I’m secretly a huge football fan. I think it comes from all the years I spent talking with my dad while strategized his picks for his fantasy football leagues. It was a way for us to be close, and through watching games and listening to his commentary I managed to pick up quite a bit about the sport. I’m no expert, but I can hold my own when football chat comes up.
I’m also a major fan of the inspirational sports movie — I could watch Remember the Titans or Miracle every day and still get excited when the Titans do their opening dance or Kurt Russell yells, “The legs feed the wolf, gentlemen. The legs feed the wolf.” So of course I went and saw The Blind Side in theaters, then grabbed a copy of the book to read when I was done.
Comparing the two, it struck me how different they are despite the fact that they both use the same set of facts to tell a story. Yes, the details about Michael Oher — an abandoned black kid adopted by the wealthy, white, Tuohy family who develops an incredible talent for one of the most difficult positions in football — are similar, but what the two pieces are really about is quite different.
The movie is, like most inspirational sports movies, a movie not really about sports at all but something bigger than just a game. The book, however, is very much a sports book about sports and the technical development of the game of football. I liked both equally, but for very different reasons.
As any preview of the movie shows, The Blind Side, is about family, hope, and overcoming obstacles. It uses football and the story of Michael Oher as a device to argue that anyone can overcome something with a little help from the people who love them. I’ll admit that I cried at least three of four times while watching the movie because those are themes that get to me and are part of the reason I’m such a sucker for the inspirational sports movie.
Of course, the movie packs that punch in part because of the way it smooths out many of the edges of Oher’s story. For example, in order to be eligible to play college football, Oher needed to graduate with a 2.5 GPA. Coming into to high school, his GPA was somewhere around .04. In order to raise his grades, Oher worked hard with a tutor on his normal classes and enrolled in a number of short online courses that almost guaranteed him the A’s he needed to pull his GPA up. The movie doesn’t include the online classes, making it look like Oher just improved with the help of his tutor. It’s not major, but the movie makes a number of simplifying choices similar to this one that the book doesn’t do.
In fact, The Blind Side book, is actually quite complicated. And it’s a sports book that is very, very much about sports. Author Michael Lewis uses Oher’s story to look at a larger change in football — the development of the passing offense, the growing value of the quarterback, and the similar growth in importance for the left tackle position (the position Oher was built to play).
Currently, the second-highest paid player on most football teams is the left tackle, a member of the offensive line, who is charged with protecting the quarterback’s blind side (the side a quarterback can’t watch when trying to make a play). That seems a illogical, given how anonymous offensive linemen can be, but it makes sense to pay highly for someone that can protect your star at his most vulnerable. In the book Lewis explores why this is true and uses Oher as the narrative device to keep the book from being just a history of football or a lengthy list of statistics about the football passing game.
I really loved the book, especially the sort of statistical nerding-out that Lewis did trying to analyze the change in football strategy, but it’s something someone not into football wouldn’t enjoy. By cutting a lot of the sports out of the story, the movie is able to appeal to a much wider audience. If you’re at all a sports nerd, I recommend the book, but otherwise the movie is probably a better bet.