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Loyola's SJ Tuohy enjoying life after 'The Blind Side'

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Here's a greatly abridged list of facts that set Sean Tuohy Jr. apart from your average reserve on a mid-major college basketball team:

Start with the Loyola guard's 23,379 Twitter followers. For a little perspective, the team's star, Dylon Cormier, has 643.

Then there are the road crowds, which alternate between calling for Tuohy's entry to the game and booing him like he's J.J. Redick. All of this for a redshirt freshman who's played six minutes in his college career.

Oh and three years ago, Tuohy watched Sandra Bullock — he calls her Sandy — win an Academy Award for portraying his mother, Leigh Anne.

"People tell me none of this would have happened without the movie," he says. "And I'm like yeah, you're probably right. But here I am."

Tuohy, who goes by SJ, is the adoptive little brother of Ravens tackle Michael Oher and was a key character in the best-selling book "The Blind Side" and its $309-million-grossing movie adaptation.

He doesn't run from the public profile created by his unusual experiences. He'll tell you he's lucky, in fact, because he can have it both ways with fame.

If he wants to spout an opinion about SEC football or defend his brother against criticism, he has an ample audience lined up to listen. But his name isn't so recognizable that if he's meeting people at a party, he'll suddenly get swarmed like some kind of freak.

He thinks it's funny when teammates urge him to approach a girl and tell her he's the kid from "The Blind Side." Which is not to say he's never done it.

He greets most questions about the movie, even impolite ones, with a shrug or an aw-shucks laugh.

'Three foot and blonde'

Let's hit a few bits about "The Blind Side," just to get them out of the way.

Tuohy might be short and slight for a Division-I basketball player, but standing 6 feet with dark brown hair, he's not the towheaded tyke presented in the film.

Speaking of that, he believes his older sister, Collins, got off easiest onscreen. "She had no bad scenes," he says with mock indignity. "She was played by this really pretty girl. There was nothing in the movie … it was like gee Collins, I wish they had known this about you."

As for his mother, he says she's every bit the steel magnolia depicted by Bullock. "It's not an exaggeration at all," Tuohy says, grinning. "Actually, she's way, way worse."

Oher, meanwhile, is the family member who seems least comfortable talking about the book or movie. He recently ended an interview abruptly when asked how SJ had coped with the craziness of public exposure.

"I just think it's a nuisance for the kids," says their father, Sean Tuohy Sr. "With Michael, what 27-year-old would want to spend a bunch of time talking about stuff that happened when he was 16?"

But SJ says his brother seems at peace with the experience. "I think if you give Mike a 'Call of Duty' game and three hours of free time, he'll be at peace with wherever he is," he says. "I think there are certain parts of the movie he didn't like. Mike will say, 'Well, they made me look stupid.' And I'll say, 'They made me three foot and blond, what do you want?'

"It gives him a great platform the rest of his life to spread a message, as he did in his book. I was like, 'Mike, most offensive linemen in the NFL don't get to write books.' So I think he's at the point where he understands that it did serve a greater purpose."

Whatever his feelings about the movie, Oher says he's cherished having SJ around for the last year.

"He's a grown man," Oher says when asked how their relationship has evolved. "He's a mature grown man. It's like as brothers get older, they become more friends. It's not like he's 10 years old anymore."

'A very easy transition'

Before Oher ever entered his life, Tuohy was destined to deal with some degree of public scrutiny, at least around Memphis. That comes with the territory when your father is the Southeastern Conference's all-time assist leader, a prominent businessman and a television analyst for the NBA's Grizzlies.

I was so young I probably didn't realize what was going on as far as people knowing my dad," he says. "So I kind of just grew up accustomed, not to being in the spotlight necessarily but to having the public eye on you a little bit."

Despite his terrific career at Ole Miss and inner fire for the game, Sean Sr. played a hands-off role in his son's basketball development. SJ remembers watching tapes of his dad playing against Charles Barkley or getting punched in the mouth by Kentucky's Dirk Minniefield. But if anything, he wanted to hear more expert criticism of his own developing game. Usually, all he got was a clap on the back and a "You played great."

SJ was often the only white kid on his rec-league teams, so he says he thought little of it when Oher, a massive black teenager who attended Briarcrest Christian School with Collins, moved into the Tuohy home.

They shared a bathroom and became fierce rivals on the family's pop-a-shot basketball hoop.

"It was a very easy transition," SJ says. "Looking back, I can't even differentiate when Mike wasn't there as opposed to when he was. We'll be talking about family vacations at dinner, and he'll be like, 'I wasn't on that.' And I'm like, 'Oh, I thought you were.'"

He was also too young to think much of the fact that Michael Lewis, his father's old high school pal from New Orleans, started hanging around in preparation to write about Oher and the Tuohys.

Even when Lewis' book came out and sold well, it didn't make much of a ripple among SJ's middle-school set. He had his mother highlight the parts that mentioned him and skimmed those. But that was about it.

