by Angela Walker
Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy and their adoption of Baltimore Ravens' tackle Michael Oher is the inspiration for Warner Brothers Pictures' film The Blind Side, opening in theaters this Friday. Owners of several fast-food restaurants in Memphis, Tennessee, they are the epitome of a charming well-to-do Southern family. What was for them a natural act of kindness and compassion captured the interest of a writer who knew Sean from childhood. His best-selling book based on their story captured the attention of a film producer and the result is The Blind Side. At a press weekend for the movie, I met the Tuohys and they graciously shared some of their journey with me.
What does it feel like to have your family's story capture national attention?
Sean: Kind of like our underwear is hanging right over Main Street.
Leigh Anne: I'm a clean freak, so it's clean at least.
You mentioned that to you this story is just your life and that you were amazed by how it grabbed so much attention. Have you found the attention has changed your lives any?
Sean: We're still in our same four blocks. If I hadn't come here (to Los Angeles), I wouldn't have known anybody out here cared. Everybody in our neighborhood knows it anyway, so nobody there (in Memphis) cares.
Leigh Anne: The local press had asked to do things, and we said, "No." This is like (the book) Goodnight Moon. Everybody around here knows the story by heart, so no. We forget outside our little world that there are other people.
Sean: So we don't go outside our little world.
Leigh Anne: Our kids are great kids. They make good grades, are good citizens and good stewards, so we've always let them so we've always given them as much privilege as they want as long as they deserve it. Our motto to them is "to whom much is given, much is required."
We feel like we have a responsibility to the story, and that we need to be doing the right thing now. They have. They have risen to the occasion.
What is it inside you that caused you to respond the way you did? Many people see things that are wrong, but not too many do something about it.
Sean: I don't think we took the system on. It really just started because Michael (seen below with Sean and Leigh Anne) needed a pair of pants and a shirt. If it was up to me, that's where it probably would have ended. Not that I didn't want to go any further, but that's just not in my makeup. People don't get it, but to us, it was just Tuesday, then Wednesday, and at the end of the day, somebody cared about it. We wouldn't have stopped if no one cared, and we didn't start because someone did. The fact that they do is wonderful. But if they didn't, it wouldn't be any different.
Leigh Anne: Sean and I both have a compassion for others. Our interests are so alike. Sean was raised in New Orleans and his dad was a high school coach. He was around underprivileged kids a lot growing up. His family was probably what I would class as underprivileged. They were comfortable and had what they needed, but Sean is a self-made man.
We had $500 when we got married. The first neighborhood we lived in when we got married wasn't the greatest neighborhood, and there were needs around us. That's been one of our common passions, is that we feel like we should share what we have with other people. I think we would have shared with anyone. Michael was not the first person; he was just the first one whose story got told.
Sean keeps cash in the kids' consoles, and if you pull up and there's a guy holding a sign, you give him money. We're blessed to give because God will judge our heart because we have the resources to give. He will judge those people's heart if they took and they shouldn't have. That's their problem. We have to do what's right for us in our family. That's always been our life.
Sean: That's also the community we live in. We choose to be around those people, and we're not the exception. If we go to church, nobody cares if we're there or not. It's not like we walk in and all of a sudden and they think we're something special. There are people who do more amazing things in our church than we could ever think about. That's why to us, it's not a big deal because on a daily basis, we look at other people and say, "Man, that's cool. Look at what they're doing."
We choose to be around those kind of people, and that's who we are. Our kids go to a Christian school, and so we're around people who are like us and better. It's not that big of a deal to us.
Leigh Anne: We're amazed that people are so interested in it. But that's OK. It goes back to the fact that Lord has his hand on us, because a million times along the way this could have been stopped or squelched and it wasn't. The fact that it's opening on November 20, which is National Adoption Day, and the opening day was set months and months before that. They all act surprised about it, but Sean and I just look at each other and say, "This is not a surprise to God."
He's had his hand in this obviously. Obviously He wants to do something with this story, maybe make some changes, or whatever. So basically we decided we needed to be good stewards of the story.
Sean: And not screw it up!
Someone described you, Leigh Anne, as the engine of the family, and Sean as the glue. What's a normal day like in the life of your family?
Leigh Anne: He is definitely the glue. I'll wake up and go, "let's do this and this and this and this…," and he'll go, "OK. One and two, but not four and five." I'll throw things out and he'll say it's ridiculous or all right. He'll bring me back in, and he's really the calming factor in the family. Our lives are not normal. We don't do normal.
