By Josh Levin
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.
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.