'The Blind Side' introduced Michael Oher, but Cam Newton's text rescued his career

ByElizabeth Merrill ESPN logo
Monday, February 1, 2016
Carolina Panthers tackle Michael Oher set up to block as quarterback Cam Newton prepares to take the snap during game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Florida Sept. 13, 2015
Carolina Panthers tackle Michael Oher set up to block as quarterback Cam Newton prepares to take the snap during game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Florida Sept. 13, 2015
wtvd-AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

In September 2009, just after Michael Oher's NFL debut, Leigh Anne Tuohy and Sue Mitchell went to see a private screening of "The Blind Side" in California. Their lives were about to be opened up to the world in the movie, a feel-good story that chronicled Oher's rise from homelessness to professional football, and naturally, the women were curious.

Tuohy had spent numerous hours with Sandra Bullock, so many that she now refers to her as "Sandy." Bullock wanted to immerse herself in the character, and she shadowed Tuohy and would call constantly, painstakingly trying to nail down her Memphis dialect. "You are worrying the stew out of me," Tuohy would jokingly tell Bullock. "Go away."

It was such a weird time. People were going through her closet, trying to figure out what kind of clothes and makeup she wore, and Tuohy said she had only 10 friends, so who would notice if they were right or wrong? And then there was Mitchell, Oher's former tutor who considers herself an ordinary person. Kathy Bates was playing her in the movie.

So they went to the screening, and as they left, Tuohy turned to Mitchell. "Do you think this is going to be successful?" she asked.

They weren't prepared for how big it would be.

Offensive linemen are supposed to be the most anonymous men on the football field. If things go right and they're not penalized, humiliated or failing to keep their quarterback upright, their names will not be mentioned much throughout the course of a three-hour game broadcast. Oher, a tackle, always wanted it that way. His whole life, he has stood out, bigger than everyone else and always the new kid as he bounced through 11 different schools before he went to college at Ole Miss.

Oher never wanted to be Cam Newton, or any other star. He just wanted to blend in and be part of something.

The movie, as history goes, only pushed him into the spotlight. It was a box-office smash, grossing more than $309 million and earning Bullock an Academy Award for best actress for her role as a sassy, rich, white woman whose family adopted a poor, black teenager. Seven years later, "The Blind Side" floats on endlessly through cable TV, somewhere between "Law & Order" and infomercials. (It aired twice last weekend on TNT.)

Oher does not watch it. On at least two different occasions over the past few years, he has told reporters that he isn't particularly fond of the movie. He believes it has taken away from what he does as a player, and causes people to zero in on every move he makes.

Oher -- by all accounts a kind, mild-mannered fellow -- grew slightly terse last week when asked in the locker room if he still hated the movie. "I said I didn't hate the movie a while ago," he said.

He knows he'll be asked about it many times this week as Carolina prepares to play Denver in Super Bowl 50. The timing of the movie back in '09 was perfect for Hollywood but not so good for a 22-year-old trying to prove himself in the NFL. Soon, his teammates on the Baltimore Ravens saw it, and started calling him "Big Mike," just like Bullock did in the movie. He does not like being called "Big Mike." His Carolina teammates have been known to send him funny texts about the movie.

"Of course guys would rib him," retired Ravens center Matt Birk said. "It's a locker room. Guys show no mercy, right? We see weakness and we go for it. But Mike was always good about it. You're 22 years old and there's a Hollywood life story made about your name. I'm sure that's got to be a little strange. People think they know you."

The entire country has watched the highs and lows of Oher's NFL career: the five seasons in Baltimore, the Super Bowl in the 2012 season, the move to his home state of Tennessee last year. Oher struggled as a Titan, allowing six sacks and 26 quarterback hurries in 11 games in a 2-14 season. Pro Football Focus ranked him one of the worst tackles in the NFL, and Oher drew the ire of numerous frustrated fans. There is a "Michael Oher Sucks" forum on the Internet, which, on the top, asks readers, "Do not post inappropriate comments. This is a friendly forum for fans."

Oher played with torn biceps all season and injured his toe. He didn't talk much about it, and Birk said he was never one to make excuses. Birk, now the NFL's director of football development, co-authored a book, "All-Pro Wisdom," which included Oher in it.

Birk said he always took pride in being the first one to arrive at the facility in the morning, but that when Oher arrived, he'd always beat Birk there. Birk was surprised that a young guy, a first-round draft pick, was so determined.

On Feb. 5, 2015, the Titans cut Oher. The Tennessean's story called it a move that "should have blindsided no one."

Leigh Anne Tuohy still boils at the mention of the Titans.

"We had people, talking heads, that didn't have any clue," she said. "And they're so quick to judge and categorize and pigeonhole.

"It doesn't represent who I am, but I would've loved to have stood out and flipped half of the world off. Take this, because this kid is a warrior, and despite what everyone has said about him, he has played his ass off and he has gotten back to where he always should have been. I've seen the kid fight from Day 1. He has scrapped and fought."

Oher was rehabbing from toe surgery in the offseason when he received a text from Cam Newton. The quarterback has recruited players before, but not this hard. Newton's brother, Cecil Jr., had played on the practice squad in Baltimore, and he was around Oher every day. They became friends. He knew Oher was talented and professional, and was confident he could protect his brother. Cecil told Cam that Oher would be a key acquisition to the team.

