“My foster parents took me,” he said.
I ask how many foster homes he’d been in.
“About three or four,” he says. “Something like that.”
His arrival today, for a pre-draft briefing at the Times Square Westin, is more triumphant than anything that 7-year-old foster child could have imagined. Oher is wearing a Yankees cap, and I find myself wondering if it’s a sign of allegiance, or merely a fashion statement.
“They were always on TV,” says Oher, explaining his rooting interest.
In other words, when you’re a kid living place to place, which is to say, no place at all, the team on national television affords you some consistency, maybe even something to believe in.
“Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, I liked all them guys,” he says. Then, Oher’s eyes narrow, raising a furrow across his brow. It’s an arch expression, playful, but with a hint of the menace that awaits opponents on the other side of the ball.
“You thought I was just playing?” he drawls.
Michael Oher isn’t playing. He’s 6-foot-6, 310 pounds, and still relatively svelte around the middle. He possesses in abundance what the pro scouts covet in first-round left tackles — that uncanny amalgam of nimble ferocity. He can pancake a state of the art defensive end. He can throw a fastball. He can dunk, any which way. “I can do it all,” he says of his basketball prowess. “I’m going to blow out a rim.”
Still, athletic ability isn’t what makes Michael Oher unique. “There’s people in my neighborhood,” he says, “that had a lot more talent than me.”
Back in the Memphis neighborhood to which he was born, Oher was just another lost child, one of 13 siblings. His biological father was murdered. His mother was a crack addict. Until he was 16, he lacked a permanent address.
How did you eat, I ask.
“You did whatever you could,” he says. “Whatever you could.”
“Yeah, but . . .”
“Churches. Community centers, stuff like that.”
“The worst place you slept?”
“I don’t know. A porch?”
At 16, quite accidentally, Oher arrived at Briarcrest Christian School, and by turns described in Michael
Lewis’ bestseller, The Blind Side, eventually found himself adopted by the well-to-do family of Sean and Lee Anne Touhy. They gave him a home, a tutor, a chance and still more.
Asked what hurts the most about living on the streets, Oher says, “not having somebody to take care of you, to be there for you, to tuck you in at night.”
To tuck you in.
That’s the real saving grace of Michael Oher. It’s not his vertical, or his bench, or anything that can be quantified in the combine. Rather, what survived against all odds on the streets of Memphis, was a capacity to love and be loved. To be tucked in.
“For them to take me in with open arms,” he says of the Touhys, “that just shows you the kind of heart they have. Where I come from, you don’t do anything like that.”
I wonder where he’d be if not for his chance admission to Briarcrest or the Touhys.
“That’s a good question,” he says. “I don’t know. I’m very determined in everything I do. But meeting my family made the road a lot easier.”
What a concept: meeting my family.
He has two siblings in attendance here at the draft. There’s his dreadlocked biological brother, Marcus, and his blond sister, Collins. Collins and Michael attended Ole Miss, where he will graduate in a couple of weeks with a degree in criminal justice.
Why criminal justice, I ask.
“To take the innocent from the bad guys,” he says.
To save them, he means.
For the record, Oher finally read The Blind Side about a month ago. “It was all right,” he says. “It had a few things that probably made me look like I wasn’t smart . . . But people got to sell books.”
I don’t think that’s the case. To my mind, Lewis’ book is a near perfect synthesis of analysis and narrative. And while it provides readers several ways to consider Michael Oher, not smart is not among them.
There’s still a day and a half before the draft. According to Oher, the team that picks another offensive lineman is a team that’s making a mistake.
“If you do, I don’t understand,” he says. “I know I’m the best. I play in the best conference. Every Saturday. Every snap. All you got to do is watch film.”
He hasn’t allowed a sack since 2007. “I just have a passion for it, shutting down that elite pass rusher,” he says. “Every year, it seems like these guys are evolving into another monster. I just shut ’em down.”
He leans in; his eyes narrow. I imagine this is what he looks like to his opponents, as seen up close, through the bars of a face mask.
I step back. Then I find myself wanting to cheer — for Michael Oher, of course, but also for all those kids who have yet to meet their families.