By Terry Mattingly
In the beginning there was “Big Tony” Henderson, whose dying mother urged him to pull his son Steven from a public school on the bad side of Memphis and take him somewhere to get a Christian education.
But there was one big complication. Steven didn’t want to abandon his buddy Michael Oher (pronounced “Oar”), a street kid who slept on their floor most nights. “Big Mike” was afraid to return to the bleak foster homes he knew after police tore him away from his mother, her crack pipe, and her 13 children.
So Henderson took both boys to Briarcrest Christian School on the rich side of town, hoping for scholarships that would make a grandmother’s dream come true. School officials were impressed by Steven’s grades.
Coaches were impressed that Oher was 6-foot-4, weighed 340 pounds, could dunk a basketball, and looked like God’s gift to quarterbacks who needed a left tackle to guard their “blind side.”
The rest is a long story, one that weaves together themes of race, sports, money, and education. But a key player in the real-life version of The Blind Side stressed that this is also a story about faith.
“We’re convinced that faith guided and controlled this whole thing,” said Leigh Anne Tuohy, the steel-magnolia matriarch of the rich, white, evangelical family that finally embraced Oher as a son, after providing food, shelter, and clothing. “We absolutely believe that none of this was a fluke.…This was God-driven from the start.”
Author Michael Lewis didn’t hide that faith element while writing The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, a bestseller that mixed Oher’s story with information about how the left-tackle position evolved into a crucial, and lucrative, slot in football.
Then writer-director John Lee Hancock included religious details about the family in the new movie, while avoiding heavy-handed sermons. The Blind Side recently grossed $34 million at the box office on its opening weekend, while scoring a rare A-plus CinemaScore audience rating.
On screen, the Tuohys attend plenty of sporting events. The movie, however, does skip the ritual when everyone heads to Grace Evangelical Church, a growing congregation the family helped start. Oher began attending soon after the wet winter night when the family first spotted the shivering giant in shorts and a floppy shirt, walking back to the shelter of the warm Briarcrest gymnasium.
Leigh Anne Tuohy said that “from day one,” Oher was the first person ready to go on Sunday mornings. Church was part of everyday life, like homework, piano lessons, and trips to sports events and practices.
The key is that expressions of faith were a natural part of this true story, said actress Sandra Bullock, who plays Leigh Anne. No one was faking anything.
“This family, they were themselves for no other benefit other than because they wanted to reach out, lend a hand, and had no idea that they would get a son in return,” she told reporters, after a press screening of The Blind Side.
Bullock said that, while making the movie, she regained a little “faith in those who say they represent a faith.…I’ve finally met people that walk the walk.”
While Tuohy stressed that she can now see God’s work in the events that changed Oher’s life, and their family, that doesn’t mean the details were clear at the time.
The family had reached out to others before, but not to the same degree. Now, it’s impossible not to think about how many other talented, gifted children are, literally, on the run in America’s cities, she said. What is the family supposed to do now? What should Oher do, now that he plays for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens?
After one of her Southern chuckles that Bullock had to master to play her on screen, Tuohy said that it’s hard to talk about the future when she is still trying to understand the wild changes that have changed her family forever.
“A miracle is what this is,” she said. “Childbirth is easier to explain than all of this.”
Terry Mattingly (www.tmatt.net) directs the Washington Journalism Center in Washington D.C.