Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1774
It is likely that few but serious students of baseball and football will go the whole distance with either of Michael Lewis’s sports-themed books, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2003) and The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. Moneyball took readers inside the halls of a major-league baseball franchise—that of the Oakland Athletics. This team has combined baseball’s lowest payroll with its highest winning percentage through the acuity of general manager Billy Beane, who did it by the numbers—using statistics compiled by a curious battery of “outside insiders” who demonstrated that the traditional yardsticks of success for players and teams may be flawed. Only baseball insiders will grasp Lewis’s “new baseball.”
While Moneyball is replete with baseball anecdotage—intimate and original portraits of big-league ball players and game situations—The Blind Side conveys its dedication to football’s modern playbook novelistically through one player’s poignant—if unlikely—success story. Sometimes, however, Lewis’s narrative goes awry. Just as the reader becomes engrossed in that player’s drama, the author runs a literary double reverse and starts talking about the evolving game.
The reader does not meet the protagonist of The Blind Side until the first page of chapter 2, twenty-five pages into the book. That is because Lewis wants readers to know from the outset the role of his book’s antagonist, perhaps professional football history’s most violent defensive lineman. In physiology, “antagonist” is defined as “a muscle that acts in opposition to other muscles.” That is how New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor (L.T.) destroyed opposing quarterbacks throughout the 1980’s.
In his zestfully manipulative way, Lewis serves up the menacing presence of L.T. as catalyst for the larger human story that he really wishes to tell. Yet, unless readers accept this subtext for the book’s powerful bildungsroman—the rags-to-riches rise of a giant (6 feet 5 inches and 330 pounds) but destitute black teenager—that the primary fact of modern-day football is the position of offensive left tackle, the impact of The Blind Side diminishes.
Fifteen years ago this position was the lowest paid in the National Football League (NFL) but is now, after the quarterback, the highest. The offensive left tackle protects the right-handed quarterback’s blind side. It is the pass rush the quarterback cannot see coming that results in injuries like the one Lewis describes on page 1: Washington’s Joe Theismann’s career-ending leg fracture in a 1985 game against L.T. and the New York Giants in a “busted” play that inadvertently caused Taylor to wedge the quarterback beneath another Giants pursuer, with Theismann’s leg paying the price.
Injuries to star quarterbacks cause coaches anxiety about their jobs. By the 2004 NFL season the average professional left tackle’s salary was $5.5 million a year. In Super Bowl XL, played February 5, 2006, the highest-paid player on the field was Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who had just signed a six-year deal worth $8.2 million a year. The second highest was the man who protected Hasselbeck’s blind side, left tackle Walter Jones, who earned $7.5 million.
When, in chapter 2, Lewis introduces Michael Oher (pronounced “oar”), he is one of the thirteen children of Denise (Dee Dee) Williams, a crack addict. He does not know his real name, his father, his birthday, or any of the things a child might learn in school—like, say, how to read or write. Moreover, he has no experience playing organized football. When national football scout Tom Lemming, who had received thousands of tapes from football coaches and parents who wanted their kids to make the various high school all-American teams he selected, watched a clip of a Gulliverian express bearing down on a Lilliputian attempting to pass, he knew the boy from Memphis was a special case. “The tape was grainy and you couldn’t see very well,” said Lemming, “But when he came off the line, it looked like one whole wall was moving. And it was just one player! You had to look at it twice to believe it: he was that big. And yet he would get out and go chase down, and catch, these fast little linebackers.”
After these epiphanies of a man-child playing a boys’ game, Lemming tried to reach Michael Oher by phone. However, Big Mike, as he was known to everyone at Memphis’s Briarcrest Christian School, seemed incommunicado. He had no home; he did not even have a phone number. School officials, dubious of Lemming’s interest, finally arranged to drive Big Mike to the University of Memphis football facility for a face-to-face interview. There is no evidence that Lewis ever met Michael Oher during or after the writing of The Blind Side. There are no photos, but this is how Lemming described him:
He looked like a house walking into a bigger house . . . barely fit through the door . . . He was the solid kind. You also see big guys, tall guys who weigh a lot, but they have thin legs. They’re fine in high school, but in college they’ll get pushed around. He was just massive everywhere.
The British-Irish writer Rebecca West wrote, “There is no conversation. There are intersecting monologues.” Between Tom Lemming and Big Mike Oher in the fall of 2004 there were no intersections. The young behemoth refused to speak: “He shook my hand and then didn’t say a word.”
