NEAL CONAN, host:
Two years ago, "The Blind Side" told the story of a big, black kid who moved from school to school and home to home until he found love and a purpose in life with an adoptive family. Sandra Bullock won an Academy Award for playing the adoptive mom. Now the young man at the heart of the film tells his own story in a new book "I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness to The Blind Side and Beyond." And yes, Michael Oher describes his success in football, but focuses on growing up in a big family with a crack-addicted mom in the projects of Memphis, running from child services and foster care and his determination, since he was seven years old, to find a way out.
We'd like to hear from foster children and social workers. What does it take to beat the odds? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email: email@example.com. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Michael Oher now plays offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens of the National Football League, and joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us, today.
Mr. MICHAEL OHER (Football player, Baltimore Ravens): Hey, thanks for having me.
CONAN: And you said, from the age of seven, you were determined to make something of your life. How did you reach that determination at such a young age?
Mr. OHER: I think, you know, at seven, I had already been through so much. You know, a lot of struggles then. You know, a couple of years, you know, at six, we had already lived in the Salvation Army, and just dealt with so many things already, you know, from the time I was three to four, you know, five, six years old, and you know, at seven, 1993, I was, you know, watching Michael Jordan play the Phoenix Suns in the, you know, NBA finals. And, you know, I just started, you know, really, you know, following Michael Jordan and just grew to love him. And I loved his determination and, you know, his competitive spirit and, you know, everything, you know, he did.
He had a drive deep inside, you know, that he was going to be the best at whatever he did. And you know, I took, you know, some of that from him and, you know, obviously I'm not, you know, where he is, but, you know, I took...
CONAN: Not yet maybe.
Mr. OHER: I took bits and pieces from him, you know, putting them in. You know, I didn't want to, you know - I didn't need the, you know, the wealthy family or, you know, anything of that nature for me to make it because, you know, I was going to make it on my own, you know?
CONAN: It's interesting. Obviously your life as a child was chaotic, to say the least. There were times when your mom would - well, she never showed her addiction to you, but she would go off for days at a time, lock the door and kids would have to fend for themselves.
Yet a loving woman, you say, a big family with kids who loved each other, and that is really what comes across in the early chapters of your book.
Mr. OHER: Yeah, it does. Yeah. My mom, you know, she was a product of her environment and, you know, she couldn't help herself. But, yes. She did love us and everything, but you know, we did have to, you know, fend for ourselves a lot of the times.
And, you know, that's what made me into the man I am today. And you know, I don't take anything for granted and, you know, I appreciate everything and, you know, it's unbelievable. It will always be unbelievable for me to be here.
And, you know, I'll never wake up and say, you know, why I'm supposed to be here, you know, because I don't. You know, the odds, you know, is zero out of a billion. It doesn't happen at all in, you know, the things that I have seen, so...
CONAN: In the book, in which you wrote with Don Yaeger, you described the odds of making it out of your situation as almost prohibitive.
Mr. OHER: Yeah, it was. Me and Don, you know, we did so much research and, you know, we found numbers that, you know, were unbelievable. And, you know, I was supposed to have been a part of it, but you know, I had a strong will that, you know, I wasn't going to be a part of that cycle of, you know, growing up, you know, going to high school, dropping out of school and not graduating and, you know, joining gangs and doing the violence.
I wasn't gonna be a part of that. So you know, I just distanced myself from, you know, those crowds, you know, which was hard for me to do when all my friends are, you know, dealing, you know, doing everything you can imagine. So, you know, I just had to distance myself in order for me to, you know, get to this point.
CONAN: And some of your brothers found it hard too.
Mr. OHER: Do what now?
CONAN: Some of your brothers found it hard to resist that world as well.
Mr. OHER: Oh, yeah. I mean, you know, I have, you know, so many brothers where, you know, people are going to get into trouble and, you know, things happen, you know. That's the nature of life.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. We want to hear from other people who went through difficult circumstances and - as kids -and made it through foster care. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Casey(ph) is on the line, calling us from Columbus.
