For his first year it didn’t matter. He failed his classes and didn’t play anything. As far as the Briarcrest teachers could determine, he didn’t have a thought or a fact or an idea in his head. But then almost by accident they figured out that he needed to be tested orally, whereupon he proved to them that he deserved high D’s instead of low F’s. It wasn’t clear that he was going to acquire enough credits to graduate with his class, but Simpson and Graves stopped thinking they were going to send him back out on the streets, and they let him play sports. He joined the basketball team at the end of his sophomore year and soon afterward the track-and-field team (throwing the discus and putting the shot). In his junior year he finally got onto the football field.
The problem there, at first, resembled his problems in the classroom. He had no foundation, no idea what he was meant to do as a member of a team. He said he had played football his freshman year at Westwood, but there was no sign of it in his performance. When Freeze saw how fast he could move, he pegged him as a defensive tackle. And so for the first six games of the 2003 season, he played defense. He wasn’t any worse than his replacement, but he wasn’t much better either. One of his more talented teammates, Joseph Crone, thought Big Mike’s main contribution came before the game, when the opposing team stumbled out of its locker room or bus and took the measure of the Briarcrest Christian School. “They’d see all of us,” Crone says, “and then they’d see Mike and say, ‘Oh, God.”’Michael Lewis has something of a pattern he uses when writing, especially about sports. And it's a smart idea that he does because it's a really compelling pattern. The pattern is roughly: here's some way that talent once went unrecognized, and now let's tell the story of how it got recognized. If you've seen Moneyball you know that this is the basic structure of the plot, and that is true as well for The Blind Side. In the Blind Side, though, the story of why Michael Oher's talent went unrecognized for so long (even though it was so obvious) has a lot to do with race, class and educational opportunity. Lewis tells that story in a really interesting way and does not fail to recognize just how many kids like Michael never get their talent recognized, whether in sports or academics, because of the limitations of their environment.
Lewis also authored a piece of this same basic structure (tremendous talent gets underestimated, and then, suddenly, properly estimated) in the New York Times about Shane Battier. It too is a story colored in interesting way by the backdrop of race and class, and whether you're interested in those things or are just a basketball fan, it's well worth your time. Here's a bit:
Battier was half-white and half-black, but basketball, it seemed, was either black or white. A small library of Ph.D. theses might usefully be devoted to the reasons for this. For instance, is it a coincidence that many of the things a player does in white basketball to prove his character — take a charge, scramble for a loose ball — are more pleasantly done on a polished wooden floor than they are on inner-city asphalt? Is it easier to “play for the team” when that team is part of some larger institution? At any rate, the inner-city kids with whom he played on the A.A.U. circuit treated Battier like a suburban kid with a white game, and the suburban kids he played with during the regular season treated him like a visitor from the planet where they kept the black people. “On Martin Luther King Day, everyone in class would look at me like I was supposed to know who he was and why he was important,” Battier said. “When we had an official school picture, every other kid was given a comb. I was the only one given a pick.” He was awkward and shy, or as he put it: “I didn’t present well. But I’m in the eighth grade! I’m just trying to fit in!” And yet here he was shuttling between a black world that treated him as white and a white world that treated him as black. ‘‘Everything I’ve done since then is because of what I went through with this,” he said. “What I did is alienate myself from everybody. I’d eat lunch by myself. I’d study by myself. And I sort of lost myself in the game.”