So Newton texted Oher, and he didn't just say he wanted him. He said he needed him. When the Panthers signed Oher to a two-year, $7 million deal this past March, the move was widely criticized. Oher, 29, appeared to be on the downswing.

Oher wound up being the only offensive lineman besides center Ryan Kalil to start every game in 2015 for the Panthers, who surrendered just 61 quarterback hits.

Oher said the message from Newton made him feel at home. For the first time in a while, somebody wanted him. He was reunited with offensive line coach John Matsko, his former coach with the Ravens, and quickly bonded with his teammates. Tuohy says the Panthers players are fun and don't take themselves too seriously. She compares his treatment in Carolina to the way a foster parent should treat a child: You tell him that he's valued and that you believe in him.

Though the commute to Charlotte is tougher than the trip to Nashville, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy try to attend most of Oher's games. Their time is spread thin. Their other son, S.J., who was depicted as a freckle-faced, wisecracking kid in the movie, is now in college and plays guard for the Loyola Maryland basketball team. Some weekends, Sean hits the road to see S.J. and Leigh Anne travels to watch the Panthers.

Sean and Leigh Anne were both at the NFC Championship Game last week in Charlotte. Leigh Anne cried when Oher's name was announced before the game. She always cries when she hears him in the starting lineup.

"Every time he runs out there, it just proves to me that there's hope in the world," she said. "And when given an opportunity, people can change. For seven years now, every time they introduce the offense and he comes out, I cry. People are like, 'Really?' I just can't help it."

When she sees that the movie is on TV, Mitchell will occasionally sit down and watch. It brings back good memories. She used to teach school during the day, then worked five nights a week tutoring Oher to help him meet NCAA academic requirements.

One of the reasons Oher bristles about "The Blind Side" is that he believes it depicts him as being unintelligent. There's a scene in the movie when Oher is at football practice and looks completely clueless, watching a set of balloons drift overhead. He knew far more about football than the movie showed. And Mitchell said Oher is smart. He was just massively behind because no one pushed him to go to school when he was younger.

Oher is the one who started calling Mitchell "Miss Sue," which is what a lot of people refer to her as now. He calls on her birthday, and they text often.

"It's hard to believe that there was ever life without Michael," she said. "It just seems like he's always been a part of all our lives. It was not a come-in-and-leave type thing. Not at all. He's just one of the Tuohys."

Mitchell texted Oher after the Panthers' 49-15 win against Arizona that landed them in the Super Bowl. She said she was proud of him. She used to go to his games when she still lived in Memphis, but now she's retired and lives in Maine and doesn't travel there as much. She won't talk to him this week as he's getting ready for the game. She doesn't want to distract him.

Mitchell said she never received any money for "The Blind Side," nor anything from the Tuohys to tutor Oher. But she travels and does public speaking now, and serves on the board of Making It Happen, a foundation Leigh Anne started to help needy children.

Ten seconds into a conversation with Leigh Anne, it is clear that "Sandy" nailed her character in the movie. She is the unfiltered one in the family, the daughter of a U.S. Marshal who jokingly says she learned to shoot first and ask questions later. Sean is the one whom Michael wants to talk to after games. Sean has his binoculars fixed on him for four quarters and breaks down everything that happened.

Sean can listen to the criticism thrown at Oher and ignore it. Leigh Anne is the only one in the family who can't. Whenever she hears someone criticizing Oher, and she's about to get upset, Sean calmly looks at her and says, "You just need to take a deep breath."

Usually, she doesn't.

"I need mouth management in a serious way," she said. "Sometimes, it gets me in a little trouble, and all the family has to clean up after me. I haven't killed anybody. I haven't committed murder, which is good."

Leigh Anne loves the movie. She said it was 3 1/2 hours at first, "and I was like, dear God, that's longer than 'Gone With the Wind.'" Director John Lee Hancock had to do some serious cutting. So there are a few scenes that didn't actually happen but are composites of characters and emotions.

One example would be the country club scene in which her friends are acting snotty and judgmental toward her for taking in Oher. To this day, she still runs into people who ask, "Was that me in that scene from the country club?"

"And I'm like, was it?" Leigh Anne said.

"If you think it was, you should probably do a little self-evaluating real quick."

She doesn't care what people think. Her son is going to the Super Bowl. The whole family will be there. Collins, the Tuohys' daughter, will go with her fianc. S.J. has a game at Army on Saturday night but will fly cross-country to see his brother play.

Leigh Anne loves the movie because she knows it gives people hope. Collins recently did a speaking engagement, and a woman told her that she adopted a child because of "The Blind Side." Maybe that's why Oher backed off from ripping the movie last week. He has tasted success again this season, and remembers the story behind it.

"There are people who want to have this big opinion about how the movie made him [famous]," she said. "Talk about the message of the movie. Talk about that there's Michael Ohers in every city in the United States, and if we all turned around and did one simple random act of kindness, it would change the world. Talk about how there's 145,000 kids, adoptable kids, in foster care right now that will age out in the next 90 days and that there's 250,000 faith-based churches and if one church took one kid, we would wipe out the need for foster care.

"Talk about that and the reflection of what the movie gives off. That's what he wants."