Michael Oher, the NFL football player and the inspiration behind "The Blind Side," tells his story of triumph in a revealing memoir.
Read an excerpt from "I Beat the Odds" below, then check out some other books in the "GMA" library
I felt myself breaking into a sweat as I walked up to the doors of the Department of Children's Services office, and it had nothing to do with the fact that it was summertime in Memphis. I never would have dreamed a dozen years ago that I would walk willingly up to those doors. To me, they seemed to stand for everything that had gone wrong in my childhood, every bad memory, every feeling of hopelessness and loneliness and fear. And now I was headed inside.
It was a different office from the one I remembered. The big state government building downtown was the one that always stayed in my mind, and that was where I thought I was headed until the directions I'd been given had me turn into an old strip mall lined with a payday advance center, a grocery store, and a lot of potholes in the parking lot. I'd driven past this shopping center I don't know how many times in my life and had never really paid that close attention to what all was there. That afternoon in July, as I drove up for my appointment, I just circled past the stores in my car, looking for a place to turn back out onto the road because I knew the directions had to be wrong. But then I saw the familiar DCS logo on the glass door toward the end of the mall and I knew I was in the right place.
Suddenly, I lost about three feet and two hundred pounds and became a scared little kid again. I was a few minutes early, but I was ready for this to happen. There was no use sitting in my car to kill that time. I had come here as part of my work to write this book and I had an appointment to meet, for the first time in my adult life, the woman who spent years as the state's caseworker on my file. I needed to go in while I still had the nerve, so I parked and walked to the building, past all the other cars parked outside, past the waiting room full of plastic chairs, and up to the little reception window that looked kind of like a bulletproof barricade that you see in convenience stores in the worst parts of town.
"Hi," I said to the woman checking people in. I had to duck down so she could see my face through the glass. "My name is Michael Oher and I'm here to meet with Ms. Bobbie Spivey."
"Ooh! It's so nice to meet you!" she almost shouted. "Come on in! We've been expecting you! Ms. Spivey's office is back here."
A security guard opened the door and led me through a metal detector and back into a big room full of cubicles and offices. As I walked to the conference room where our meeting would be, a number of women crowded around—all DCS workers—and said hello or told me how much they enjoyed the movie The Blind Side. I shook hands and said hello, but none of the faces looked familiar.
And then, all of a sudden, I saw her. There was no mistaking who she was. I was face-to-face with the woman who had been one of the scariest people in all of my childhood.
"Hello, Michael," she smiled, giving me a hug. She barely reached the middle of my chest as I bent down. "You look so different. You're a lot taller. And your complexion is better."
I had to laugh at that. She looked different, too. I couldn't believe that the woman I'd thought of for years as a relentless "bounty hunter," always chasing down my brothers and me and trying to take us away from our mother, was really just a tiny, pretty woman with a nice smile and a gentle voice.
We sat down at a table as we went over the rules of our meeting. Any kid who has been in the custody of the state has a right to their information once they become an adult. However, when there are siblings involved, it makes things a little more complicated because the law only allows me to get information about my own life and not about anyone else's. She explained that rules like that have to be there to protect people's privacy, so there might be some questions I would ask that she wouldn't be able to answer. I understood. I was just happy to have a chance to finally start to put together the pieces of all of the memories I hadn't let myself think about for so many years. Sean Tuohy said one time that one of my strongest gifts was my ability to forget. He was right. I had needed to forget a lot of stuff in order to not get swallowed up by the hurt and sadness. But I had finally decided that the time was right for me to start remembering.
I didn't write this book just to revisit Michael Lewis's The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, and it is not meant to be a repeat of Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy's book In a Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving (which was released while I was working on this one). Lewis's book was originally aimed at football fans who were interested in some game strategy and a personal story about it; the Tuohys' book was designed to help carry on a discussion with people who had seen the movie about our lives and were inspired to find their own way to give.
