MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Next year's football season is still up in the air because of the ongoing contract dispute between the NFL and its players, but those players and their stories are still a big part of our lives. And now we hear the powerful story of a football star who lived part of his childhood in shelters, in cars and scrounging for a little bit of food and a little bit of hope.
Mr. ROGER GOODELL (NFL Commissioner): And with the 23rd pick in the 2009 NFL draft, the Baltimore ravens select Michael Oher, offensive tackle, Mississippi.
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MARTIN: Now many of us think we know Michael Oher's story from the hit 2009 film titled "The Blind Side" and the bestselling book upon which it is based. Both tell how Michael, a poor black kid from Memphis, was taken in by a wealthy white family who then helped him to succeed in the classroom and on the football field.
But Michael Oher says there's more to tell, so there's his new book just out called "I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness, to The Blind Side, and Beyond," written with sports journalist Don Yaeger. And Michael Oher is with us now.
Thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. MICHAEL OHER (Professional Football Player): Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
MARTIN: Now it's interesting because the book is dedicated to the Tuohy Family whose story with you is told in "The Blind Side," but you are also very clear that you wanted to put your own stamp on the story, that you wanted to tell your story in your words. So can I just ask is there something about the way your story was told in "The Blind Side" that's just making you nuts?
Mr. OHER: It's nothing, you know, correcting "The Blind Side" or, you know, to tell people that this is true or this is false. I really enjoyed it. It sent off a great message but, you know, at the end of the day, you know, I started to understand that, you know, I am a role model and I started to get hundreds and thousands of letters from people from, you know, really across the world and telling me, you know, how inspired them and they were in my shoes, I was in their shoes and I helped them change their life around and, you know, things like that.
And I just said to myself I might as well go ahead and do it, I can change so many lives and, you know, open the doors for so many people and, you know, just helping them out so, you know, that's the reason I wrote it.
MARTIN: It's a very graphic description of the very difficult circumstances that you were in. But you also make a point again and again in the book that, you know, this isn't just your story but that there are a lot of kids in that situation. I did want to ask if you feel comfortable talking about the - just the vagaries of it, just the uncertainty of it. You know, what was the hardest part, you know, for you?
Mr. OHER: The hardest part for me, you know, living day-to-day. You know, going through a lot of, you know, the things that I went through; not having a steady roof over our head and not knowing, you know, where your next meal was going to come from. At the age of seven, you know, watching my little brother and little sisters being taken away by the, you know, Department of Human Services and me and my brothers watching from a distance, we couldn't do anything about it. Just things like that on a regular basis. And, you know, but, you know, it helped me be the person I am and today and, you know, I wouldn't be here without it.
MARTIN: You say that you're not poor if you know where your next meal is coming from. That's one of the first lessons I learned growing up. The lines were pretty clear. There were people who had food and there were people who had to scrounge most of the time. Way more than most of the time, I was in the second group. And you also talk about how like now when you see people who are homeless on the street you always try to give them something because you remember what it felt like. And I'm wondering if you think that - do you really think that - most people have any idea of what it's like to be poor in this country?
Mr. OHER: A lot of people you know, have an idea, way more. I think we have the power, you know, in America to, you know, change that dramatically and for some reason it continue to be a problem. You know, that's why I go back and into the, you know, the inner city, the schools, the Boys and Girls Clubs, things like that, just to let people know that, you know, it is possible.
I didn't have to necessarily have to be taken in by a wealthy family to, you know, make it. You know, the NFL, the NBA, you know, sports, I didn't have to go into sports. I could have had two or three jobs working minimum wage as long as I had a roof over my head and, you know, food on my table, decent clothes on my back every day and not being caught up in the cycle of growing up, dropping out of school, you know, getting involved in the gangs, the drugs and the violence, you know, that was success for me. Everything now is really a bonus.
MARTIN: You write in the book, you say: For me it wasn't about the money or the flashy lifestyle or the power. If I had wanted that I could easily have joined the Vice Lords, or Gangster Disciples and with my size I probably would've climbed up the ranks as a bodyguard and started bringing in the money quickly, but it was a whole different way of living that I was after, so I chose to take the other route.
And I want to say that one of the things that struck me when reading the book and that also other people commented on, so this isn't exactly an original, you know, thought of mind, is that one of the things you want to make clear is that you were very active in your own fate.
In the movie, and I don't know if you agree or disagree with this, there were ways in which your character was portrayed as very passive, kind of things just happened. But one of the points you want to make is that you were choosing and that no matter what route you took you were going to find a way out of those circumstances.
Mr. OHER: Yeah, everything, you know, you saw in the movie, it definitely made the road easier for me. You know, I always understood the game of football. In the movies it had me learning, catch a ball and things like that. You know, I've always understood the game and that's all I really had growing up was sports. So yeah, it did show me kind of passive and, you know, things like that but, you know, I always had a drive deep down inside of me to succeed no matter what and, you know, I was determined.
