The Blind Side debunked: How Michael Oher’s inspiring rags-to-riches story fell to pieces

The Blind Side, for a time, tiptoed on the edge of becoming a tried-and-true American fairytale in the family film canon. But the real-life football hero at its centre has alleged it was all based on a house of cards – in heartbreaking court filings claiming deception and devastation. Sheila Flynn reports

Wednesday 16 August 2023 12:25 BST
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(Getty)

The feel-good story exploded onto the silver screen in 2009, winning over audiences and critics alike with a tale of love and triumph made all the more heartwarming by the fact that, by all accounts, it was based in truth. The Blind Side recounted how Michael Oher, a Black teenage football player in the Tennessee foster care system, had been taken in by a well-to-do white couple and their children, two starkly different worlds intertwining as they all became a happy family and young Michael sailed on to a career in college football.

The film won Sandra Bullock an Oscar for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy, Michael’s adoptive mother, and a nomination for Best Picture. In real life, Michael lined out for Ole Miss before playing eight seasons with the NFL, the Tuohys appearing at his side for the 2009 draft day selection.

The family started a foundation and Leigh Anne authored a 2010 book with her husband, Sean. One year later, Michael published his own autobiography, I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness to The Blind Side and Beyond – the book full of happy anecdotes and photos with the Tuohys, who are thanked in the acknowledgments.

Michael published his second book earlier this month, the Tuohys barely meriting a mention and appearing nowhere in the thank-yous. Days later, lawyers for the retired NFL player filed a petition in the Tennessee courts, alleging that the Tuohys, instead of adopting Michael, implemented a conservatorship that secured them millions in profits from his story without providing the same for him.

A lawsuit is seeking an end to both the conservatorship and the Tuohys use of Michael’s image and likeness as well as compensation for his share of the profits, according to the court documents obtained by ESPN.

The Tuohys were on hand to support Michael, referring to him as their “adopted son,” for the 2009 NFL draft, when he was selected by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round
The Tuohys were on hand to support Michael, referring to him as their “adopted son,” for the 2009 NFL draft, when he was selected by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round (Getty)

So how did the trials-to-triumph family tale turn so sour? Here’s all we know about the Oher case.

How they met and became a ‘family’

Michael Oher, now 37, was born in Memphis in 1986 to a mother of 12 struggling with addiction and a father who was in and out of prison. From the age of seven, Michael alternated between foster care and homelessness, but he eventually enrolled at and played football for Briarcrest Christian School, where Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy – who owned dozens of fast food franchises in Tennessee – had also enrolled their son and daughter. Michael would often stay with school families and formed a particular bond with the Tuohys, who invited him to move in with them the summer before his senior year.

“Leigh Anne drove me around to all the different homes where I’d stayed and I collected the clothes or shoes I had left there to always have something to wear for school,” Michael writes in I Beat The Odds. “And when I carried everything upstairs to put it in the closet, I felt like I finally had a place in a normal home. Every night, Leigh Anne would tell the kids good night by saying, ‘I love you.’ She said it to me, too, and I started to believe she meant it.”

“Everything was so different from how it had been when I’d been placed with foster families,” he continues. “The Tuohys treated me like a member of the family –a real family – and not just as another mouth to feed or the reason for a monthly support check. I was building real relationships with the people around me; I wasn’t just a special project to them. I was a kid who wanted to feel loved and supported and know that my dreams and my future were just as important as anyone else’s.”

Michael graduated from Briarcrest and decided to play football at University of Mississippi – but not before “one other pretty major event that happened right after I graduated high school: I became a legal member of the Tuohy family.”

“Leigh Anne and Sean had already assumed responsibility for me as guardians, which allowed them to sign my school permission slips and take me to medical appointments,” he continues in his first autobiography. “This last step was the one that would make everything binding.

“It kind of felt like a formality, as I’d been a part of the family for more than a year at that point. Since I was already over the age of eighteen and considered an adult by the state of Tennessee, Sean and Leigh Anne would be named as my ‘legal conservators,’” he writes. “They explained to me that it means pretty much the exact same thing as ‘adoptive parents,’ but that the laws were just written in a way that took my age into account.

“Honestly, I didn’t care what it was called,” he writes. “I was just happy that no one could argue that we weren’t legally what we already knew was real: We were a family.”

Michael’s career, The Blind Side and family fame

Michael played for Ole Miss – the Tuohys’ alma mater – from 2005 to 2008 and was recognised as a unanimous all-American, graduating in 2009 with a degree in criminal justice. The same year, he entered the NFL draft and was selected in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens, the Tuohys happily on hand to lend support.