The most memorable scenes featured SJ hitting up the most famous college football coaches in the country for VIP access to their programs. A few even promised him his own locker beside Oher's.

He rolls his eyes now at the thought of adolescent SJ leveraging then-LSU coach Nick Saban. "Man, what was I thinking?" he says. "But I did it."

'Watch your blind side'

When the movie rights sold, Lewis told the Tuohys not to hold their breath on a film actually coming out. He was wrong, of course, and SJ remembers several moments that hinted at the madness to come.

He created a Facebook page around that time and logged on after not checking it for a while. He had more than 1,000 friend requests, most from people he'd never met. His personal page had to be converted to a fan page.

Then there was the day when his mother dropped by Briarcrest to bring lunch and introduce him to "Sandy." He grins as he recalls how his usually severe Bible teacher asked if she could accompany him to the hall to meet Bullock. Hundreds of kids approached at lunch to inquire about his brush with stardom. By dismissal time, the local television trucks had arrived.

None of it seemed too bad though. He met the big-screen SJ Tuohy, child actor Jae Head, who promised to get him "as many dates as possible" based on the movie. That sounded good.

Once "The Blind Side" came out in November 2009, SJ noticed immediate changes in the opposing crowds at his basketball games. "Good job, Sandra," they'd mock, whenever he drew a charge. "Watch your blind side."

At one school, a kid with pillows stuffed up his shirt to mimic Oher's build ran up to SJ with a sign that read: "I have no place to go. Can I go home with you?"

"I'd have been in a fight every night," says Sean Sr., remembering his volatile personality as a prep player. "But he understood that you can't legislate ignorance. Here he was, this kid who was just trying to do the best for himself and who opened his home to a kid who needed help. And that's the kid you want to boo? But he wasn't fazed by it."

He notes that SJ watched Oher shrug off similar abuse as one of the country's top offensive line prospects, "so he had a good role model."

SJ says he was more worried about Leigh Anne, who was apt to go right back at the fans who derided her boy. She might have brought some of it on herself, he says with a chuckle, recalling how she'd show up in a glittery Michael Oher jersey with matching purple boots.

'You'll love Loyola'

Despite such wild scenes, Tuohy's routines didn't change much. He still went to school every day, still obsessed over sports. The pass-first guard knew he wanted to play college basketball, weighing a chance to walk on at Ole Miss with offers of more playing time at several Division-II schools.

But then a close friend of the family, who happened to live in Baltimore, mentioned Loyola as a possibility. At a Ravens game that fall, Greyhounds coach Jimmy Patsos playfully flicked ice chips at SJ, letting the kid know he was interested. One Saturday morning, a groggy SJ took a call from Patsos. "You'll love Loyola," the voluble coach barked. "We don't do crap before 10:30 a.m."

"You know, I think I might want to play for that guy," SJ told his dad. Sean Sr. was happy to hear it. Patsos reminded him of his own father, a garrulous Irish Catholic coach from Chicago.

SJ says many people have overblown proximity to Oher as a reason for his college choice. It was a nice bonus, he says, and the brothers hang out weekly. But mainly he sought a place where he could play and be independent of the same old Memphis scene.

Even though he sat out his first year as a non-scholarship redshirt, the season featured a few reminders of SJ's popularity. He remembers one night, walking off the court with his teammate R.J. Williams, who had just played a great game. "Can I have your autograph?" a kid asked, nodding to Tuohy rather than Williams. "I busted out laughing," he says.

"We really can't watch the movie the same," says senior forward Jordan Latham. "Me personally, I can't watch it, having gotten close to him and his family. It's just too weird."

That's not to say Tuohy's background is a big deal to his teammates, who seem to enjoy his company and appreciate his effort in practice.

"They've all become friends and they've all become part of the family," says G.G. Smith, who succeeded Patsos as Loyola's coach before this season. "He doesn't walk around acting like he's big and bad."

As a player, Smith says, SJ is a good shooter and decision maker but needs to improve his ball handling to earn more minutes.

With SJ come Sean Sr. and Leigh Anne, who fly up for as many home games as they can, especially if Oher and the Ravens are playing here the same week. For a recent game at Reitz Arena, the Tuohys sat along the baseline, Sean Sr. in a white Loyola jacket and Leigh Anne in stylish boots a similar green to the team's color. They watched quietly, a mode Sean Sr. says they adopted after observing other fans ripping into their kids during high school games.

SJ jokes that he'd only transfer from Loyola if his parents buy a house near campus, something they did when his siblings attended Ole Miss. His words touch on a real issue, however, because Oher could be elsewhere next year after his contract with the Ravens expires at the end of this season.

Would SJ follow?

"I love Loyola, our coaches, everything about it," he says. "So if he left and everything else is still intact here, I wouldn't have any problem [staying]. Mike made it a lot easier to come here, but it wasn't like I was coming here because of Mike. I came because Loyola's a great school."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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