You know, it's not every day. Where I'm from I don't take anything for granted and I appreciate everything that's happened to me. And, you know, not every day somebody's had a, you know, gets a movie made about them. That's legendary. So everything is positive in my book and, you know, just a, not just long ago, you know, I was struggling. I was struggling. I needed help so, you know, I don't, you know, hold anybody for sure...
MARTIN: You're not mad at anybody. You're not mad.
Mr. OHER: No. I'm not going to be mad. I'm not mad at the world. So it's all happy on my end, so yeah.
MARTIN: I hear you.
If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and I'm speaking with Michael Oher. Yes, that Michael Oher of the Baltimore Ravens. He has a new book. It's called "I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness, to The Blind Side, and Beyond." Yes, he's that Michael Oher who is depicted in "The Blind Side." But Michael Oher tells us there's actually a lot more to the story than what's depicted in the film and the bestselling book.
Can I ask you though - you do make a point over and over again in the book of saying, you know, you're not the only one. There're a lot of talented kids. There're a lot of kids who want out of the very difficult circumstances that are depicted in the movie and in the book and in your book. But why do you think you were able to get out of those circumstances when so many other kids are not?
Mr. OHER: You know, a lot of people, you know, they wish and they hope that this happens and hope good things happen to them and things like that but, you know, as I was watching everybody else hope and wish, you know, I was going to, you know, I was determined to work hard. I understood then, you know, you couldn't be, you know, involved in the negative things, you couldn't be around negative people, you know, in order to, you know, get where you wanted to be and, you know, I understood that then. And, you know, I wasn't going to hope and wish. I was going to put my foot down, work hard and, you know, listen to the people that I needed to listen to and try and do all the right things and, you know, not get involved in the, you know, negative things around me, like doing drugs and being with the wrong crowd, things like that so.
MARTIN: Well, your circumstances are certainly unique in the sense that you come from a situation where, as you point out, a lot of kids are in. You know, your mom, who you make very clear that you loved, and you feel did the best that she could with what she had but she was addicted and she was very unreliable as a parent and she even realized that she couldn't take care of her children. You said at one point you think maybe she was even the one who called protective services when she realized she could not take care of her children.
On the other hand, it is a very unique set of circumstances for a family as wealthy as the Touhys to get in your corner and to have to be as athletically gifted as you are. Is there some word of wisdom you think that's there for people who don't have those advantages but who are struggling as you were struggling?
Mr. OHER: You know, I just always tell people that, you know, if you want to do it - you don't necessarily have to play football and God gave me the ability to be athletic and things like that but, you know, there's plenty other opportunities, you know, teachers, lawyers, any thousands of more jobs out there for you. And if you want to do it you can do it and just never let anybody tell you you can't because I was in one of the worst situations that you can be in and, you know, I made it out. And, you know, a lot of people they have the parents, they have the resources to, you know, make it in life but, you know, they don't take advantage and, you know, that's the thing you have to do is take advantage.
MARTIN: You do talk a lot about foster care and it was a big part of your life and those of your siblings. And you are explicit in urging people to take more of an interest in the foster care system. What would you like people to draw from your experience? What do you want people to get from the book?
Mr. OHER: I just, you know, want to open people eyes and just let people know that if you do reach out and if you do open your hearts and just think about the people that need help, you know, it will, you know, open so many doors for so many people like me or just everybody - everybody who's going through something.
And I talked a lot about the foster care, the half million kids in the foster care, just to make their transition, you know, a lot better because a lot of people, you know, put tags on, you know, these kids and things like that. I was one of these kids so I wanted, you know, something good for me. So just open your eyes and just to help the transition be a lot easier.
MARTIN: You know, you talk about in the book, as we said, going back to the beginning of the book where you talk about the fact that you were hungry a lot and that sometimes there was enough to go around but often there wasn't and you always keep your refrigerator full now. What do you dream about now? You've accomplished so much. You certainly accomplished financial security, certainly been able to get an education, which is something that, you know, people dream about and certainly you were able to buy whatever you want to eat when you want it. What do you dream about now?
Mr. OHER: What do I dream about? Winning a Super Bowl. Yeah, I want to win a Super Bowl. But, you know, just continuing to be a role model and just being that positive influence that people look up to so, you know, and just continue to open doors for a lot of people.
MARTIN: Well, if you get that ring I hope you'll come down here and show it off.
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Mr. OHER: I will. You'll be the first to see it.
MARTIN: I know I won't but I don't care about being first. I just want to see it.
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Mr. OHER: Yeah.
MARTIN: I could be the 15th. I just want to see it. OK.
Mr. OHER: Yeah.
MARTIN: Michael Oher is an offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. He collaborated with sports journalist Don Yaeger on his new memoir, "I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness, to The Blind Side, and Beyond," and he was with us from KWMU, our member station in St. Louis, Missouri.
Michael Oher, thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. OHER: Thanks for having me on today.
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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Let's talk more tomorrow.
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