Sean broadcasts TV for the NBA team and is in the fast food restaurant business. We have fast food restaurants all over Memphis. Our daughter dates a high-profile person and has for years, so there's nothing in our lives that's normal, except that our life is normal to us.
When Sandy (Bullock) came and visited, she was like, "Whoa!" But that's just us. If the Lord was not the center of our lives, there's no telling where this thing would have spiraled. He keeps us grounded.
As I watched the film, I wondered how differently the story might have come out if it had been in someone else's hands.
Sean: it was written by an atheist. Crazy. So it was in someone else's hands. If it was in the "right person's" hands, it would have been so transparent it wouldn't have been believable. The fact that it was in someone else's hands, and that person kept getting tugged back, was crazy. First it was about football, and then it wasn't about football, and kept going back and forth. I think that's the beauty of it that it has so many flaws.
If a staunch Christian writer would have had that, it would have been a perfect story and no one would have been interested in it. The fact that people look at us and go "No, I ain't buying it," is good. There are always people who will believe it, but there will always be people who are in between, who will look at us and go, "They're not perfect, so I can be a believer too." I think that was kind of Sandra Bullock's thing. She saw that we have faults all over the place, and that's OK. That's where I think that if this had been written by "the right person," there wouldn't have been any interest.
How did the two of you meet?
Leigh Anne: He played basketball at Ole Miss and I was a cheerleader. We won a big basketball game one night – I think it was a last-second shot against a big opponent. He may have hit the last shot or something, and I kind of noticed him. I got to a fraternity party after, some kind of theme party, and everybody was dressed up.
Someone pointed out Sean Tuohy to me, this big basketball player. I thought, "I'm going to talk to him," so I bounced over there and chatted with him. Unfortunately, the girl who he'd dated for several years and attended another college out of town, her little sister was standing right there beside him. I think that was our first conversation.
Sean: If the football team had been any good, we'd never have met.
Leigh Anne: The basketball team was really good that year.
Leigh Anne, you remind me of Dixie Carter on "Designing Women.: You're portrayed as very solid in your character, very forthright with people, and you have moments of these strong declarations. Is that true to you?
Leigh Anne: I don't know where that's from. I think it's just that Southern woman strong-willed nature. Us Southern women are strong-willed women and when you peel the layers away; we have big hearts and are compassionate.
Sean: It's the heat I think. Those hot summers. She's always been like that. There are a lot of times when I think, "I wish she'd stop," but it's who she is. She's not inconsistent. I just jump on and jump off, because it's not like it's not going to be there.
We heard the cast talk about the impact you had on them. What impact did they have on you?
Sean: The girls in my office think I'm the greatest thing in the world because I can call Tim McGraw. Are you kidding? That's golden. I don't care about anything else. The fact that I can call Tim McGraw on the telephone is HUGE. You can have a lot of things in this world, but that's huge! (Tim McGraw and Sandra Bullock as the Tuohys at left)
Leigh Anne: You learn that those people are normal. They put their pants on Just like you do. They're just people.
Sean: They're good people.
Leigh Anne: They're great people.
Sean: I tell you what, that Lily Collins, you could just scoop her up piece by piece. That is the absolute sweetest human being in the world. I mean it takes one second to figure that out. Of course, Jae (Head) is a character, and you look at Quinton [Aaron, seen below with co-star Kathy Bates) and just start crying because you want to pull for him.
Leigh Anne: This movie was life changing for Quinton. He had been evicted from his apartment. His cell phone had been turned off when he found out he got this role. If you take nothing else away from this movie, the fact that this changed his life is incredible. You only ask to help one kid, but this movie was life changing for him.
John Lee was trying to get him but he couldn’t reach him because he'd been evicted and his cell phone turned off. He had to go back to a community center to track him down. His mother had passed away. She knew he tried out for the part, but she never knew he got it. She passed away relatively close to the time he found out he got the part. So this movie changed Quinton's life forever.
He's a great kid and he didn't have it as tough as Michael Oher, but he didn't have it easy at all. You just step back and look at the dynamics of this, and as Sean says, the only way you can explain it is that it's a miracle.
Sean: I still can't believe anybody will see it.
Are you kidding me? It's the weekend before season, and it's a film about football in the South?
Sean: That's true. There will probably be more people watching the Baltimore Ravens after this. But Michael won't really notice it.
But your section at the stadium will probably get fuller.
Leigh Anne: We have a good section. We trained them. We had a "come to Jesus" meeting and they're good now.
Sean: Any time there's a new one, people will tell them to be careful.
Leigh Anne: They're good people.