Something every other high school player in America was dying for Big Mike left on the table: an invitation to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. What never crossed Lemming’s mind was that the player he would soon rank the best offensive lineman in the nation did not have the foggiest idea of who Lemming was or why he was asking so many questions. “For that matter,” writes Lewis, “he didn’t even think of himself as a football player. And he had never played left tackle in his life.”
Michael Oher’s silent demeanor may have provided the author with a cover and a rationale for presenting a hero who through most of the book comes across as just as indistinct as his tapes. Readers are usually told rather than shown why the chronicle of Big Mike Oher cannot be other than a book-long work in progress.He had the most intense desire to please, without the ability to do the things that pleased. He had spent his whole life treating his mind as a problem to be covered up. He had grown so accustomed to not sharing a thing about himself, or perhaps never being asked about himself, that he did not even know how to begin.
Squarely at the book’s human center are the Tuohys—Sean, Leigh Anne, and their teenage daughter Collins—a wealthy Memphis family who take Mike from the city’s slums to their heart and hearth, adopt the giant sixteen-year-old, and reinvent him for football stardom.
“We had a black son before we had a Democrat friend!” jokes the football-loving Sean Tuohy. The author and Tuohy went to elementary school together in New Orleans, and much of The Blind Side has an as-told-to sound. What the Tuohys learn about Big Mike would not pass muster in a novel: a grade point average of 0.6, a sixth percentile rating for “ability to learn,” an absentee rate of forty-six days in the first term of his first year of first grade. (He took first and second grades twice each.) He slept on an air mattress in a trailer but was so heavy he deflated it. With or without classes, he walked to Briarcrest in winter just to find a place to keep warm.
New York Times book critic Janet Maslin, while commending the author for his sharp dialogue and unerring pull on heartstrings and funny bone, rightly notes that “parts of this book feel like prefabricated movie moments” out of Lewis’s preference for “buoyant details” over “the bleak ones that are implicit here.”
The book’s finest chapter is the sixth (of twelve), “Inventing Michael,” which describes a preseason home scrimmage during Oher’s senior year, only his second on the Briarcrest team as left tackle—actually a practice game against Munford, a nonconference school, but significantly “the last game of Michael Oher’s football career in which the opposing team wouldn’t have the first clue who he was.”
While coaches saw a future NFL left tackle and everyone at Briarcrest started telling him he was a star, Oher had hardly any interest in football and spent most of his game time in search of someone to fall over. Not even the Tuohys could detect a hint of aggression—until the scrimmage, that is, when a Munford lineman refused to let up on trash talk all directed at Michael (“Hey fat ass, I’m a kill you! . . . I’m a run your fat ass over!”). Only Leigh Anne, his surrogate mother, could tell when something angered Big Mike, but her back was turned when folks in the stands behind her began to laugh. Oher had lifted his tormentor off the ground and was carrying him, 220 pounds and all, well past the end of the field. Later, when asked what had got into Mike, the coach Hugh Freeze blamed the official’s slow whistle: “You tell Michael, ’I want you to block until the whistle blows.’ Well, he takes that real literal.”
In the absence of Michael Oher’s voice, a scene like the above brings him to life. So does a later one in the Tuohy home when Mike races down the stairs hell-bent to tackle Collins, the Tuohys’s teenage daughter who has swiped her big brother’s black pants because she thinks they clash with his blazer.
This brings up what may be a moot point. For all of Lewis’s secondhand sightings of Big Mike, why does the publisher deny the reader a single photograph? The nine illustrations in the September 24, 2006, issue of The New York Times Magazine (of which Lewis is a staff writer), appearing just prior to the book’s publication, would have let readers of the book see why so many coaches pursued him.
If the reader occasionally faults the author for applying lacquer to inner-city horror, Michael Lewis brilliantly affirms the implication that the “blind side” points to a nation’s disgrace more than to its games-play. As Lewis told a National Public Radio interviewer, he is chastened by a sense that for every Michael Oher, whose blind path is cleared by a freak dynamic of the football industrial complex, there are a legion of lost kids whose sesames remain closed.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 33
Booklist 103, no. 4 (October 15, 2006): 4.
The Economist 380 (September 30, 2006): 95.
The New York Times 156 (October 5, 2006): E9.
The New York Times Book Review 156 (November 12, 2006): 12-13.
People 66, no. 16 (October 16, 2006): 55.
Publishers Weekly 253, no. 39 (October 2, 2006): 29.
The Spectator 302 (November 11, 2006): 59.
Time 168, no. 8 (August 21, 2006): 63.
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