Michael Oher on where "The Blind Side" went wrong: "It didn't show the work ethic I put in"

Champion football player insists he had success before the Tuohy family and explains why he is reshaping his legacy

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published August 22, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Michael Oher (Photo illustration by Salon/Scott McDermott/Getty Images)
Michael Oher (Photo illustration by Salon/Scott McDermott/Getty Images)

Professional athletes run up and down courts or across fields in their glory – before exiting their coliseums, in their designer threads, jumping into their quarter-million-dollar cars, and off to live their lavish lives. But what happens after you retire, and those big checks stop rolling in?

So many athletes go broke trying to maintain that lifestyle. NFL legend Michael Oher, who was homeless at times during childhood, explained that pressure and the harsh realities of life after professional sports on "Salon Talks." The former Baltimore Raven and NFL champion is most known for his life being portrayed in the Academy Award-nominated film "The Blind Side," starring Sandra Bullock (who won the Oscar for her role).

Oher filed a lawsuit claiming to be deceived and alleges that he was never legally adopted by Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy. The Tuohys now say they plan to end their conservatorship of Oher. The very way in which athletes like Oher are targeted is one of the subjects of Oher's new book, "When Your Back's Against the Wall." 

Oher writes in detail about the ways in which he was misrepresented in "The Blind Side" and documents his continued journey and personal guide to success. "When Your Back's Against the Wall" reflectively picks up on Oher's life after football, in comparison to what he saw other athletes go through. He shares the principles that allow him to have a strong family and fulfilling life off of the field.

Watch Michael Oher's "Salon Talks" episode here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to learn the truth about "The Blind Side," how he is supporting fellow athletes from places of struggle and what it's going to take for us to get him back in Baltimore.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I'm a diehard Ravens fan. I'm a Baltimore guy. I'm always rooting for you. How's it going?

Good to talk to somebody from Baltimore. Everything's great. Big Raven fan myself. Obviously won a lot of games for the Ravens.

"When Your Back's Against the Wall" is such an important book. You are so passionate about the sport. I think a lot of athletes feel like they don't really think about life after football. You do a great job touching on that.

My thought process, it was, sports was great. But for me I was using sports to be comfortable. From the time I can remember at three years old, I was homeless, in and out of foster care shelters, on the streets. When I got a chance to where I was going to be able to get a job, be an adult, I was going to do everything in my power so I can live a comfortable life. 

"I wanted a bigger legacy than what I had."

You have to understand, especially as an athlete, it doesn't last forever. I knew that. I understood very early on that I wasn't the best athlete around. When we got in the middle of the streets to race, I almost lost. They used to have to give me 30 yards to run, a head start. Couldn't jump. Wasn't the fastest. Just all of that stuff. I understood where my talents were, and I knew I was going to have to outwork people, I knew I was going to have to outsmart. 

I knew sports weren't going to be the end-all. That's why I'm still chasing greatness and inspiring youth and motivating right now because I know the impact that I can have on someone who doesn't have that ability to go out, be a big offensive lineman, and go out and get scholarships. It's so much more. It's so much more, and you could have less stress mentally and physically, and you can go have longevity at a career where you can work 20, 30 years, and it's so many more opportunities out there other than sports and entertainment, and that's what I want to drive home. And having a work ethic and having a routine, being consistent, being disciplined at something, at anything, and you can be great at it.

What's one thing you don't miss about playing in the NFL?

I enjoyed playing football. I don't know, it's not a lot. It's not a lot because I appreciated, I didn't take anything for granted about playing in the NFL. It's a great game. It's what got me out of poverty. It got me out of the environment that I was in into a better situation, a better life. So the NFL is great. 

I don't know, probably the . . . I was going to say the fans, man, but nah. The fans talking trash about you, man, when you having a rough game.

I ain't never played no professional sport, but I probably would've said practice. 

Nah, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed practice. Every practice to me was a game. I was the first one in the facility, the last one out. I took it all serious. I appreciated every second that I was in.

Do you think the league does enough to prepare athletes for retirement? Or that second act after you stop playing?

I think the NFL does a great job at putting the information in front of you. Now it's up to you to meet them halfway to be able to go and do something with that information. The NFLPA [NFL Players Association], they send you tons of emails, they have internships for you. But with the NFL and college football, football is such a tough sport where you have to be into it mentally every day, 24 hours a day every day of the year. You can't think about anything else but football.

I see the guys now, they're doing other things off the field, but if you want to have a consistent, good career, your team want to win year in and year out, that organization is only focused on one thing, and that's winning football games, and that's the bottom line.

You talk about making that transition in the book. What are some of the things you feel like athletes and just fans of Michael Oher should know about what it took for you to make the transition?

Well, it's hard. You're doing something that you've been doing all your life: football. It all comes down for me, it was a legacy piece for me. I wanted a bigger legacy than what I had. When I walked away from the field, I was blessed to be in a position, I'm honored to have the platform that I have to be able to reach back out. 

"You have to understand . . . when I moved in with the family, I was an All-American football player already."

The way that I grew up, no kid should have to grow up, and I know there's so many other hopeless kids out there who think their life's over right now. I was one of those kids at one point. But I knew if I gave some effort, if I met this world halfway, and I was doing the right thing every day, going to school on my own from the time I was in third grade, not getting involved in the gangs and the violence that was around me and not joining that atmosphere.

That's what I'm doing right now. That's why I wrote this book. 'Cause there's so many of those kids out there like myself who don't realize the potential that they have, but it's up to guys like yourself, guys like me, who know what potential looks like, who's able to go out here and create a podcast and be able to talk to guys like me. You have to reach back out and find the potential, see the kid who wants to do great things that don't have the resources and opportunities and point them in the right directions. They have to want it for themselves. If you don't want it for yourself, it's not going to happen at all. So you have to meet people halfway and also have to look yourself in the mirror and tell yourself, what I'm doing is not the correct way of doing things. So I think that's the most important.

