athletic gifts. He sees student athletes throw a discus, decides to give it a try, and quickly sets a state record. The football coach notices Oher tossing footballs through the uprights from midfield — an average of 75 yards per throw (a pro QB might hit 60 — and most of us rather less than half that). Once he had been recruited to play football, Oher was not a lineman — he was a line. His high school team won the state championship by repeating a single play — a fifth rate back follows Oher through the wreckage of defenders he had downed. Star linemen — some currently playing in the NFL — simply ran the other way. Within weeks, every college scout in the country knew Oher’s name and visited Briarcrest — most for the first time.

It turns out to be Oher who is blind-sided: first by grinding neglect, then by the unfathomable love of his new family, and finally by America’s notoriously corrupt college football system.

Michael’s left tackle turns out to be Leigh Anne Tuohey, his new mom, whose relationship with Michael is the best part of the book. She loves Michael — although it is not exactly clear why. She is very tough with him — and unbelievably generous. She improves his grades, his social skills, his confidence, and his tested IQ. She is at least as extraordinary as Oher and should write a book about her experience.

The child of a deeply racist Federal Marshall, Tuohey cares for Michael initially, one suspects, out of religious conviction. She interprets life’s blessings and challenges as tests from God — and she is all about passing those tests (“God gives us money as a test to see how we will use it” was my favorite example). But her sudden decision to love and adopt Michael Oher is no less admirable for being to impossible to understand without a deeper look into her religious convictions. This was not a part of her personality that a Berkeley-based, New York Times Magazine guy like Lewis was able to write about with the same ear for nuance and eye for detail that he brings to sports and business, but it is the healing power of this relationship that makes Blind Side a powerful book about race, class, religion, and personal commitment — as well as a fine book about football.

As of now, Michael Oher is still a work in progress. He is a sophomore at Ole Miss, a pampered and highly tutored student, and a freshman who started at left tackle — unheard of in the Southeastern Conference. He is widely followed in sports media thanks to Lewis, who also published Oher’s story in the New York Times Magazine. (Oddly, neither radio interview pursues the back story: Michael Lewis’ boyhood friendship with Sean Tuohey, who became a college basketball star and highly leveraged entrepreneur, married Leah Anne, and adopted Michael Oher). Highly recommended.