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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Big Mike    

This has been posted all over the place, but this Michael Lewis book excerpt concerning Ole Miss offensive tackle Michael Oher is excellent reading.  In brief, a homeless, orphaned black teenager from West Memphis gets transformed by a rich white family into a freshman All-America offensive lineman and a can't-miss NFL prospect.  The excerpt concentrates on his ascent from homelessness to his matriculation at Mississippi.

The most provocative parts of the story revolve around his patrons, the Tuohy family.  While I don't doubt their intentions to help Big Mike, it does become readily apparent over the course of the piece that Big Mike didn't care either way whether he played football.  It was everyone else who wanted him in the NFL.  Having grown up in a world without choices, his adjustment to a world with choices was to allow complete strangers to make those choices for him.

The stepping stone that makes me wonder the most is Sean Tuohy's manipulation of Big Mike's grade point average.  Basically, Tuohy found that Brigham Young University offers 10-day courses that can replace a high school F with an A.  They enrolled Big Mike in several of these classes, all of them suited to Big Mike's abilities, and elevated his GPA to an NCAA-acceptable level.  You get the feeling that nobody took the academic content all that seriously... that it was just another hurdle.

I don't know how I feel about that.  Big Mike as a successful NFL tackle would be a major improvement over the alternative, obviously.  And he seems to be a lovable kid, based on everything that was done for him.  But you also don't want him to be a charity case.  That angle was damn near ignored by Lewis.  He did get his grades up, but his work ethic isn't exactly portrayed in the typical "pull myself up by the bootstraps" manner.

All told, the story raises more questions than it answers.  Did the generous white folks truly save his life from a class system that failed him?  Or was he merely exploited for his physical gifts?  What does Mike think about his situation?  Have his patrons really done the right thing?

Either way, it sounds like a really fascinating book.  If the rest of the book is like the article, I'll definitely be checking it out.

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