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How The 'Blind Side' Kid 'Beat The Odds'

Feb 9, 2011 (Talk of the Nation)

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Michael Oher, an offensive tackle for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens, never really wanted to write a book. "I'm a football player first," he tells NPR's Neal Conan. "I didn't want to be ... bothered with it."

But Oher isn't just a typical football star — he was the inspiration for the feature film The Blind Side, which won an Academy Award for Best Actress and inspired millions of Americans to take an interest in his story. The movie told the tale of a poor (and hulking) kid growing up with a crack-addicted mother, moving from home to home and school to school, until he found familial love and support with an adoptive family. He then went on to become a football star. It is a seemingly perfect story, wrapped up in a bow of sporting success.

With the film's tremendous reception — Sandra Bullock won the Oscar for playing Oher's adoptive mother, Leighanne Tuohy — the letters from former foster kids kept piling up. Oher knew that he needed to do more than just play football to inspire the children looking to him for answers.

"I started to get so many letters ... hundreds and thousands of letters," he says. As Oher heard from more and more former foster children, he realized that sharing his story in his own words had the power to help others.

"The outlook is pretty bleak for kids like me," Oher writes in his book, I Beat The Odds: From Homelessness to The Blind Side and Beyond. "I want to provide a voice for the other half-million children in the foster care system who are silently crying out for help."

Oher wrote the book with assistance from author Don Yaeger, and together they did extensive research on the fate of young people who age out of America's foster care system. Oher and Yaeger were sobered by what they found — high levels of homelessness and post-traumatic stress syndrome — and very low college attendance rates.

"We found numbers that were unbelievable," says Oher. "I was supposed to have been part of it ... but I had a strong will and I was not going to be a part of that cycle."

One of the many challenges for kids navigating the system, Oher says, is a stigma that foster children are "problem kids." Many social workers are too quick to label children, he says: "They think that this kid's bad and ... they automatically give them a bad name."

But many young people, Oher argues, "want to do right ... and live on the right path. Not everybody in the inner city is bad."

Oher knows that, conversely, foster children can also misinterpret their caseworkers. Growing up, Oher and his siblings were terrified of their own social worker. "We thought she was a terrible bounty hunter," he says. "Always trying to separate us."

It was only when Oher decided to write I Beat The Odds that he sought out that caseworker, Bobbie Spivey, hoping that she could help him fill in gaps in his childhood memories. When he sat down with her as an adult, he realized Spivey had only been trying to do what was best for his family — even when that meant separating Oher and his 11 siblings.

Oher hopes his story will help other young people identify the adults who can help them find their way.

"I knew that I wanted this book to be more than just a story about my early life," he writes. "I wanted it to be a guidebook for kids like me and the adults who want to help them."

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