Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
February 12, 2007
FOOTBALL: The Blind Side
Just in case you may have considered not reading Michael Lewis' The Blind Side, I'm here to tell you to reconsider. The Blind Side is one of the best sports books I've ever read.
Like Lewis' previous books Liar's Poker (about Salomon Brothers in the 1980s) and Moneyball (about the Oakland A's in the past decade), The Blind Side is fundamentally a book about markets and how they interact with the people whose unique skills or insights are suddenly made valuable by those markets. In this case, it's the market for NFL left tackles who protect the end of the line of scrimmage on a right-handed quarterback's blind side from increasingly quick and dangerous pass rushers. Lewis starts his tale with a (literally) shattering anecdote, recounting in stop-motion detail Lawrence Taylor's legendary hit on Joe Theismann and noting that the Redskins' star left tackle, Joe Jacoby, was on the sidelines that night. Lewis then details the rapid rise of left tackle salaries and the ripple effect that has had on the position all the way down to high school.
Wrapped inside a book about markets, however, is a second story - a unique coming of age story that takes over the narrative. Lewis follows Michael Oher, a 16-year-old African-American kid from the worst possible part of Memphis who arrives, Tarzan-like, at an overwhelmingly white Christian school with nothing but the ideal physical size and gifts to be an NFL left tackle. And I do mean nothing: no family, no home, no education, no money, no background in organized sports, no medical history - but also, perhaps surprisingly given his background, no boiling anger, no criminal record, no bad habits. The kid was just a complete cipher. It's an amazing testament to the generosity of his neighbors that a kid who never knew where his next meal was coming from somehow made his way to 350 pounds of mostly muscle by age 16.
I've been told by more careful watchers of the NFL that Lewis has a few factual details wrong - names misspelled, dates wrong. As a narrative, the only false note in the book is a chapter entitled "Death of a Lineman," which ends with the early death from cancer of 49ers guard John Ayers; while Ayers' story fits neatly into Lewis' narrative, his death really has nothing to do with nothing, and feels tacked on for surplus emotion (perhaps it would have felt less so if not for the chapter title).
This book may be less significant than Moneyball, in that it's far less likely to stir new debate in the NFL, but it's a great yarn full of laugh-out-loud "wow" moments (I may be biased because I went into Moneyball knowing more of the story). On the other hand, Lewis does also manage to bring in more of the world outside football through his examination of a Memphis neighborhood that is staggering even by the standards of urban poverty.
Lewis was a childhood friend of Sean Touhy, the Memphis businessman who takes Oher under his wing, and so this is the second outstanding book that Lewis essentially fell into, the first being Liar's Poker, which came out of Lewis' own tenure working at Salomon Brothers. That said, he's a tremendous writer and it's a tale worth the telling.