Michael Oher: I Beat The Odds

Michael Oher: I Beat The Odds

The recent autobiography by Michael Oher (pronounced “oar”) is titled “I Beat The Odds — From Homelessness, to The Blind Side, and Beyond”. The story details the authors’ incredible journey from a mostly deprived childhood involving an addicted mother, a father in prison, long periods off careless foster care, and terrifying periods of homelessness. But the book also tells how Michael Oher turned some opportunities into the achievement of his goals, and fulfillment of what can only be called “the great American dream”. The book’s title reflects the main points of Michael’s story:

1. I Beat The Odds — Michael Oher’s early years suggested little more to hope for, at the very most, than a life of impoverished anonymity, but more likely a short, sad life punctuated by drugs, violent crime and prison sentences. Yet Michael graduated from college, and his first job was a 5-year, $13.8-million contract with the Baltimore Ravens of the National Football League.

2. The Blind Side — refers to Michael Lewis’s 2006 book, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, which examined two story lines: One, how offensive football strategy has evolved over the past three decades; and two, the traumatic early life of Michael Jerome Oher, from his impoverished and hopeless childhood all the way to his adoption by the very well-to-do (and very white — Michael is very black) Memphis family of Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, and on to his eventual status as one of the most highly coveted prospects in college football. The book ends before Michael finished college and was drafted by the Ravens. The Blind Side also refers to the 2009 movie of the same name, which was based on the book’s Michael Oher story line. It was made into a movie that won Sandra Bullock an Academy Award, for her role as Leigh Anne Tuohy, the woman who found the homeless Michael, took him home and fed him, and eventually legally adopted the hungry and miserable teenager — all 6 feet 4 inches and 300-plus pounds of him.

3. And Beyond — Michael’s message goes beyond how he made it through the hell of his childhood, fought to stay in school, overcame the trauma of living on the streets while still a child, made it through high school and college, and became a successful pro athlete. Now a star left tackle for the Ravens, Michael delves into his unhappy past to describe the goals he set for himself, and how those goals helped him “break out of the cycle of poverty, addiction and hopelessness that had trapped my family for so long — and the people who helped me get there.” Michael talks about how he was finally able to accept, and benefit from, the help he was offered by others — sometimes from the unlikeliest of people. He is at pains to point out how important it is to accept, and use wisely and positively, what you are given by others. He shares these lessons, he says, so that kids with a past like his might use them to make a better life for themselves — “it’s a guidebook for kids like me and the adults who want to help them.” He also points out, for those who saw the movie The Blind Side, that the movie makers took considerable license with the truth, in order to make the story work in a couple of hours.

But although the facts may be different in some respects, the actual horror of his childhood is probably worse than they depicted on screen. “What they probably don’t know — what no one knows — is exactly what happened to me during my years in the foster care system, the years before The Blind Side picked up the story. The things in my life that led up to it; the way I tried to fight back; the emotions that overwhelmed me and left me confused, scared and alone; all of the memories that no one was able to bring out of me; everything in my life that came before the happy ending...all of that...I want to provide a voice for the other half-million children in the foster care system who are silently crying out for help.” Michael talks about help from others, but also stresses the importance of “the mind-set I had to succeed — with or without anyone’s help.” The Blind Side and the help from the Tuohy family, he says, is about how one family helped him reach his full potential, but there were many others, and other experiences along the way, that all added up to the opportunities that eventually opened up for him — “a complicated series of events and personalities that helped me achieve success.” Born Michael Jerome Williams, Jr., in Memphis, TN, Michael was one of 12 children.

His mother, Denise Oher, was an alcoholic and crack cocaine addict. His father, Michael Jerome Williams, was frequently in prison, and was eventually murdered there when Michael was a senior in high school. Growing up, young Michael received little love, attention and parenting or discipline. At seven years old, he was placed in foster care for the first time, and as the years passed by, he cycled between foster homes and homelessness — living on the streets, sleeping at friends’ homes, eating where and what he could scrounge — basically, getting along as best he could. Michael repeated both the first and second grades, and in his first 9 years of school, he attended 11 different schools — and according to some reports, that includes an 18-month period when he didn’t attend any school at all. “Either that, or the public schools were so indifferent to his presence that they neglected to register it formally,” Michael Lewis wrote in his book The Blind Side. “Not that Oher actually showed up at the schools where he was enrolled.

Even when he received credit for attending, he was sensationally absent: 46 days of a single term of his first-grade year, for instance.” Eventually, Michael made it into a public high school, where because of his size and strength, he was a natural for sports — basketball and football. He applied, at the urging of an acquaintance, for admission to Briarcrest Christian School, and after jumping through some academic hoops, he was finally accepted. And that’s when football began to change things in his life, in a good way. He was named lineman of the Year in 2003 and First Team Tennessee All-State, he was rated as a five-star recruit and the 5th most promising college football offensive lineman prospect in the entire country. All the college coaches came knocking. It was around this time that the Tuohy family appeared in Michael’s life. In fact, he was living vicariously, in and out of foster care, sometimes sleeping in the streets, for his first two years at Briarcrest. The Tuohy’s took him in, and the rest is, more or less, history. He chose “Ole Miss”, the University of Mississippi, the Tuoy’s alma mater. Tutoring, loving care and eventual adoption really helped Michael turn the corner. His star turns playing for Ole Miss led to his draft pick and multi-million-dollar contract with the Ravens. As a side note, Michael’s IQ was tested in the public schools and was measured at 80 — among the lowest percentiles.

After his “care and feeding” by many friends, acquaintances, teachers, football coaches, tutoring provided by the Tuohy family and university studies, his IQ soared at least 30 points. Don’t ever let it be said that one’s IQ is not affected by one’s environment, general mental and physical health and lifestyle. There are 500,000 kids in foster care, Michael writes, and 70 percent of them who turn 18 and leave say they want to attend college. But less than 10 percent get a chance to enroll, and less than 1 percent ever graduate. Within a year and a half of aging out of foster care, close to half of all former foster kids are homeless. And kids put into foster care are twice as likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than American military returning from war zones. “I’m not just using an old expression when I say I beat the odds,” Michael says. “I got the chance to become something because I had a desire to break out of my neighborhood, and because there were people around me who took that dream seriously.”

At Novus, we take our patients dreams of sobriety very seriously indeed. Each one of them is working hard to make their dream a reality, and we are right there helping them in every way we can.

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