'The Blind Side': How Michael Oher Made It

The incredible true story NFL star's journey from Memphis streets to pro career.

December 21, 2009, 10:14 AM

Dec. 23, 2009 — -- Michael Oher is easy to pick out on pro football highlights reels. He's the Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman who makes the biggest players on opposing teams look like overstuffed rag dolls. Oher, a rookie left tackle, is already being noticed for his brute force in the trenches.

For Oher, it's a childhood dream come true.

"I would have dreams all the time about me playing in the NFL," Oher said. "Every day I woke up, I said to myself, you know, I'm going to work hard, you know, this day to get to that next level."

If Oher's incredible journey weren't true, you'd never believe it. But it did happen, and it's inspired one of this year's biggest films, "The Blind Side." The movie is a heart wrenching story of amazing twists of fate -- and the ultimate gift of love.

Long before Oher made it to the NFL, he didn't have a family to speak of. He grew up in a rough part of Memphis, Tenn., the son of a crack-addict mother and an absent father. When he enrolled in high school, he didn't have a permanent home. Then the Tuohy family took him in.

"He thinks I birthed him," joked Leigh Anne Tuohy. "It's gotten to the point where I think I birthed him. He takes great offense if people don't think that he's a part of the family."

Sean Tuohy, Jr., became Oher's new little brother.

"It was just me and him all the time," said Sean Jr. "We didn't miss a beat. I always introduced him as my big brother."

Collins Tuohy became the new sister.

"It was just, he was Michael, and I was Collins, and we went about our everyday life, and he was my brother, and that was that," she said. "I mean, I cannot imagine life without Michael."

The Tuohys live just a short distance from Oher's old neighborhood -- but it is a world away. Like other young black men growing up poor in Memphis, Oher seemed destined for two possible outcomes. A life consumed by drugs and gangs -- or one of sports with a glimmer of hope. For Oher the journey began in a housing project called Hurt Village.

"You had robberies, murders, burglaries, assaults," said Jimmy Chambers, a gangs investigator for Shelby County, Tenn.At 15 years old, Oher was 350 pounds and 6 foot 5, making him an ideal recruit as a body guard for any one of the two dozen gangs in the project.

"Most gangs grab for him," said Chambers. You know, 6-foot-[5]. Whew. Yes."

Oher: 'I Didn't Want to Do It'

Oher said the early years were tough.

"It was extremely hard being around all the violence that -- you know, the drugs," he said.

Fortunately for Oher, he met Tony Henderson, who ran a neighborhood athletic program.

"He wasn't no trouble kid, nothing like that, you know?" said Henderson. "He was real quiet, you know, and just stayed to himself."

Oher's home life was unstable, so Henderson took him in.

"He had an extra room and, you know, [I began] living in there," said Oher.

Oher went absent 51 days from Westwood High School one year. He had been to 11 schools in nine years, and often cut class. His grades were a disaster. By the ninth grade, his grade point average was .06. He was on the road to dropping out.

"It was easy for me to say, you know, I want to hang out, you know, with these guys and, you know, do drugs and, you know, not go to school," said Oher. "But I decided I didn't want to do it. I wanted to, you know, be something in life."

Fate was about to provide a major turning point, putting Oher on the right path. In 2002, Henderson took his own teenage son to be enrolled in Briarcrest Christian School. But he also took along the boy he was struggling to help -- Michael Oher.

Briarcrest coaches were amazed that this supersized kid could move like a dancer on the basketball court. They knew he was something special.

Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy's two children were also enrolled at Briarcrest. Collins Tuohy, a cheerleader and a straight-A student, was Oher's age, 15. She remembered her first interaction with him in the school halls.

"I was coming down the stairs, he was coming up the stairs," she said. "And obviously I noticed him. And I said, 'Hey,' and he said, 'Hey.'"

Oher's coaches noticed Oher rarely went to the same home after games. So he began staying with the Tuohys. Sean Tuohy, Sr., a wealthy businessman, is a former college basketball player.