My book is as different from the other two as they are different from each other, and I have a couple of goals that I'd like to accomplish with it. The first is that I want to help separate fact from fiction. After the movie came out, there were a lot of people asking me if my life was exactly how it was shown on screen. Obviously, the moviemakers have to make artistic choices to tell the story in the best way, but some of the details, like me having to learn the game of football as a teenager or me walking to the gym in November wearing cut-off shorts, just aren't true. Since so many people seem interested in these details, I hope that I can help to make a little more sense out of it all for them.
My second goal with this book, and the much more important one, is that I want to talk about—and to—the nearly 500,000 children in America whose lives have been so rough that the state has determined they're better off being cared for by someone other than their parents. The odds are stacked against those children. Less than half will ever graduate from high school. Of the ones who drop out, almost half of the boys will be imprisoned for violent crimes. Girls in foster care are six times more likely to have children before the age of twenty-one than are girls in stable families. And of those kids, more than half will end up in foster care themselves. The outlook is pretty bleak for kids like me.
I beat the odds.
Most people probably know my name from The Blind Side. 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 my 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—those are the things I want to discuss. All of that, and I want to provide a voice for the other half-million children in the foster care system who are silently crying out for help.
But the one thing I particularly want to stress is that I was determined to make something of myself, and that's the hope I want to offer to those children and teens, and the adults in their lives who want to help them. This book is designed to tell my story while explaining the lessons I learned along the way and looking at the mind-set I had to succeed, with or without anyone else's help.
I've read some newspaper articles recently where Leigh Anne Tuohy is quoted as saying that I would either be dead from a shooting or the bodyguard to some gang leader if I hadn't been taken in by their family. I think that had to have been a misquote because despite the sensationalist things that make for a more dramatic story, what my family knows and what I know is that I would have found my way out of the ghetto one way or another.
Failure was not an option for me.
Any person who would suggest that I would have ended up facedown in a gutter somewhere is missing a huge part of the story. The Blind Side is about how one family helped me reach my fullest potential, but what about the people and experiences that all added up to putting me in their path? As anyone in my family will tell you, they were just part of a complicated series of events and personalities that helped me achieve success. They were a huge part of it, but it was a journey I'd started a long time before. And it's that journey I want to share in this book for other struggling kids who are fighting for their own way out.
I've tried to be as honest as I can about the things I discuss here. This book is everything I've never spoken about to anyone before, and a lot of things I've tried to forget. People used to say that my ability to forget was what allowed me to move on. They were right. But no kid ever truly forgets when they've experienced neglect, abuse, and heartbreak. And now, I think I can only succeed in accomplishing something meaningful and important in my life if I share those memories so that other people can learn and understand what growing up is really like for kids like me.
I have to admit that I don't remember all the details of my childhood. I have done a pretty good job of blocking them out. To finish this book, I went home to Memphis and, with the help of Don Yaeger, talked to some of the people who played a role in my childhood—foster parents, teachers, caseworkers.
To get out of that world, I did have to forget. To get to the next place in my life, I had to face what I left behind.
What started as a survival technique—my dream of getting out of the ghetto—has become a source of hope for countless children and families across America. Every week I receive boxes of letters that tell my story all over again. They come from kids in the foster system who dream of finding a family. They come from families who open their homes in the hopes of helping those kids reach their potential. They come from teachers and mentors and parents and social workers who want to make a real difference in someone's life. They come from adults who were in the foster system themselves as kids—some now have a family and a career . . . and some are now in homeless shelters or prison and wish they could start over again.
It is my goal with this book not only to tell my story in my own words, but to encourage anyone who is a part of the system or who wants to be a part of helping children out of it. Not only will the book give tips and suggestions for reaching out to kids who need help, but will also include a chapter that lists a number of local and national groups determined to provide a better chance for kids like me, who want so badly just to have a shot at a normal life.
And just what are our odds at a normal life, after a childhood shuffled between an awful family life and the foster care system? Not too great. Only about one-third of children eligible for adoption in the foster care system ever end up with parents or permanent legal guardians, and the majority of those are children under the age of eight. After that, the chances of being adopted are lower than remaining in the foster system, and continue to drop with each birthday. About 25,000 kids age out of the system each year. They turn eighteen and suddenly they are on their own, whether they have graduated high school or have a place to live or not.
