Book Review: "I Beat the Odds" by Michael Oher
Michael's Purpose in Writing the Book
Michael starts off the prologue in his book by explaining his purpose in writing it. It was definitely not meant to be another slant on Leigh Anne Tuohy’s book In a Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving or Michael Lewis’ book The Blind Side.
Michael had some very special and unique reasons for writing this book. He mentions several goals he had in mind.
The first one had to do with the veracity of the movie The Blind Side. Michael relates that many people have asked him if the movie accurately portrayed his life. He admits that the movie took some artistic liberties in the story line such as having Sandra Bullock as Leanne helping him understand how to play football.
His second goal centered on raising awareness of the approximately half a million children in the U. S. who go through the foster care system as he and his siblings did. And most of their lives do not turn out very well. The reality is that so many of these children end up living in poverty and perpetuating the cycle. They drop out of school and end up unemployed or in prison.
Another goal was to give hope and encouragement to children who come from backgrounds similar to his. He wanted to impart to them how much having a will to succeed can help them overcome life’s discouragements and also to provide them with some practical advice about how to do it.
Finally, he wrote to encourage people who have an interest in helping children who come from backgrounds of neglect and abuse to get out of it. The last chapter of the book is devoted to providing resources toward this end.
Michael grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. From age 11 to the start of high school, Michael lived in a housing project called Hurt Village. It was a dirty, broken down, depressing place. There was also a lot of gang and drug activity. He remembers one time when he was 11 and playing with some kids outdoors that bullets started flying and they all had to run for cover and hope the walls were thick enough to keep out stray bullets. Prior to Hurt Village, they lived in a variety of projects and slums including Hyde Park.
His mother had struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction. Michael said she was a good mother when she was sober, not abusive like others, but she was not sober very often. She would disappear for days at a time and the door would be locked, so Michael and his siblings would have to scrounge to find a place to stay. They also constantly moved from one slum to another since they were frequently kicked out. His mother simply wasn’t able to provide a decent, regular income due to her addictions.
And there were a lot of children to look after—a total of 12, nine boys and three girls. The older boys did their best to take care of each other and the younger children, but children are no substitute for parents.
At times, they even lived in a car or under a bridge but, according to Michael, he and his brothers and sisters dearly loved each other. Michael never really knew his father although he had met him between prison terms. Most of his siblings had different fathers.
Moving around so much meant that they were continuously being enrolled in a new school. This meant there was no continuity to their education. This would certainly explain why so many children in these circumstances never graduate from high school
Finally, the day came when they were all taken away by Child Protective Services and the children were split up into different foster homes. Living in foster homes taught Michael that not all families were as dysfunctional as his family was, and he also learned something about structure and routines, but he nevertheless ran back home whenever he had the opportunity. After running away persistently from foster care, he was finally released back to his mother’s care.
One foster parent named Velma did make a lasting impression on Michael. She did her best to give him and his brother what they were lacking. She also took them to church and told them they were God’s children. She even allowed the boys’ mother to come over and visit them though it was actually against the rules.
Unfortunately, Michael explains, many foster parents are in it strictly for the money and don’t really care about the children and may even be as abusive as the homes they left. But Velma wasn’t one of those.
He also described one very special teacher with whom he shared a birthday who taught all her students to believe in themselves. She encouraged Michael in his athletic abilities and told him one day he would make a lot of money.
When he was 14, he started selling newspapers to make money to keep up with his growing appetite since his mother had very little food in the house. One time a guy with a gun made Michael give him $100 dollars. That was a hungry week.
In seventh grade, he was placed in a special school for children with family circumstances similar to his. He began to realize how academic achievement could benefit a person. He realized he needed a mentor to help him turn dreams into action plans after school but he didn’t know where to find one.
In eighth grade, he was sent to the local high school. The teachers didn’t inspire him so he returned to the habit of skipping school and hanging around with friends or his brothers. He started noticing that the girls were starting to have babies and the boys were starting to do drugs and join gangs.
On the very last page of chapter seven Michael confides: “But I knew I was different because I had a secret—something I’d not told anyone. I’d figured out how I was going to leave the ghetto years back in 1993, when I was still in second grade.”
In the beginning of chapter eight, he explains his secret. When he was seven, as he watched the NBA finals between the Chicago Bulls and the Phoenix Suns, he knew somehow deep inside that sports were going to be his way out of the ghetto. The Bulls won and Michael Jordan was named the MVP. He started seeing MJ (as he referred to the great one) on commercials and he became MO’s role model. MO decided then and there that he was going to become a professional athlete so he could always pay the rent.
There were so many other kids that had the same goal. But they weren’t willing to work hard at it. Michael realized he needed to become a responsible and reliable person and a consistent hard worker.