CASEY (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi, Casey. Go ahead, please.
CASEY: I was adopted at a very young age, about the age of two, by a family member. And my brother and I did go through the foster system briefly. My brother was actually in the foster system a lot longer than I was.
And I still, at 33 years old, don't know exactly what kind of abuse took place with my brother, but I know that there was. My brother is now incarcerated and has been for a good majority of my adolescence into adulthood, and you know, I was, I think, fortunate to come out.
And I look at my biological family, which I've always had ties with, on my dad's side. It was my aunt, my dad's sister, that adopted me.
CASEY: So I always knew my biological dad, and it wasn't until I got into adulthood that I met my biological mother. And was just very grateful that adults stepped in and made those decisions that they made, that it was - you know, there's still a lot of confusion to this day.
I think people just kind of want to see the situation for what it is today and not look back in the past, and sometimes it's a little difficult to, you know, kind of look back and wonder, you know, what happened to my brother and why was he put in that type of situation, and I was sort of rescued from it. So I deal with, I think, a lot of guilt that I don't think I could have changed anything. But as an adult and a mother of three children now, I certainly, you know, have those feelings that I would - I have as a mother to my children, just wishing that, you know, things would have been different for my brother and almost wanting to fix it. And so that's what I struggle with today, is, you know, was there anything that, you know, someone overlooked that, you know, they did for me that they didn't do for him? So...
CONAN: It's interesting, Casey, you raise the point about, well, a lot of things you'd rather forget. Michael Oher, you write at one point in the book that you were told that the thing you were really good at was forgetting. Obviously to write this book you had to go back and remind yourself of a lot of things.
Mr. OHER: Yeah, I did. You know, a lot of, you know, different things came back up. And, you know, I went to see the, you know, social worker who was dealing with us at the time. And, you know, as I was going up to the building, you know, I started to, you know, so many things started. It was like yesterday going up to the building. And, you know, but, you know, me being, you know, adopted by, you know, this white family and they and coming from where I came from, they shown and thought me so much.
So, you know, I understood what was going on. Now, I understood that, you know, at that time, yeah, we thought, you know, Bobbie Spivey, this case worker, her name, you know, she was trying to help us and she wanted the best for us. And we thought she was a, you know, a terrible, you know, bounty hunter or something like that, trying to just, you know, always trying to separate us. And, you know, we talked and we sat down and, you know, we became good friends. And, you know, that's all, you know, these kids want is, you know, to be, you know, have a positive role model in their life and a mentor and somebody to give them confidence and tell them that, you know, they can do it.
And when I received those things, the sky is the limit for, you know, for the -whoever who wants, you know, they start to hear these things, and not everybody, you know, in the inner city or the in foster care is bad, you know. And that's what I want to - that's what I'm trying to, you know, send a message out to, you know, I was saying that, you know, if you - they wanted, you know, have - they want to be reached out and, you know, talked to and loved.
CONAN: We're talking with Michael Oher about his new book, "I Beat the Odds." As he mentioned, there was one woman who frightened him when he was growing up, his case worker. Years later he went back to meet her. You can read more about Michael Oher's reunion with the woman he once called a bounty hunter in our excerpt at our website. That's at npr.org. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.
And Michael Oher, you say in the book that after watching the movie "The Blind Side," you had to deal with some wounded pride. The film made your character a little bit more vulnerable than might really have been the case. There's a scene that I think a lot of people who have seen "The Blind Side" will remember, where Leigh Anne Tuohy, played by Sandra Bullock, offers Michael his own bed.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Blind Side")
Mr. QUINTON AARON (Actor): (as Michael Oher) It's mine?
Ms. SANDRA BULLOCK (Actor): (as Leigh Anne Tuohy) Yes, sir. What?
Mr. AARON: (as Michael Oher) I never had one before.
Ms. BULLOCK: (as Leigh Anne Tuohy) What, a room to yourself?
