I Beat the Odds

by Michael Oher & Don Yaeger

Cover image

Publisher: Gotham
Copyright: 2011
Printing: February 2012
ISBN: 1-101-56003-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 250

Buy at Powell's Books

Michael Oher is the high school football star whose fascinating life story took over Michael Lewis's The Blind Side, prompting a movie based on the book. The book was published in 2006; the movie in 2009. The Tuohys, Oher's adoptive parents, wrote their book (with Sally Jenkins) in 2010. That's a lot of writing, acting, and story-telling about Oher. I Beat the Odds is the first time he told his story himself.

Despite his struggle with the shape of his material, Lewis's The Blind Side is a better-written book than this one at the level of literary technique. This is not surprising; Lewis is one of the great journalistic story-tellers of our era and provides a strong introduction to this story. Lewis frames it and provides the football context, gets the reader engaged and fascinated by Oher's life, and gives you all the tools to understand the shape of the story.

I Beat the Odds is the better book.

This is not because Oher and Yaeger are better story-tellers. It's because they have a better story to tell. This is the story Lewis never got to (for reasons that remain a bit murky to me, and which I'll touch on in a moment). It's the payoff that I spent all of The Blind Side hoping for, but which Lewis never quite delivered: the full context and background of Oher's life, how it felt, and how he reacted to it.

Where Lewis balances a story of football with the story of a person and dances around Oher's chronology using the framing of the Tuohys learning more about his life, Oher and Yaeger lay out the full story in simple chronological order. I Beat the Odds grapples directly with issues of poverty, foster care, family, love, child services, schools, and role models. And while it's always hard to judge as a reader triangulating between different versions of the story, this book rings as true and honest and forthright as a bell in places where I think Lewis was reaching for dramatic tension.

A brief sketch of Oher's life for those who have not yet seen any version of this story: he grew up in a huge family in one of the worst parts of Memphis with a mother who was an off-and-on drug addict. He and his siblings were put into foster care, and he bounced through several families until he ran away from the system and rotated between various places he could sleep for a few nights. He was always an incredibly gifted athlete who studied multiple sports deeply and intensely (this is one of the bits that Lewis got wrong, probably unknowingly), but no one really noticed until one of the families he occasionally stayed with insisted that he would only send his son to a private school that would also take Oher. That was Briarcrest Christian School, which led to Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, Oher's discovery by a high school scout, and (the main thread of The Blind Side) the push to get him eligible for NCAA football.

The Blind Side stops with Oher playing college ball. I Beat the Odds continues through his drafting by the Baltimore Ravens and his first seasons of professional play, providing somewhat more satisfying closure. But what it adds the most to Lewis's story is the details of Oher's early life, which Lewis keeps obscure for most of his book and then summarizes in a later chapter.

This omission is not exactly Lewis's fault. As Lewis admits, and Oher confirms, Lewis barely talked to Oher while writing The Blind Side and Oher was not particularly interested in talking to him. Lewis did have some conversations with him at the end of his research, but Oher at the time was unwilling to dig into and try to remember much of his past. For I Beat the Odds, Oher went back to where he grew up, met with his child welfare case worker, and reconstructed pieces of his life he'd forgotten or suppressed, none of which Lewis had access to. The story that results is so much better for being more complete.

There are other things, though, that I do blame Lewis for a little: places where I think he slipped into some standard narrative lines that just weren't true. One of them is that Lewis portrays Oher as a raw natural physical talent who barely knew how to play football and was far more interested in basketball. Oher quietly puts this idea to rest by describing how intensely he studied both sports. He still had to learn how to translate his knowledge into physical action, but his description rings far more true than Lewis's. The hours and hours of street basketball and other physical training are also a more satisfying explanation for Oher's unusual speed despite his size than Lewis's focus on freakish physical accident, as is Oher's far more sensible explanation for why he played outside positions in basketball. Lewis said it was due to an obsession with Michael Jordan; Oher explains that, due to his size, he was constantly being called for fouls he didn't commit.

I mentioned in my review of The Blind Side that Lewis had to walk a precarious tight-rope over the fault lines in US society around race and class to tell his story. Oher, since he's speaking for himself and not about someone else, avoids those pitfalls, but had the universal challenge of a success story: how much to attribute to his own innate drive and how much to attribute to external circumstance or luck. He and Yaeger deftly address that challenge by giving I Beat the Odds a purpose and explicitly named audience. This is a book written for and about kids in foster care. It's the story of one kid in foster care who made it out to a life of great success, and how that happened, and what he was thinking while it was happening, and what in retrospect was important to him in that process. And it's also a book that tells those kids they're not alone, that other people felt and feel what they're feeling, and that some kids just like them broke out of the cycle.

I think that focus makes this book so much better than a pure autobiography would have been. Oher is telling this story to an audience he knows well, and tells it comfortably and honestly and with as much advice included as he can. The rest of us are lucky enough to get to listen in. Oher says in the afterword of this edition that he thought people would be tired of this story and uninterested in another version, but that if he could get the book into the hands of a few thousand foster kids, it would be worth it. He was surprised by its popularity, but then starts talking about the letters from foster kids that he got after its initial publication (and reprints excerpts from some of them), and some of that had me in tears. I think it's safe to say that he achieved his goal.

This focus does mean that you won't find much analysis of the overall social conditions here, much focus on systemic problems, or many suggestions for reform or structural changes. Oher mentions, somewhat in passing, the dire state of Memphis child welfare when he was a kid, but has nothing but praise for the individual case workers even though he hated and feared them as a kid for breaking up his family. He is as positive and generous towards Briarcrest as Lewis was, saying that he always felt welcome and included despite being one of the few black kids at a former segregation academy. (I still find this hard to believe, but perhaps my cynicism really isn't warranted.) If you're looking for a sociological analysis of poverty, child welfare systems, and racial divides, this is not the book.

If you're looking for a truly amazing case study of a remarkable person, told with fair-minded empathy and thoughtful reflection, though, read this. And if you have read The Blind Side or seen the movie, I think you truly owe it to yourself to also read this book and get the rest of the story (and corrections to bits of the movie, and to a lesser extent the book, that Oher found frustrating or inaccurate). You need not fear being bored by reading the same story twice. There is so much more here, so many new details and time periods Lewis is entirely quiet about, that it never felt repetitive.

I don't know how well this book would read on its own. Lewis hooked me on this story while making me not quite trust his telling of it, and I thoroughly enjoyed grappling with both versions, deciding which pieces I believed, and studying the ways they diverged and why they might have done so. Reading only I Beat the Odds loses that complexity, although what remains is still a lucid and heartfelt story of a person in whom I found a lot to admire. Read together, this is a fascinating view of how stories are told and shaped and molded, and how different they can look from different perspectives. This was the intellectual highlight of my vacation reading.

I may have to read the Tuohys' book (In a Heartbeat) after all, just to get one more piece of the story, although I'm worried I'm going to be allergic to the way in which I fear they'll tell it.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-12-26

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