In the book you do a deep dive into your relationship with "The Blind Side." I've heard bits and pieces of how you felt about the actual film throughout the years, so it was really, really good hearing it from you. I think a lot of people who are watching this and who are going to read your book would like to hear talk about the differences between the Michael that we all met on screen versus the Michael in real life, and how do you bridge that gap?

From the time I was three years old to 18, that's when the movie really started to portray my life. I had ambition, very grateful for the platform. It's still inspiring and motivating people across this world, so I'm grateful for that. But at the end of the day, I had drive, I had ability to want to succeed and be something, and it didn't show the work ethic that I put in to get to that point. You have to understand, that came out in 2009, so when I moved in with the family, I was an All-American football player already.

And people don't get that from the film.

I was 18, and I moved in with them a couple of weeks before my senior year of high school. I had been through the journey that I had already traveled, a success in its own, coming from where I came from. So you have to give some credit right there. That's what I want young people to understand and not look at something and say, "I'm waiting on my savior, I'm waiting on this quick fix, I'm waiting on someone to come and give me this handout." That was never my mentality.

I was putting it in my mind that I was going to be something from 11 years old when I started this journey. I wanted to be successful. It didn't have to be football, it didn't have to be sports. I was going to be a positive influence on society, if I had to have three, four jobs. I was going to be working. I was going to be doing something that can give me longevity, can give a peace of mind, can give me comfort.

I think it missed in those aspects, but I wouldn't be who I was. That's a small part of my story. Have to get credit. From ninth, 10th, 11th grade, I was sleeping on the floors of other people's houses, getting to school, and just fighting, so you still have to put the work in. It doesn't matter where you are or what you're going through, what situation you're in, as long as you have that want to in you. It's a lot of simple things. Some of the principles in the playbook that I have in this new book, "When Your Back's Against the Wall," they're in there, and if you're feeling hopeless, you're paralyzed with fear that you can't go on and you can't get it done, pick up this book right here, and it'll change your life.

The whole second part of the book is just you sharing that kind of knowledge and wisdom. Do you feel like there were a whole lot of lessons that you didn't have when you were in the league?

These lessons right here helped me get through the NFL. Being positive, having that work want-to mentality. Like I said, in the NFL, I was the first one in the facility, last one out the facility. In the locker room, that's where it counts the most. That's what I love more than anything because you can be yourself.

Outside the locker room, people think they know you, and you're misunderstood. So no, I think that these lessons here, they can translate into anybody. If you're not reaching the accolades that you want to reach, if you're not climbing a ladder in your field, at your job, you have to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself, "Am I putting in the extra work before? When it's time to clock out, am I running out the door, or am I putting extra work in to get better?" 

When I was reading it, I'm like, "Damn." I'm in my 40s now, but I think about some of the things I wish my 40-year-old self could say to my 20-year-old self. I felt like you had the opportunity to just reflect and to just talk about all of these things you've learned throughout the years and put them together in one place. 

"I felt that I did great things on the field, but the game that I'm playing now, it's even better."

That's just growth and learning. That's about growing and learning. Of course, if I could go back, you'd change some things. But unfortunately you can't do it. so what I'm doing now is even talking to my younger self or someone who is already headed for greatness, but they need a tool. I was always chasing tools, but I didn't have the correct circle around me to feed me.

For me, I've always wanted, I love being around people that are better than me, that are smarter than me. Then I can be myself, I can grow even more. Because it's a lot of people who don't like being around people. They like to be the big fish in a big pond, and I'm the total opposite because I've been at the very bottom already, so I'm just happy to be there. I'm happy to be there, and I'm getting fed knowledge, wisdom. I'm bettering myself every day. You need that circle around you that's better, that's smarter. It does wonders for you at every level.

I like how you also put a focus on mental health in the book. I felt like it's been stigmatized so much in our community, but now we're finally starting to pay attention to it in a different way. Do you feel like we're making changes? Could we be the first generation that actually gets it right?

Most definitely. I think we're talking about it. When you start talking about anything, that's the first step because it's like everybody that's dealing with something, they got their hand in their pocket, and then once that first person raises their hand and asks the question now, you've answered a question for everybody else in the room who was, "Man, I'm glad he asked that." 

"You have to find and let people in so that you can be a better person."

I think especially this generation here, we're more vulnerable, and we're gaining that strength to let people in and understanding and wanting help. I've never shied away from help. I embraced it because I knew I needed help and someone who knew how to help me heal at every aspect of my life from the earlier years all the way til now. I know that I'm still growing, and I started off late in life with everything because I was alone on this journey for a long time, so you have to find and let people in so that you can be a better person.

What's next for you?

Well, my foundation [Oher Foundation] right now. I'm putting a lot of time into that. I'm partnering with schools that have a great educational background. I'm placing a success coordinator, a mentor staff inside the school, and I'm sending kids like myself who don't have the resources and opportunities to go out and get a better education. That was so pivotal for me once I started to be around other like-minded individuals like myself with the community, with education. 

That mentorship is the key. The mentor staff, the success coordinator that we're placing in that school, so someone like me can talk to and go get information, life-changing information, so they won't be behind once they go to college or once they get to the NFL, that's when they start to learn about investments and so many different things. We want to start this with these kids who are coming through the foundation right now. So I think that'll be an immediate impact on the lives of the kids that's coming through. I'm spending a lot of time with that and changing lives. And like Kobe Bryant said, "Chasing greatness is inspiring the next generation." I felt that I did great things on the field, but the game that I'm playing now, it's even better.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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