Football Heathen, Draft Edition

For Christmas, the Horne Heathen Collective gifted me with a fascinating book about football called The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis. Lewis we knew; he’d written, among other things, Liar’s Poker, about the culture of bond salesmen on Wall Street in the 1980s. Lewis’ work reads like long-form magazine articles, in depth and highly interesting, so I tore into it immediately.

I finished it about 48 hours later. It’s a strong and compelling book comprised of two main narratives: first, the development of modern NFL tactics and strategy, with an emphasis on the so-called West Coast Offense (precision, timed short passes to precise routes, basically, which turned passing into something drastically more important than it was previously) pioneered by Bill Walsh, and second (and most importantly) the story of Michael Oher, a nearly feral African-American kid growing up in Memphis. Oher has no real parents, and basically lived by his wits and attended school only occasionally until a family friend, fulfilling a wish from his own child’s dying grandmother, ended up taking them to a suburban Christian school in the hopes they’d actually get an education there. Oher has essentially no educational background to build on, but when the small school’s football coach saw him — six and a half feet tall, nearly 350 pounds, hugely powerful, but with running-back speed — they figured out a way to admit him.

Somewhere along the way, the parents of another Briarcrest child took notice of Michael. Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy first clothed and fed, then housed, and finally adopted Michael more or less because it needed doing, and they had the means. They took it upon themselves to help Michael catch up academically — and athletically. Playing organized football for the first time as a junior, Oher was immediately a standout; by his senior year, he was being actively courted by virtually every big-name collegiate program in the country because his size, speed, and skills made him a perfect fit for the “blind side” of the offensive line in the new post-Walsh world of the NFL. The new world order needed big, fast, smart men on the quarterback’s non-dominant side, which typically means the left. Defensive players like Lawrence Taylor (don’t remember him? Joe Theismann’s leg does) had made a game of sacking quarterbacks, and the offense had to have an answer for them. In the years since, the Left Tackle position has become the second highest paid job in football, behind only the quarterback. Oher couldn’t fit this role any better if he’d been engineered in a lab.

Oher is now in his junior year at Ole Miss, and has been contemplating his future these last few weeks. With three years behind him, he’s eligable for the draft, and is widely considered to be a first or second round prospect. His coach is gone, replaced by Arkansas’ Houston Nutt. Many folks thought he’d go pro, and in fact he initially indicated his intent to do so — but then took advantage of the 72-hour regret period. As it happens, Oher will play SEC football next year after all. I can think of lots of reasons why he might prefer this, among them the prospect of a better season (Ole Miss was helpless this year even with Oher’s All-American, All-SEC heroics). However, after growing up without a family, and then suddenly getting one as supportive and devoted as the Tuohys, I also wonder if the prospect of the NFL isn’t a bit much for Oher just yet. Oxford is close to Memphis, and in fact the Tuohys own a house there as well. Why not be a kid one more year? It’s worth noting that Oher’s prospects aren’t as stark as they would have been had he come to Ole Miss from poverty; he doesn’t need NFL money to buy his parents a home, or a car, or take care of any relatives. He has no real kin other than the Tuohys, and Sean’s bankroll is sufficient for all of them. That gives Oher options.

It also means Ole Miss will be more fun to watch in 2008, and that can’t be bad.

Anyway, read the book. Many smart people, including Malcom Gladwell, are fond of this book; you won’t be sorry. However, we are very concerned about the movie buzz surrounding Lewis’ work. For one thing, there are few plausibly teenaged 6′ 6″ 300+ pound actors in Hollywood.

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