"He'd stay every once and awhile, then he'd leave, and then he seemed more comfortable to stay," said Tuohy.

Sean Jr. recalled the first day he found Oher at home.

"I came home one day from practice and he was sitting in the living room, and I [said], 'Hey, Dad, um, there's a really huge black guy on the couch,'" he said. " I don't know if you realize that."

Leigh Anne ended up inviting Oher to stay.

"And then finally Leigh Anne says, 'Why don't you just stay?' recalled Sean Sr. "And he said, 'That's what I'd like to do.'"

Leigh Anne Tuohy said her heart went out to Oher.

"I just think Michael needed somebody, and it was so evident that there was nobody in his life," she said. "And to me, it just broke my heart. And, and very quickly, I just fell in love with him."

Oher quickly settled in with the Tuohys.

"He made us sit around the dinner table," said Sean Sr. "If we were going to spend time with him, we had to go to his, his neighborhood. And so we'd come eat at the table. We haven't eaten at the table since he left."

Oher said his new siblings welcomed him.

"SJ, Sean Jr., and, you know, Collins, they act[ed] like I was a part of, you know, the family," said Oher. "So they, they welcomed me with, you know, open arms."

By the time Christmas rolled around, Oher was even included in the family holiday card. And like in the movie, Leigh Anne Tuohy says she got a call from her cousin with a question.

"He goes, 'I'm not, you know, I'm not, I'm not trying to be rude or anything,'" she said. "But, he goes, 'Who's the black boy in the Christmas card?' You know, and we just didn't think about it."

Leigh Anne said it was a long time before she felt Oher returning affection.

"I hugged him a lot," she said. "I'm really touchy feely. I go to each child's room every night and kiss them good night and hug. I did that just to Michael like I did the other two, and it was just kind of not much of a response for a long time. And then finally, one night, it was just this random, you know, I said 'Night, honey. Love you, see you in the morning.' And I got a 'Love you too.' And I went outside the door and I was like, wow. I said, 'We have moved mountains.'"

Briarcrest Christian School Far Cry From North Memphis Projects

As Oher settled in with the Tuohy family, it almost seemed as if he'd been with them his entire life. But at the Briarcrest Christian School, he had much more work to do.

Oher said the predominately white school was a far cry from the North Memphis neighborhood of his youth.

"It was a big difference, you know?" he said. "Everybody looked alike for the first couple of weeks."

There was a warm welcome and a serious reality. Oher's grades were about as low as they could go.

"It was like I was starting school in the 10th grade, because all the material that I was receiving was new to me," said Oher. "You know, I'd never even heard of a lot of this stuff."

"So that's when we kind of implemented Team Oher," said Leigh Anne Tuohy. "It was like, 'OK, this is going to take a whole village to do this.'"

Most who knew Oher were convinced that his poor grades and low IQ scores reflected a lack of opportunity, not intelligence.

"I always felt that I was, you know, smart," said Oher. "I just didn't have a lot of the resources that everybody else had. ... It was tough for me to catch up."

Oher said he was undaunted despite the enormity of the task.

"I wasn't terrified because, you know, I knew I was going to try my best and give it my all," he said.

Collins Tuohy said Oher was ready to learn.

"He wasn't in need of academic help because he was already a very intelligent person," she said. "He was in need of the tools to put all that intelligence together."

Sean Sr. agreed.

"He was determined to be at the level where everybody else was," he said.

It was like Oher was in training.

"There [are] seven periods in a day, he had eight classes," recalled Leigh Anne Tuohy. "He had to go at 6 o'clock in the morning before school to take a class -- I mean, that's how far he had to go."

Collins Tuohy, an honors student at Briarcrest, was in the same grade as Oher. She rearranged her schedule so that the two would share some classes.

"Collins would come in, you know, every afternoon and she would tell me what the assignments were," said Leigh Anne Tuohy. "So I would usually know 'em before he hit the door."

