ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Read the big stories about the National Football League or watch the highlights, and you'll see that some positions get a lot more attention than others. How did Philadelphia fans receive their former star now with Dallas, the wide receiver Terrell Owens. Reggie Bush, the brilliant running back, returned to kick for a New Orleans touchdown. Joey Harrington will remain Miami's starting quarterback.
Receivers, quarterbacks, running backs often get attention. Sometimes, menacing linebackers do and brilliantly athletic corner backs. But the point of Michael Lewis's new book about football, then, is typically for Lewis a counterintuitive eye opener.
Lewis, who has previously taken on Wall Street and baseball in the books Liar's Poker and Moneyball, tells us in his book, The Blind Side, that the really pivotal position on a football team today is offensive left tackle.
Michael Lewis joins us now. Offensive left tackle. That has something to do with the title of your book, The Blind Side.
Mr. MICHAEL LEWIS (Author, The Blind Side): The offensive left tackle protects the right handed quarterback's blind side. It's the pass rush that the right handed quarterback can't see coming at him. And what was striking about this position to me is that its relative value had changed so dramatically in football in just the last 15 years ago.
This character was, 15 years ago, the lowest paid player on the field, and now he's the second highest paid player on the field after the quarterback.
SIEGEL: But lest people think that you are exaggerating here, a good offensive left tackle is paid a lot of money nowadays.
Mr. LEWIS: Well, the top five average between $8 million and $9 million a year, and what's curious is that that's $3 million a year more than the guy who's doing supposedly exactly the same thing on the right side of the offensive line, the right tackle. And it all has to do with the fact that quarterbacks can't see what's coming over there, and if he can't see, he's more likely to get hurt or be more likely to be nervous about it, and quarterbacks and passing games have become that much more important recently.
SIEGEL: Now this is a process of evolution in the game of football that you describe, and one important innovation in this process. This is a response to an innovation. The innovation was named Lawrence Taylor.
Mr. LEWIS: Yes. In response to this, an ever more lethal weapon was placed on the blind side of the quarterback to attack him, and Lawrence Taylor was the prototype of this lethal weapon, the New York Giants' linebacker. And in fact, the book opens with Lawrence Taylor breaking Joe Theismann's legs and ending his career on Monday Night Football in the mid-‘80s. A level of fear was introduced by this character, and the left tackle becomes an antidote to the fear.
SIEGEL: Lawrence Taylor, now of course retired for some years, was this phenomenally athletic, big, fast, strong linebacker who would rush at the quarterback and come around his blind side. So in response to that phenomenon -there have others who have patterned their game in the same way - an offensive team has to find a guy who is what, 325 pounds, six foot six, six foot seven, and agile and fast and strong.
Mr. LEWIS: And with long arms to hold him off and big hands to grip him with. So what has evolved in the NFL is this type, this idea of the physical specifications for this position. And the type is so rare that when NFL or even college talent scouts stumble upon it, there's this eureka moment. This is it. You don't see this very often, and this is the package.
SIEGEL: Your book tells the story of a young man who is the package, who is found in Memphis and is playing for a private Christian school. And people see him at age 16 or younger, and they say this kid can be a great left tackle in the National Football League.
Mr. LEWIS: In the case of this kid, Michael Oher, he's spotted by, well, everybody at once, basically, and he has a frenzy of college coaches trying to get him to come play for their colleges. But among them is Nick Saban, who was then the coach of the LSU Tigers and is now the coach of the Miami Dolphins in the NFL.
And Nick Saban took one look at him - didn't even see him playing football, saw him playing basketball - and said there's no way that that kid weighs 350 pounds. He saw him moving around the basketball court, and he made them take Michael Oher and weigh him.
And when the report came back that he indeed weighed 350 pounds, Nick Saban said if he isn't a top 15 pick in the NFL draft three years from now, he's either been hurt or someone has screwed him up some way or other, because it is such a freakish combination of gifts that he has.
But it was such a freakish, odd story, because he was someone who had not really played football much in his first 15, 16 years on earth, and not played much in the way of any organized sports. And he had been discovered in a way most football players are not. But the time most football players are 17 or 18 years old, if they're that good, everybody knows about them. He was a kid who no one knew about until there's this moment when he's discovered, and then suddenly everybody knows about him.
SIEGEL: Your book is very much the story of how Michael Oher is brought into the family of Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, a white family, very well to do, who effectively adopt him, make him their son. They already have two children of their own.
And with all of the assistance and tutoring and tricks of meeting NCAA qualifications that you can possibly apply, they take this completely uneducated kid and get him into college. It's a bittersweet story in a way, as you note at the end. How many other kids are there out there who have been in and out of foster care, whose mothers are forever in rehab and who don't weigh 330 pounds and aren't six foot seven and very athletic.
Mr. LEWIS: Well, this is what drove my interest in this story. I mean, you don't think - when you think of the problems of inner city America, you don't think that the path, if you're a gifted athlete from a poor, urban environment, is that cluttered. But the truth is that it's extremely cluttered.
The Memphis Public School System not long ago did a study in which they discovered that of every six kids who had the gifts to play college sports and get a full scholarship to college as an athlete, only one of them qualified academically and the other five just didn't go.
And that's not because the athletes are dumber, it's because they've been failed by both the public school system and families. So to me, the heart of this story is that what happens if your gift is for playing the violin or for, you know, trading bonds on Wall Street or being a radio announcer. It's - there can't be too many more conspicuous characters on the streets than Michael Oher. If this kid can be missed - and he would've been missed, first had he not crossed out of poor black Memphis into rich white Memphis and gone to this Evangelical Christian school and been taken in by them, and then second been adopted by a family who then drown him in nurture. He would've been completely written off.
Actually, the head of the gang, the Gangster Disciples, that ran the housing project in which Michael had spent a number of years very persuasively explained to me what happened to the Michael Ohers of the world. He's the biggest kid on the block. He drops out of school, as he was going to do at the end of his freshman year. The gang recruits him for what is a very prestigious role inside the gang - it's to be the bodyguard of the gang leader. You're essentially the left tackle of the ghetto, and that job is one with a very short life expectancy, but it's the one job where he would get paid well and feel important for a period of time. And that's what they had their eyes on him for. So he escaped that fate, but only accidentally.
SIEGEL: Michael Lewis, thank you very much for talking with us today.
Mr. LEWIS: Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: That's Michael Lewis, the author of The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. And not to give too much away, but Michael Oher is currently a sophomore and an offensive left tackle at the University of Mississippi. You can read about that career ending tackle by Lawrence Taylor in an excerpt from The Blind Side at our Web site, NPR.org.
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