Think about these statistics:
• 70 percent of kids who age out of the foster care system at eighteen say they want to attend college, but less than 10 percent get a chance to enroll, and less than 1 percent of those who enroll ever graduate.
• Within a year and a half of aging out of the system, close to half of all former foster kids are homeless.
• Children who have been taken to live in the foster system are twice as likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder than are American military members returning from war zones.
I'm not just using an old expression when I say I beat the odds. What happened to me with finding a loving and supportive family was an unusual and unlikely situation. 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.
The ending of my story is unique, but the beginning of my story is, sadly, far too common. It is my desire to use the blessings in my life as a way of speaking up for the other children like me—for all the other Michael Ohers out there who want so badly to succeed at life but simply don't have the tools or the advocates to help them better themselves.
In many ways, this book is a guide to life, a look at how I made it to where I am today. I want to talk about the goals I had for myself that helped to break me 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. I went from being a homeless child in Memphis to playing in the NFL, and that doesn't happen just by wishing for it. I want to offer advice and encouragement to both the adults who want to be part of a solution and to the kids who might pick up this book and believe there is no way out for them. Yes, the ending of my story is unique, but it doesn't have to be.
I knew when I made it to the pros that I had done the impossible. I can't say that I was never going to look back, though. That's the point of this book—to look back to all the other kids in situations like mine, where no one has any hope for them or gives them a shot to make it out of high school and into mainstream society. We don't have to end up on the streets or in prison just because the statistics say that's where we're headed.
I know there are many people out there who have the love, energy, talents, and resources to make a difference in someone else's life. It might seem intimidating at first to try to figure out how, where, and who to help. I want this book to help give some advice and direction for anyone who wants to be a part of the solution.
The numbers can seem overwhelming, and it can be hard to imagine that anything you have to offer could possibly make a difference with so many kids in the foster system and stuck in terrible neighborhoods and bad home situations. But you have to remember that every small act of love and concern makes a difference to that child.
And as I have learned, a lot of tiny gestures of kindness can add up to something great.
After The Blind Side came out, I had all kinds of people asking me questions about what my life had been like before I started at Briarcrest Academy. Some questions came from reporters. It didn't really bother me that I didn't have much I could share with them. But then those letters started coming in: to the Baltimore Ravens' office, to Ole Miss, to the Tuohys' house. The more I thought about the kids writing me, the more I realized that I had a responsibility to look into my past and really think about what had happened and what had helped in my life to give me hope for the future. It wasn't just time for me to be honest with myself about what I had been through; I owed it to all those other kids who looked at me and saw a role model. Kids who were in the same place I was just a few years ago were watching me not just because they liked the movie or enjoy watching sports. Sure, a lot of people write to me wanting to talk about football. But the letters that truly stood out to me were the ones from those kids whose stories I understood. They weren't writing me for an autograph. They were studying me because they wanted to learn how I had managed to make something out of my life when all of the statistics and studies you read point to kids like us having no shot.
So that was why I was sitting at a table with Ms. Spivey on a hot July afternoon, talking about stuff that happened a decade or more ago. I had decided to write a book that reached back before my happy ending to look at what happened to me and how I ended up where I did.
It was scary for me to think about opening up. I had shut down a lot of my memory for a reason. But I was also interested in being able to draw a line that would connect a lot of things I kind of recalled and to make more sense out of some of the confusion I still had about it all. Mostly, though, I was genuinely excited about figuring out what lessons I could share about making a better life as a kid with a past like mine. I knew that I wanted this book to be more than just a story about my early life. I wanted it to be a guidebook for kids like me and the adults who want to help them.
I always felt as a kid that God had something special planned for my life. Now I know what it was. It wasn't to make me a professional athlete; it was to make me a role model for kids who, like me, are missing that person in their lives. He wanted to use me to show the world anybody can be successful, no matter who they are or what their history is. But I had to trust in that plan and be an active, real part of making it happen. I had to believe that it was possible even when it seemed it wasn't, and work for it even when it seemed pointless.
I did, and I think that's what made the difference.