But 2009 launched the family onto the world stage, not just through MIchael’s NFL entree but also through the Hollywood treatment – when The Blind Side, based on a 2006 football book of the same name by acclaimed author Michael Lewis, hit movie theaters. Starring Tim McGraw and Sandra Bullock as Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, the film earned more than $300m at the box office just as Michael prepared for the first of eight NFL seasons. The Blind Side was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and its leading lady took home an Oscar for Best Actress.

The Tuohys and their “adopted son” became household names. In 2010, Sean and Leigh Anne published In a Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving, about their inspirational story with Michael, and established the Making It Happen Foundation. The charity’s main purpose – as described on its website featuring pictures of Michael and the Tuohys – “is championing for the child that no one is looking out for….who has no one in his or her corner. This can be supporting a low-income school, helping a student going off to college, encouraging a foster mom, or just simply connecting some dots.” Leigh Anne, an interior designer and motivational speaker, became a popular figure at events and on television, preaching love and acceptance and inspiration.

FILE - Michael Oher, left, Collins Tuohy, second from left, and Leigh Anne Tuohy, whose lives are portrayed in the Oscar-nominated movie "The Blind Side," speak with Pastor Kerry Shook, right, March 3, 2010 at Woodlands Church's Fellowship Campus in The Woodlands, TX.
FILE - Michael Oher, left, Collins Tuohy, second from left, and Leigh Anne Tuohy, whose lives are portrayed in the Oscar-nominated movie "The Blind Side," speak with Pastor Kerry Shook, right, March 3, 2010 at Woodlands Church's Fellowship Campus in The Woodlands, TX. (AP)

Michael, a year after the charity’s formation, published I Beat The Odds, writing in the dedication: “And to the Tuohy family, you are truly a blessing to me. Thank you for helping me to turn my dreams into reality.” He started his own family with his college sweetheart, Tiffany; the pair have four children and married in 2022.

By then, however, cracks had begun to show in the happy-ending facade.

The rift

There are no public photos of Michael and Tiffany with the Tuohys on their wedding day – and they no longer follow each other on Instagram. The NFL player, sidelined with concussion and injury, was released by the Carolina Panthers in 2017, writing about the difficult period and his health woes in a new book released earlier this month.

He also writes about his personal life – mentioning the Tuohys only once. They appear nowhere in the dedication or acknowledgements.

For years, Michael has made no secret that he has conflicted feelings about The Blind Side – particularly taking issue with his portrayal in the film and how it impacted his NFL career.

“I‘m not trying to prove anything,’’ he told ESPN in 2015. “People look at me, and they take things away from me because of a movie. They don’t really see the skills and the kind of player I am. That’s why I get downgraded so much, because of something off the field.

“This stuff, calling me a bust, people saying if I can play or not ... that has nothing to do with football. It’s something else off the field. That’s why I don’t like that movie.’’

His frustrations are further evident in his new book, When Your Back’s Against the Wall: Fame, Football, and Lessons Learned through a Lifetime of Adversity.

Actress Sandra Bullock attends the premiere of "The Blind Side" at the Ziegfeld Theatre on November 17, 2009 in New York City; she won an Oscar for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy
Actress Sandra Bullock attends the premiere of "The Blind Side" at the Ziegfeld Theatre on November 17, 2009 in New York City; she won an Oscar for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy (Getty Images)

“For the most part, my struggle and fight for survival as a kid was a solo journey,” he writes. “Yes, there were the occasional hands held out to give me temporary relief, but day in and day out it was just me and my own efforts. I survived the hands dealt to me from the ages of three to eighteen, before the Tuohys ever entered the scene like you saw on the big screen. Today I am once again working my way through life with my own family.”

That family does not appear to still include the Tuohys. His new tome also includes a playbook, with #3 dictating; “Have a Small Circle.”

“For a long time, I thought one’s circle had to be immediate family,” he writes. “I didn’t realize it was a choice. One of the most important choices I could ever make.”

He continues later in the chapter: “People aren’t always who you think they are. I’ve found that if you have any amount of celebrity or notoriety attacked to your name, your circle is even smaller than you think.”

He mentions his pastor, his close college friend, his wife. The Tuohys are not included – though Michael does reference adoption in the new book.

