The other Blind Sides: The Michael Oher story may have been amazing, but was it unique?

The stadium scene.
Oct. 14 2010 10:20 AM

The Other Blind Sides

The Michael Oher story may have been amazing, but was it unique?

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Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

A destitute black teenager moves in with a rich white family, takes up football, boosts his grades, and becomes a star NFL offensive lineman. There's a reason The Blind Side was a best-selling book and a monster box-office hit—the tale of Michael Oher and the Tuohy family sounds like it was drummed up in a Hollywood story meeting. The remarkable thing about The Blind Side, though, isn't that it's based on a true story. It's that the real Michael Oher is not unique.

In 2009, a few years after Oher left his adoptive home in Memphis, the local paper profiled another of the city's top football prospects. The 315-pound O.C. Brown, the story explained, had a chance to earn a college scholarship but was struggling in school. The solution: The African-American football star left his grandmother's place and moved into the 7,000-square-foot home of one of his white football coaches. The plan worked—Brown is now an offensive lineman at the University of Southern Mississippi, and he's the subject of an upcoming documentary.

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Was O.C. Brown the beneficiary of copycat altruism, a white family's well-meaning attempt to reenact a Hollywood fairytale? Not at all. Young, African-American athletes have been at the center of Blind Side-esque stories since long before Sandra Bullock made Leigh Anne Tuohy famous. To wit: When Oher headed off to Ole Miss, he teamed up with Patrick Willis, a Tennessee native whose life had striking parallels to his own. Willis, now an All-Pro linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, left home at 16 after watching his father physically abuse his younger sister. The black football star found a stable home with his white basketball coach, and the coach and his wife eventually became his legal guardians.

Michael Lewis, the author of The Blind Side, says he learned very quickly that Oher was no gridiron rara avis. As he was researching the book, Lewis related Oher's astonishing life story to then Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. The coach's response: "We've got a guy like that." That guy was Todd Williams, who was left homeless and without a family as a teenager after the death of his grandmother. Williams overcame his dark adolescence—and made it to the NFL—with help from his coaches, his church, and a mother-son relationship with a white property manager at the Bradenton, Fla., apartment complex where he eventually found a home.

In hindsight, Lewis says, perhaps it wasn't amazing journalistic acumen that led him to the story of The Blind Side. "Maybe I stumbled onto it because it happens so often," he says.

Lewis is right: Once you start looking for these stories, you find them all over the country, at all levels of the sports world. Along with Oher and Willis, a 2009 Sports Illustrated story identified Keith Bulluck, Marcus Dixon, and Jeremy Maclin as three more NFL "players who owe their pro careers in part to white families who provided them havens from adverse circumstances." The Savannah Morning News reports that when University of Georgia defensive endDemarcus Dobbs moved in with a white family, his adoptive 9-year-old sister wrote the following poem in his honor: "He is my brother, but not of my mother / He is #58 and he is great / He gives the best hugs, and he doesn't do drugs." Similar stories proliferate across America's sports pages and Metro sections. (There's even a thriving Gulf Coast sub-genre of black athletes who moved in with white coaches and teachers after Hurricane Katrina.)

And it's not just a football thing. Shawn Vanzant, a reserve on Butler's 2010 Final Four basketball team, lived for a time with the white family of a fellow high school hoops player. Dennis Rodman, of all people, lived with a white family as a college student in Oklahoma. In a 1988 Sports Illustrated article, the matriarch of Rodman's surrogate family talked about her attempts to sell the story to Hollywood. "People are telling me it's a TV movie," Pat Rich said, "but I see Academy Award winner written all over this." (While The Blind Side netted an Oscar for Sandra Bullock, Rodman's fish-out-of-water tale did in fact go straight to the small screen.)

That's just a small sample—interviews, word of mouth, and Web searches have led me to more than two dozen contemporary African-American athletes who've been adopted or sheltered by white families.   The stories in this genre that have been written since The Blind Side's big splash inevitably measure their heroes against Michael Oher. Not all of the subjects see the similarity. "The movie is nowhere near who I am," former University of Arkansas wide receiver London Crawford told the Mobile Press-Register earlier this year. While Oher was essentially abandoned by his biological family, Crawford maintained ties with his grandmother even after taking up with the family of his white high school English teacher. "I wasn't on the street. I had a home," Crawford explained.

Still, whether we're talking about London Crawford or Michael Oher, boys in high school or men in the pros, all of these narratives hit the same uplifting marks: Black athlete meets white family, flourishes on account of the added support, and everyone lives happily ever after.

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Why do white families take in black athletes? Consider the case of Ross Chouest and Clarence Moore. The Louisiana natives, the former white and the latter black, became summer basketball teammates as middle-schoolers in the mid-1990s. Ross' father Gary, the owner of a private offshore oil firm, is one of the state's richest men. Moore's family, by contrast, was struggling to hold it together, with Clarence's mother in very poor health and his father legally blind. Given those wildly disparate circumstances, the Moores and the Chouests decided it would be best for Clarence to move in with his teammate.

As a 1999 Cox News Service story relates, Clarence "swapped his Kmart clothes for Hilfiger and Polo" and "focus[ed] on jump shots and schoolbooks" rather than his chaotic home life. After they started bunking together, Clarence and Ross teamed up to win a state basketball title. The best buddies-turned-brothers then joined up at Georgia Tech, where Clarence was a key member of the Yellow Jackets' 2004 Final Four team.

The instigator in this instance—and, really, the instigator of every Blind Side story—was a gap between deprivation and comfort, bridged by team sports. For the Chouests, it was no hardship to bring their son's good friend into their home. For Moore, moving into a mansion on the bayou provided stability and a chance to get to college—essentially, the pathway to a better, easier adulthood. "Everybody gets an opportunity in life," Moore told the Cox News Service. "This was mine."

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