OWINGS MILLS — The reality of Baltimore Ravens rookie tackle Michael Oher is a rich tale of perseverance, heart and vast talent.
His journey has brought him from being a homeless teenager on the streets of Memphis, Tenn., to the Ravens’ $35 million training complex where he plies his trade as one of the top young blockers in the game.
Oher grew up as one of 13 children in the slums of Memphis.
His father was a stranger to him and was later murdered.
His mother, Denise Oher, was addicted to crack cocaine.
Then, Oher was adopted and nurtured academically and spiritually by a wealthy Memphis couple, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy.
Remarkably, he developed from his humble origins into a blue-chip college football prospect.
His life story was chronicled in the best-selling Michael Lewis novel, “The Blind Side,” which was adapted and dramatized by Hollywood into a hit movie this fall.
Oher’s evolution from a consensus All-American at Ole Miss into finishing second in the balloting for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year behind electrifying Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin probably doesn’t happen without his parents’ loving influence.
And Oher is developing into a great player.
His blend of aggressiveness, relentlessness, toughness and technique have made him an instant force at the line of scrimmage.
He has tangled with the best pass rushers in the league, including Jared Allen and Dwight Freeney. And he has held his own.
“Against us, Michael Oher played extremely well,” Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. “Obviously, he pass protected well and he run-blocked extremely well against our guys. He seems to get better each and every week.”
Oher fires off the football so quickly that he’s occasionally penalized for false starts.
When the Ravens’ coaching staff slows down the video, they discovered that he was retreating into his blocking stance as soon as center Matt Birk snapped the football. Oher just bounds into position rapidly, ready to wall off pass rushers.
Oher has always been a starter for the Ravens, ever since the first minicamp two weeks after the Ravens drafted him 23rd overall in the first round after trading with the New England Patriots to get in position to select him.
“He’s never taken a snap with the second team,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “He went right to the first team, because we didn’t have anybody else. Everybody else was banged up.
“He went to the first team and he’s known what to do since Day 1. Obviously, he did some work before he got here, so he’s always been ahead of the curve.”
Eager to learn, Oher displayed that trait one day after he was drafted when he asked the coaching staff for some homework to take back home to Tennessee.
That left an impression.
“The day after the draft, in a very discreet way, he got word to us that he wanted the playbook as quickly as possible, and I thought, ‘Hmm, interesting,”‘ Cameron said. “He really didn’t come to me to get it. He wasn’t trying to impress me. He did it in a subtle way.”
Oher started every game this season, including five at the demanding left tackle position where he’s responsible for protecting the blind side of quarterback Joe Flacco.
He has handled it all in stride, working hard and accepting the praise that goes with his success in a humble manner.
“He’s one of the brightest young football players I’ve ever been around,” Cameron. “The next thing you’re looking for in a tackle is consistency. If you have tackles who are inconsistent, it makes it hard to call plays. You got to know what you have in your tackles.
“I know what I’ve got in Michael Oher: a guy who’s tough, smart, and who’s going to give me everything he’s got, and he’s consistent. When you take into account all this other stuff as a rookie and then you throw in a book and a movie? And it hasn’t affected him one bit? That’s special.”
Oher just keeps improving. That’s why the coaches haven’t placed a ceiling on his potential.
They love his attitude.
“I’ve learned a lot,” Oher said. “I think I got better as the weeks have gone on, but I could have played a lot better the entire season.
“I definitely want to be considered one of the best, but it takes work. It takes time. I got to stay focused. I just got to keep on working.”
Oher’s go-for-the-throat mentality hasn’t endeared him to many opposing defensive linemen, including Freeney, Allen and Patriots end Ty Warren.
He makes no apologies.
“You’ve got to be tough to play football,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re a quarterback. You got to play your game, no matter what it is. I’m not stopping for nobody.”
Will Oher ultimately take over the left tackle position on a permanent basis? That remains to be seen.
The Ravens have Gaither in place, but Oher might be better suited for the position as a lighter, more athletic, better conditioned lineman.
“Will you see him on the left side?” Cameron said. “Yes, because we do that right now, anyway. We’re just fortunate that we’ve got two young tackles who can both play left and who can both play right.”
Oher proved he could be the answer at one of football’s most critical positions against Allen and against Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Antwan Odom earlier this season when Gaither hurt his neck against New England.
He struggled a bit against Vikings Pro-Bowler Allen, but competed fiercely and wound up talking a bit of smack about the Pro Bowl pass rusher in a sign that he wasn’t cowed by Allen’s skills.
He shut down Odom, the NFL sacks leader at the time, holding him to no sacks.
“Of course it’s a big difference going from right to left,” Oher said. “It’s a big difference because I got used to a position, so that makes a difference, but it’s all football at the end of the day.”
Oher prefers to talk about football, rather than his difficult childhood.
Who can blame him?
“I never think about the past,” Oher said. “I’m a Raven, so that’s all I think about.”
Throughout the season as Oher got to know his teammates and coaches, he became less and less guarded and let people get to know him.
By the end of the season, he was comfortable enough to joke around in the locker room a bit and wasn’t always the stoic, serious character that’s a beast on the football field.
“It’s a learning process,” Sean Tuohy said. “You think about it, that’s the way it’s always been in his life. Most of us go in trusting people and we work away from that. We either distrust them after that or we continue to trust them.
“He distrusted everybody, because everybody let him down. It’s a backward process, and unfortunately that’s the part that takes time, but he’s a good kid. He’s the best kid in the whole world and I don’t want him to change.”