“It always feels good to encourage people who come up to me and want to talk about adoption,” he writes in When Your Back’s Against the Wall. “You might think that is crazy, considering some of the grievances I’ve aired, but despite any complexities that have come from my own personal story, I wholeheartedly believe in adoption ...One thing that story did that was undeniably positive was that it gave people the freedom to act on something tugging their hearts. So I encourage them. I tell them what a good thing they did. The white parents I know personally who have adopted Black kids did so out of love.”

Six days after the publication of the book, Michael’s legal team filed court papers in Tennessee alleging the Tuohys had never adopted Michael at all – and had profited financially from his story while proceeds were kept from him.

The legal battle

A petition filed in probate court in Shelby County, Tennessee, alleges that Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy used their position as conservators to agree to a deal that saw them and their two biological children paid for The Blind Side while Michael made nothing for the inspirational story “that would not have existed without him”, reported ESPN.

File: Tackle Michael Oher #73 of the Carolina Panther addresses the media prior to Super Bowl 50 at the San Jose Convention Center/ San Jose Marriott on 2 February 2016
File: Tackle Michael Oher #73 of the Carolina Panther addresses the media prior to Super Bowl 50 at the San Jose Convention Center/ San Jose Marriott on 2 February 2016 (Getty Images)

“The lie of Michael’s adoption is one upon which Co-Conservators Leigh Anne Tuohy and Sean Tuohy have enriched themselves at the expense of their Ward, the undersigned Michael Oher,” the outlet quotes court documents as stating.

“Michael Oher discovered this lie to his chagrin and embarrassment in February of 2023, when he learned that the Conservatorship to which he consented on the basis that doing so would make him a member of the Tuohy family, in fact provided him no familial relationship with the Tuohys.”

The retired NFL player has asked the court to end the conservatorship and to ban the Tuohys from using his name and likeness. He also wants a full accounting of the money the family made using his name and to be paid a fair share of the profits. He is also seeking an unspecified amount of punitive and compensatory damages.

“Since at least August of 2004, Conservators have allowed Michael, specifically, and the public, generally, to believe that Conservators adopted Michael and have used that untruth to gain financial advantages for themselves and the foundations which they own or which they exercise control,” the petition added.

“All monies made in said manner should in all conscience and equity be disgorged and paid over to the said ward, Michael Oher.”

The lawsuit states that the Tuohys and their two birth children were each paid $225,000, plus 2.5 per cent of the film’s “defined net proceeds” for the movie. The movie grossed more than $300m.

Oher’s lawyers say that they found out he was not legally adopted in February and that he has been left devastated by the discovery.

“Mike didn’t grow up with a stable family life,” said attorney J Gerard Stranch IV.

“When the Tuohy family told Mike they loved him and wanted to adopt him, it filled a void that had been with him his entire life. Discovering that he wasn’t actually adopted devastated Mike and wounded him deeply.”

But Sean Tuohy later told the Daily Memphian that Oher’s claims have “devastated” the family and defended not adopting him.

“We contacted lawyers who had told us that we couldn’t adopt over the age of 18; the only thing we could do was to have a conservatorship. We were so concerned it was on the up-and-up that we made sure the biological mother came to court,” he said.

And he added: “We didn’t make any money off the movie. Well, Michael Lewis, the [author of the book on which the movie was based] gave us half of his share. Everybody in the family got an equal share, including Michael. It was about $14,000, each.”

The Independent has reached out to MIchael’s lawyer and a representative for Leigh Anne Tuohy.

What happens next

As the legal battle unfolds, Michael continues to promote his book; posting photos from book signings, with fans and even with another member of the Briarcrest community – a coach he waxes lyrical about in his new book, not a Tuohy. On Tuesday, his photo still featured front and center on the Make It Happen site, where he is also listed under “Our Family” as “adopted son” alongside Leigh Anne, Sean and their two adult children.

The site also features a section titled After The Blind Side, touting how “The Tuohy family’s inspirational story has been covered all over the national media includingGood Morning America, The Today Show, 20/20, and Huckabee to name a few. They are also working on a new book and potential televisions shows. They are actively involved in many civic and faith-based organizations, including Grace Evangelical Church, of which they are founding members.

“At the podium, they invite audiences to go behind-the-scenes of the Tuohy household with a heartwarming message:

“‘In our house, we believe in miracles.’”

That message, however – and the inspirational story that has become a beloved American tale – has now been tarnished by allegations of deception and lies. And it just may take a miracle to put that household back together.

The Independent’s Graeme Massie contributed to this report.

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