Rags to Riches: Michael Oher Pulls Off-the-Field Comeback for the Ages

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Rags to Riches: Michael Oher Pulls Off-the-Field Comeback for the Ages
(Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

By ANDRE JOHNSON

Michael Oher wasn't a bit perplexed. He knew it was bound to happen at some point.

So as the ESPN crew periodically aimed its cameras toward Oher during the recent NFL Draft, the star offensive lineman seemed his usual reserved self, relinquishing any thoughts of displaying a front for the millions of viewers who watched the opening round unfold.

In fact, he remained poised throughout what was a lengthy process, much like the other eight first-round locks who accepted the league's invitation of hanging out in the Green Room on draft day.

Even after slipping a number of spots and eventually being left as the lone prospect in the Green Room when the Houston Texans had taken former Southern California All-American linebacker Brian Cushing with the 15th pick, Oher did not appear baffled.

Instead, the 23-year-old Memphis native took a moment to envision which team was on the verge of landing arguably the most talked-about prospect leading up to the draft, the kid who several football analysts had christened the sentimental selection, given the tumultuous life that was dealt to him prior to college.

After nearly three hours, his fate had finally been sealed, capping what many would label an off-the-field comeback for the ages.

"With the 23rd pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, the Baltimore Ravens select Michael Oher, offensive tackle, University of Mississippi," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced, finally.

The former Briarcrest Christian School star emerged from the Green Room, proudly put on his employer's cap fearing its logo, embraced his family, made his way across the Radio City Music Hall stage, shook Goodell's hand, and then posed for a few photos with the commish, while holding a No. 1 Ravens jersey.

Such a sequence, in a nutshell, intrinsically marked yet another chapter to a remarkable story that only keeps getting better.

"It could have been shorter," Oher, in a recent telephone conversation from Baltimore, said of his wait in the Green Room. "But it doesn't matter. I got drafted and that's the most important thing. I was excited because I knew I was going to get drafted. Don't feel sorry for me."

Although several teams rejected the notion of drafting Oher because of what they perceived to be intelligence issues, the Ravens organization was ecstatic to see him fall to their position. Oher was a two-time First Team All-American and All-Southeastern Conference player. His skills have drawn comparisons to seven-time Pro-Bowler Orlando Pace, now with the Chicago Bears.

Thinking the Buffalo Bills were in serious discussion to get Oher, the Ravens traded their fifth-round selection to New England to move up from No. 26 to 23.

Unlike the teams that passed on him, they sensed Oher was a true mastermind on the field.

Eric DeCosta, the Ravens Director of Player Personnel, for example, was among those who watched Oher intensely during the club's recent organized team activities, and felt he would be a great fit from the outset.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said he was among those surprised that Oher was still available after nearly three-fourths of the first round was in the books.

Team General Manager and Executive Vice President Ozzie Newsome said not only have the Ravens picked up a special player, but the city of Baltimore got a really good person.

"I think over the course of his career, we're going to be able to enjoy both of them," Newsome said.

The Briarcrest community certainly can attest to both sides of Oher, whose life prior to college is the subject of author Michael Lewis' 2006 New York Times bestseller book, The Blind Side: Evolution Of A Game, and a movie entitled The Blind Side that is scheduled to be released in November.

While growing up in North Memphis, Oher was left to fend for himself by age seven after his father, who was not involved in his upbringing, was shot to death and thrown off a bridge.

His mother was an alcoholic and drug addict, and the fact that he was in school was a story in itself. He flunked both first and second grade, and attended 11 different schools during his first nine years as a student.

Additionally, it was discovered that Oher had been absent from school as many as 50 days a semester, which ultimately resulted in him possessing a cumulative grade point average of .6 and an IQ of 80. Basically, he was a lost child, one of 13 siblings to be exact.

How else to explain why the poor lad wound up safeguarding himself on the brutal streets of North Memphis, not to mention spending time in various foster homes with no permanent address until he was 16 years old? Nevertheless, there was a silver lining to a story that many, to this very day, still have a hard time believing.

With the help of an acquaintance, with whom Oher was staying temporarily, Oher enrolled at Briarcrest, a private, Christian-based institution in Northeast Shelby County.

Despite Hugh Freeze, the former Briarcrest football coach, expressing interest in the kid, school administrators did not feel he was capable of fulfilling the school's academic standards given his checkered educational background. Consequently, he was granted admission through a home-study program that removed him from the public school system.

Although his grades did not reflect it at one point, it is safe to say that Briarcrest was the perfect place for this miracle child.

Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy's daughter, who was a student at Briarcrest, spotted him walking to the gym one day during Thanksgiving break. The couple stopped their vehicle and gave Oher a ride.

The giving, as it turns out, did not end there. The Tuohys, an upper-class white family, eventually ended up adopting Oher, despite being grilled by friends and extended family members for taking in a poor black kid.

One moment, he is using someone's front porch as a mattress. The next moment, a bighearted family is tucking him in at night.

The Tuohys gave him a home. They gave him his own room. They gave him clothes. They gave him a tutor. Most importantly, though, they provided a new beginning to the life of a kid who, not too long along ago, seemed headed for being yet another statistic.

"It's just like a recycle thing," Oher says. "You grow up, you drop out of high school, and go back to the hood. It took a lot of hard work for me to get out. I mean, I don't know why I wanted to do it. I've never seen nobody just graduate and be productive. (The Tuohys) showed me the other side of the world."

A world that ultimately landed Oher on football's largest stage, thanks to a high school career in which he was the No. 1 offensive tackle prospect in the nation, and a collegiate career in which many dubbed him the best offensive lineman in Ole Miss history.

He likely has already secured the Ravens' starting right tackle position after the recent retirement of 13-year veteran Willie Anderson. So waiting hours in the Green Room and being left by himself was time well spent, if you ask Oher.

"Where I'm from, nobody gets out," he said.

Luckily for Oher, he managed to get out, capping what many would label an off-the-field comeback for the ages.

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