It's a true story that inspired a best-selling book, which in turn inspired a feature film, The Blind Side. But it all began by chance, on a blustery November day in 2002.
That morning, Leigh Anne Tuohy was driving along a Memphis street with her husband, Sean, and their two children when she spotted a young man stepping off a city bus. He stood out for many reasons. At 6'5'' and more than 300 pounds, he was certainly hard to miss. But Leigh Anne also noticed he was wearing nothing more than shorts and a T-shirt despite the plummeting temperatures.
Sean and her children, Collins and S.J., recognized the teen as Michael Oher, their classmate at Briarcrest Christian School. Though he'd only been enrolled at Briarcrest a short time, Michael was already well known by most students. He was by far the biggest student at school and one of few African-Americans.
In that moment, Leigh Anne says a sixth sense kicked in. She told her husband to pull over, and the Tuohy family made room for Michael in their car. "It was nothing and everything," Leigh Anne says. "It was just one of those things that you should do."
Michael's future changed the day he met the Tuohys, but his past was something he was still trying to forget. At a young age, Michael and his 12 siblings were taken from their mother, a crack cocaine addict, and placed in foster care. By the time Briarcrest took a chance on him, 16-year-old Michael had attended more than 11 different schools and was essentially homeless. At night, he crashed on couches and carried his few belongings in plastic garbage bags.
At first, the Tuohys invited Michael to sleep on their couch, but over time, he became a fixture in their grand East Memphis home. Eventually, Leigh Anne gave him a bedroom and bought him a bed. He later told her this was the first bed he ever had.
Soon after, Leigh Anne began including Michael in her nightly routine. "I kiss all of my kids goodnight every night and tell them I love them. Probably a month or so after Michael was in the house, I would just go into his room at night and do the same thing," she says. "It had probably been eight or nine months of that, and one night when I did it, he said, 'I love you too.'"
With the Tuohys' encouragement, Michael got his dismal grade point average up and went out for football his junior year. His size, quickness and protective nature made him a natural fit for the offensive line. He quickly became known as one of the best high school football players in the country.
As word of his talent spread, author Michael Lewis came to Memphis to write about Michael's journey from homeless teen to star athlete. Leigh Anne says Lewis was treated like the sixth member of their family. "He had his own key," she says. After years of extensive research, his book, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, became a New York Times best-seller.
While primarily a book about football, Lewis' account also goes into detail about Michael's turbulent childhood, his decision to play football for the University of Mississippi—Leigh Anne and Sean's alma mater—and his unique relationship with the Tuohy family.
Leigh Anne says Michael always knew he was part of the family, but she and Sean decided to make it official after an attorney told them they couldn't add Michael to their children's trust fund. "I wanted to make sure Michael got a third of what we had if something happened," Leigh Anne says. "And I just said, 'Well, this is just ridiculous.'" The couple hired a lawyer and soon became Michael's legal guardians.
The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game was a critical success, but the Tuohys' decisions were met with much criticism. When this white family adopted a black teenager, friends, family members and strangers started talking.
"We got nasty letters and nasty phone calls. Nasty innuendos," Leigh Anne says. "It was endless, but we just decided early on that you can't let those people interfere with your life or ruin your life. If you did, you'd just be crazy with trying to ward off all the naysayers."
For the most part, the Tuohys ignored the negativity, but a few people got phone calls from Leigh Anne, a fiercely protective mother with a commanding presence and charming Southern drawl. "I thought, 'I'm just going to bully them back,'" she says.
In college, Michael excelled on and off the football field, and in 2009, he was drafted by the NFL's Baltimore Ravens. "It was a great day," Leigh Anne says.
Around this time, another young man's life was about to change thanks to Michael and the Tuohys. The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game was being adapted into a feature film, The Blind Side, and movie producers were scouring the country for a young man to play Michael.
When Quinton Aaron, a 25-year-old from the Bronx who stands 6'8'', walked into an open call, Quinton says the casting agent started to cry. "She said, 'Oh my god. We found Michael,'" he says. "It was crazy."
In school, Quinton says he played football for one semester, but he was always more interested in the arts. He did some theater before landing a small role in the 2008 film Be Kind Rewind. Then, Quinton and his mother read about the Michael Oher role.
"We both said: 'This is us. This is me. I have to do this because the character fit, and it was a lead role," he says. "When else would that happen?"
Quinton's mother went online and submitted him for the role. Sadly, she passed away before he was cast. "But I know she's smiling down on me, proud of her boy," he says.
Before strapping on the shoulder pads, Quinton endured eight weeks of intense football training with Georgia Tech's strength and conditioning coach. "By the time we started to shoot, I did look like an athlete," he says. "I was a lot more physically capable of pulling off the football."
Michael's personality was easier for Quinton to master. "We're both known as gentle giants," he says.
John Lee Hancock, the film's director, asked Quinton to put himself in Michael's shoes during emotional scenes. "Because me and Michael were similar in a lot of ways, in terms of personality, he wanted me to be myself with the role," Quinton says.
During filming, Quinton spent many days on set with the Tuohys, who he says taught him more about the importance of family. In the film, Leigh Anne is portrayed to perfection by actress Sandra Bullock. Country music star Tim McGraw plays the role of Sean with quiet confidence.
After seeing Sandra's portrayal, Leigh Anne says she did a wonderful job and even managed to pull off her Southern accent. "She did her homework. She hung around, she observed, she watched," Leigh Anne says. "We nicknamed her 'the shadow."
More importantly, she says the film got their story right. In the end, the most important thing is family and knowing who has your back when push comes to shove.