Mr. AARON: (as Michael Oher) A bed.
CONAN: And Michael, that's not exactly right, is it?
Mr. OHER: Well, yeah, that - it went, you know, along those lines - because, you know, I grew up with so many people in that - in one house. We were staying in, you know, the house had one room, you know, a bathroom, a kitchen and a living room. And you had 11 people in that one house. We had no bed. It's actually in the living room.
So, you know, I'd never really had my own room or bed or anything like that. So, you know, to have my own space, it was just, you know, it was kind of, you know, being free. And you know, that was something they gave me. And, you know, I really, you know - I felt like a, you know, you know, a big, you know, a weight lifted off my shoulders. And you know, I could, you know, have my own space. And was actually - it was nice.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Caressa, Caressa calling from Cincinnati.
CARESSA (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.
CARESSA: I'm actually a counselor for - with foster kids. And I was thinking, what is - what makes a good fit for these families and these kids? And I was listening to Michael and thought, well, for one, the child is going to have to be able to have that desire to rise above their circumstances. But combined with that, it really takes a foster family who cannot only love the kid but respect the family that the child has come from, because that family...
Mr. OHER: Yeah.
CARESSA: ...is never going to be far from that child's mind, no matter what the circumstances are.
Mr. OHER: Yeah. The thing is, you know, you have to understand, you know, where these kids have been. And, you know, not all of them, you know, have been in a, you know, such a terrible situation.
Mr. OHER: And, you know, most of the foster, you know, people or the social workers, they think that oh, this kid is bad. It's automatic, you know you know, they automatically give them a bad name. And, you know, it's not, you know, the case in a lot of these kids' lives. And some of them - a lot of them want to do right. A lot them want to do, you know, what's right and live on the right path.
CARESSA: Absolutely. A lot of times, I'll see foster families who are willing to give everything to these - to kids. And they can't really understand, like, why the child is not responding with overwhelming gratitude and stuff. And it's just that piece that - well, this still isn't that family that they want. Its things.
CONAN: Caressa, thanks very much for the call.
CARESSA: You're welcome. Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. We know how the Tuohys are doing. They've written a book of their own. But Michael, I wonder how are your brothers and sisters? How's your mom doing?
Mr. OHER: You know, my mom, you know, she's doing the best she can. You know, she's, you know, working hard to, you know, get back on the right foot. And, you know, we don't have that bond like we once had. And you know, hopefully in the future, you know, we can get that back. You know, she - you know, as time pass and, you know, she's progressing, you know, the thing that she's doing.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And your siblings, your brothers and sisters?
Mr. OHER: I talked to my - you know, a couple of my brothers, they came to the, you know, football games and, you know, talk to them regularly. They're living their lives, and everybody is doing well.
CONAN: And you're looking forward to progressing in your career and giving back, not just through this book, but also talking with - well, I know you get tons of letters from other kids who've been in foster care.
Mr. OHER: Yeah, that - that's really the reason. You know, I didn't really want to do the book. You know, "The Blind Side" was out there. You know, everybody thought they knew everything about me. And I was just - I really didn't want to be - I'm a football player first. And I really don't - didn't want to be, you know, bother with it and - you know, they kept telling me to write a book and, you know, you could help so many people. I started to get so many letters, you know, hundreds and thousands of letters. And I will read them. And you know, the letters were I was changing people's lives. And, you know, they were telling me, you know, how inspirational I was and such a role model. So, you know, I said, wow, you know, I might as well go ahead the write book. You know, I changed so many people - so many people's lives and, you know, that's really one of the reasons I did it.
CONAN: Well, Michael Oher, thanks very much time for your time today. And we wish you the best possible luck, except when you play the Giants.
Mr. OHER: No problem. Thank you and good luck. Eli Manning, he's an Ole Miss guy, so I pull for him, so...
CONAN: Michael Oher is an offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. His new book, "I Beat The Odds: From Homelessness to The Blind Side and Beyond."