Suddenly, the high school sophomore was working overtime with Oher.

"I sat ... with him," said Collins Tuohy. "That was the most studying I've ever done in my life--ever. I was kind of like, 'Whoa, what's going on here?' I went from doing my two hours, now I'm here seven hours on the table. ... It was, it was just very clear that it had to be a team effort."

At times Michael became frustrated.

"He came home and said, 'I can't do it. I just can't do it,'" said Sean Sr. "Well, I go, 'Well, OK. Well, that's all right.' You know, I mean, 'cause I am ... I couldn't do it either. And she goes, 'Nope. Sit your butt down. We are not giving up. You are gonna do it.'""It was tough for all of us," said Leigh Anne Tuohy.

So the family brought in reinforcements. Tutor Sue Mitchell began working with Michael. He soaked up information like a sponge, she said.

"We worked hours and hours every day," said Mitchell. "He would come home. He'd take a shower and we would work till at least 11:30 every night. And we did this six nights a week."

Sean Jr. remembered Oher's intensity.

"When I went to bed at 10, and he's -- I'd wake up at two, and he would still be studying downstairs with tutors," he said. "He never had any time off, and I can't even imagine me being in high school now and me even thinking about doing that."

Mitchell said Sean Jr. offered encouragement.

"When Michael might be getting a little bit tired or ready to quit for the night, Sean was so good about coming back and putting his arm around him and telling him, you know, 'You can do it,'" said Mitchell.

Oher: 'It Was Unbelievable' to Graduate

By Oher's senior year, the grueling work was beginning to pay off.

"He'd come in and slap his test down and put mine right next to it," said Collins Tuohy. "'I made a better grade than her. Hey, you all look at this. I made a better than her today.' You know, I'm like, 'Cut me some slack, you know, like really.'"

Life was taking a fantastic turn for Michael Oher. Not only was he making an academic comeback, but his football career was taking off wildly. College scholarship offers began pouring in.

"The truth is, we never completely thought that he could qualify [for college], 'cause he had so far to go," said Sean Sr. "There is no way he should have."

But the moment his family never thought possible finally arrived: Oher graduated from high school.

"The Blind Side" depicts the graduation ceremony.

"I have seen the movie seven times," said Leigh Anne Tuohy. "I cry every time I see that part."

Oher said graduating felt great.

"It was unbelievable just to, you know, walk across the stage and shake the principal's hand. I was the first one ... out of anybody that I ever knew to, you know, graduate. ... It was ... a great experience."

With diploma in hand, the kid from North Memphis was now ready for college. Of all the choices, he went with The University of Mississippi -- Ole Miss.

"Ole Miss was right down the road, and I figured it would be easier for my family, you know, my friends to get down to Oxford to come see me play," Oher said.

Ole Miss was also Sean and Leigh Anne's alma mater -- and where Collins would be headed as well. On the football field, Oher was a starter from day one, becoming an All-American and left tackle, with Collins Tuohy cheering on the sidelines.

She said it was fun -- and sometimes a big help -- to have her brother with her at school.

"My sophomore year I had to move into the sorority house at Christmas," she said. "But my roommate and I had acquired a lot of stuff, a refrigerator and a microwave, a TV. And we had to do it in like five hours. And I just had a meltdown -- I mean, literally called him in hysterics. And he goes, 'Just get off the phone. Give me five minutes, come downstairs.' And he had brought him and the entire offensive line ... and they moved us out in five minutes. Not kidding, the whole dorm room, all the way over to the sorority house. I'll never forget it. I opened the door to the sorority house and the house all was like, 'Where did you find all these boys?'"

After playing just three years for Ole Miss, Michael Oher became eligible for the NFL draft.

Watch "The Blind Side: The True Story Behind the Movie" on a special edition of "20/20," Tuesday, Dec. 29, at 10 p.m. ET