The first big break in Michael’s life came when a man named Big Tony Henderson came into his life—a coach in his early high school years who mentored Michael, went out of his way to provide opportunities for Michael, and even allowed Michael to stay at his home on and off.
Tony was the one who made the arrangements for Michael to attend Briarcrest Christian High School, which is where his path crossed with the Tuohys. Michael became an immediate asset to the school’s athletic department.
Michael began to succeed academically as well as athletically at Briarcrest, though he still didn’t have a home. He stayed intermittently with various kind-hearted people who wanted to help him out.
His relationship with the Tuohys began when they anonymously began to pay for his lunch meal tickets. When they realized Michael did not have a home (he had broken regular contact with his mother due to her transient and derelict lifestyle) they invited him to live with them and they began providing for all his needs.
The Opportunity to Go to College
When he finally reached his senior year in high school and realized that a number of college coaches were going out of their way to try to recruit him, Michael was astonished. Most of his life had been a big disappointment, and now it seemed like a red carpet was being rolled out for him. He had been adopted by a loving family and he was being wooed by some of the best college coaches in the nation. He could barely take it all in.
Instead of becoming filled with his own self-importance, as happens to many who suddenly achieve worldly success, Michael knew who really deserved the credit. To quote Michael on page168 in the book: “By that point, I realized that God had blessed me and blessed my life with not just talent but people who were willing to help me develop that talent into something great…”
He eventually decided on the University of Mississippi for his college education. The Tuohy’s daughter, Collins, graduated the same year as Michael and she, too, decided to attend UM. Just a few weeks before heading out to Oxford, Mississippi, Michael was formally adopted by the Tuohys.
At UH, Michael was an outstanding success as Left Tackle, the same position he played in high school. He also managed to get on the Dean’s list his sophomore year. After his junior year, he nearly dropped out to enter the NFL draft, but changed his mind and went on to graduate from UM in 2009. It turned out to be the right decision because he had an even better year football-wise and also once again made the Dean’s List.
Michael Turns Pro
Finally the time came for him to enter the NFL draft. After Ole Miss’s pro day (the last opportunity for the professional teams to check out the players), experts were predicting Michael would be in the top ten or twenty draft picks. Then some storm clouds appeared on the horizon. Gossip among coaches began to spread that Michael wasn’t mentally sharp enough to learn a playbook. Then an ESPN draft analyst began saying Michael had “character issues.”
Fortunately, Michael’s UM coach spoke up to vouch for Michael’s character and laid those charges to rest. Michael ended up being the 23rd draft pick when he was chosen by the Baltimore Ravens.
In Michael’s very first year with the Ravens, the team got into the playoffs. They got as far as the AFC Division playoff but lost to the Indianapolis Colts who ended up winning the Super Bowl that year. But Michael was runner-up in the AP’s Offensive Rookie of the Year Award.
How the Blind Side Came About
Near the end of the book Michael explains how The Blind Side came about. Sean Tuohy had a friend named Michael Lewis who wrote for the New York Times Magazine. Since he paid the Tuohys a visit every once in a while, he began to be curious about this oversized black youngster that seemed to be at the Tuohy’s house every time he came over.
As a writer, Lewis was in the habit of doing research, so he began doing research about Michael Oher’s story. He started writing a magazine article about his slum-to-success story but ended up turning it into an entire book.
The book took off as soon as it appeared on bookshelves. In no time, negotiations were being made to make it into a movie. Michael never got to see the movie until it had already been in the theatres for a while. He thought the movie was okay, but was rather annoyed that he was pictured as having to be taught how to play football, when he had been studying the game intently since he was a small boy.
The final few chapters of Michael’s book are devoted to encouraging people trying to get out of the cycle of poverty or to those trying to help those people. He exhorts the reader on p.224: “That’s the challenge I want to extend to every kid who might be reading this book: Make the decision today to commit yourself to something better. It’s going to take work and it’s going to be tough at times, but you’ve already taken the first step by thinking about wanting something different.”
He actually gives permission on the same page for caring people to make photocopies of the chapter to give to young people they are concerned about.
One of the main things he stresses in this chapter is the importance of hanging around the right kind of people. Hanging around thugs just because you go way back together is unwise. They will still influence you negatively. He uses Michael Vick as an example of that. Instead, you need to seek out positive mentors.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book and found it very inspirational. I am so thankful when good role models like Michael come around because most of the role models for youth nowadays are rather poor. It is wonderful to see that Michael’s heart is in helping others the way he was helped instead of getting caught up in a fast, extravagant lifestyle like that of many high profile athletes.
I definitely recommend reading this book. Though my review is rather lengthy, there are still many stirring parts in the book that haven’t been included.