Oher: "I've had a long road"

OWINGS MILLS -- The remarkable journey of Michael Oher has propelled him from being a homeless teenager growing up on the roughest streets in Memphis, Tenn., to emerge as the Baltimore Ravens' newly-minted first-round draft pick.

From an uncommonly trying childhood with his mother addicted to crack cocaine and a stranger for a father who was later murdered, Oher experienced a resurgence in his life through the love of his adopted family while developing into a gifted football player.

Now, the former Ole Miss star offensive tackle is on the verge of becoming a potential rookie starter as a cornerstone blocker who will sign a multi-million dollar contract later this summer.

"It's been a long road for me," said Oher, the 23rd overall pick of the draft. "I've come a long way from where I grew up in a rough neighborhood, and I had a rough upbringing. I'm going to spend a long time in the NFL."

On Sunday, the consensus All-American found himself the subject of a lot of attention as flash bulbs clicked away and video cameras captured his introductory press conference.

From the significant academic ground he had to make up after enrolling at an exclusive private school to assimilating to a new environment and a new family after living in a series of foster homes, Oher has always strived to avoid the gloomy fate that could have befallen him in Memphis.

"Michael has made amazing strides," said Leigh Ann Tuohy, Oher's adopted mother. "He's a great kid who had such a hard childhood, but he has worked so hard on everything, football, basketball, school, etiquette. He's like a sponge.

"He could have slipped through the cracks. He's one of the lucky ones. He's been very blessed. It's been an amazing journey, but we believe this is what he was meant for."

An athletic All-Southeastern Conference blocker, Oher's life story is the subject of Michael Lewis' New York Times best seller, "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game."

It details his burgeoning progress into an accomplished, polite young man and a blue-chip football player, and it has drawn the attention of Hollywood and will be made into a movie. Actress Sandra Bullock is scheduled to portray Leigh Ann Tuohy. Kathy Bates will play his academic tutor.

"The book is about how we value people in life, Michael was going to fall through the cracks and slip through the system," said Sean Tuohy, Oher's adopted father. "It really makes you think about people. It has changed people's lives.

"He's not mad at anyone. He doesn't want anything from anyone. He's just a great example of what can happen with hard work. We call it the gift that keeps on giving."

Oher is about to embark on another transition as he attempts to become the next Ravens first-round success story. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said that Oher will immediately challenge four-time Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson for a starting job.

Nearly every recent Baltimore first-round draft pick has become a rookie starter with many becoming impact players like quarterback Joe Flacco, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and safety Ed Reed.

"I've got every tool I need to be a starter," Oher said. "I'm going to come in and compete right away. If I get the opportunity to start, I'm going to take care of my business."

There have been questions raised about how quickly Oher might absorb the playbook as well as his intelligence, an issue raised primarily because of his academic background. Oher attended 11 schools in his first nine years of school and repeated the first and second grade before improving rapidly at Briarcrest Christian School.

At Ole Miss, Oher became a star against elite competition despite the adjustment of playing for three offensive coordinators in four seasons with each running different systems and wrinkles. There were only a few busted assignments.

"Football is not his first nature, but he's got a memory that's almost scary how good he can recall," Sean Tuohy said. "It wasn't the case that he wasn't smart. To catch up without the academic foundation, you have to have huge memory recall.

"He still made the honor roll. He had two missed assig nments in four years, and he argues about that one. Against LSU, he'll give you that one as a freshman."

Oher's initial sports experience was in basketball, so he represented a completely blank slate as a football player when he first took up the sport as a high school junior.

He was completely unknown to colleges until after his junior season, escaping the notice of former University of Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer despite the fact that Oher's high school football team practiced at the Volunteers' indoor facility.

To learn blocking schemes and terminology, Oher practiced at home by lining up against chairs that acted as defensive players.

Oher quickly learned where to line up and wound up adeptly blocking the likes of Tennessee standout defensive end Robert Ayers in college.

The Ravens are thrilled that they landed Oher and envision a long future with him lining up on the right side opposite imposing left tackle Jared Gaither.

"I've been doing this now for five, six years and I got a sense that this kid really was going to be a great fit from Day 1," Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta said. From the moment he came in, I saw the passion, toughness and determination. ...

"We thought quite honestly that Michael would be picked in the top 10 or 15 players. From an ability standpoint, we felt like he was one of the elite players in the draft at his position. We were just very fortunate to get him where we did."

Oher is equally eager to prove teams made a mistake by not drafting him earlier in the first round, patterning his game after NFL star offensive tackles like Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones and Orlando Pace.

And Oher's family is certain that he'll continue to achieve after overcoming so much adversity during his formative years.

"I guarantee it won't be long before they realize they got the best kid," Sean Tuohy said. "He will fight to the bitter end. I'm just glad I don't play on defense. They underestimated him big-time. It's going to cost them."

Following his adoption, Oher improved his grade point average from a 0.6 to a 2.65. He's a semester away from earning a criminal justice bachelor's degree.

"I was on the honor roll a couple of times," Oher said during a February press conference at the NFL scouting combine. "I'm a smart guy."

Oher seems comfortable with his new surroundings, touring the Ravens' training complex and meeting with Harbaugh, team owner Steve Bisciotti, general manager Ozzie Newsome and other team officials.

Oher is also very health conscious after weighing as much as 350 pounds in high school. And he's not a fan of the nightlife.

"He's a very independent kid who lived by himself, he didn't need roommates," Sean Tuohy said. "His idea of a fun night is a good movie and a grilled chicken sandwich. He's obsessed with nutrition. He's a nutrition nut.

"You almost want him to get in a little trouble. He got in a fight one time and his coach was glad to see the fire."

Despite all of the attention, Oher seems capable of handling it fairly seamlessly.

After all he's been through, being an instant celebrity doesn't bother him. He's going to speak at a Memphis Boys & Girls Club banquet this week.

"Because of the book, he has been exposed," Sean Tuohy said. "If he didn't handle it well, we would probably change the course. If the spotlight scared you, he wouldn't do something like that. He cares about people."

Oher's family doesn't envision fame or a lucrative NFL contract transforming him from the good-natured, quiet person they've nurtured.

"Money has ruined a lot of good people," Oher's adopted father said. "That scares you. Granted, this is more money than anybody needs or deserves, but no enough that you sit around and take it easy. It's kept him a little bit hungry.

"I've never seen anybody look more comfortable. We really believe this is where God wanted him. To get here doesn't make a lot of sense, but his whole life doesn't make a lot of sense. It fits perfect."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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