'In a Heartbeat' highlights the bright side of the Tuohys

Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy, the ebullient Memphis, Tenn., couple who made Michael Oher their third child, enrolled him at Ole Miss, then cheered him on when he became a Baltimore Raven, have collaborated on their own version of the story that became the book and the hit movie "The Blind Side."

With Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, they've written "In a Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving." Their book aims to bring the Michael Oher miracle off the big screen and back down to real life — and make sure that its message won't get lost.

It isn't primarily a sports story. To the Tuohys, Oher's miracle was his emergence from a dead-end Memphis public housing complex. Sports was the vehicle that got him out. Their part of the miracle was preparing Oher for college and, most important, welcoming him into a high-energy family, where he became a beloved son to them and devoted brother to their daughter, Collins, and younger son, Sean Jr. From the first page of the prologue, the Tuohys espouse "The Popcorn Theory: 'You can't help everyone. But you can try to help the hot ones who pop right up in front of your face.'"

It's not rare for the key figures in a media phenomenon to bring out their own version of now-famous events. What is unusual is that the Tuohys' story already came out between hard covers, in Michael Lewis' splendid "The Blind Side," a nonfiction best-seller.

Over the phone from a hotel in Los Angeles, Sean and Leigh Anne say that "The Blind Side" delighted them. "Everything about this experience has been great," Leigh Anne declares, in her exclamatory style. "Michael Lewis: Wonderful. The 'Blind Side' movie: Wonderful. We keep hearing horror stories from other people who've been through similar things. For us, it's been nothing but wonderful."

But the way "In a Heartbeat" states their position, "childbirth is easier to explain than our story. So in this book we'd like to introduce our family properly, tell you how we saw events through our own eyes, and deliver our message in our own voices. It's a message about giving."

The Tuohys stay on that message in their interview, and it takes on fullness, texture and humor as they go along. "In a Heartbeat" refers to the moment when the Tuohys drove past Michael, who was wearing shorts and a T-shirt in the November cold, and Leigh Anne said, "Turn around."

"With that," they write, "our lives changed in a heartbeat."

Yet the Tuohys' form of "giving" isn't merely about noticing the needs of a 6-foot-5-inch, 340-pound athlete soldiering half-dressed through Memphis' pre-Thanksgiving chill. As Sean says in a conversation, it's about community: "Standing in a movie line or a grocery store and meeting the person next to you, male or female. He or she may have the knowledge or the talent to write a great novel, but how could you tell unless you got to know this person? What's sad is that we put a value on people before we learn their true value."

And it's about shared responsibility, too. After recalling events she attended with Michael in Baltimore for homeless, orphaned, or generally at-risk children, Leigh Anne exclaims, "Isn't it a sad testament to this country that we can build animal shelters for the fricking dogs and cats, but we can't find homes for children who need families? Kids don't always need much, but they need attention. They want someone to send them a Christmas card."

The Tuohys' unpretentious exuberance keeps bursting through their declarations of faith, hope and charity. Sean says that "the key is, we were willing and cheerful givers, and Michael was a willing and cheerful receiver. Both those things are hard to do, but they're extremely joyful when they happen together. Michael got a nice home and food. We got Christmas every day."

"Blind Side" writer-director John Lee Hancock said he cast country music star Tim McGraw as Sean because "Leigh Anne is in reality such a force of nature and so Type A and ruling the roost, you had to cast someone who wouldn't just become paint on the wall — and that's easy to happen because she's the one who's marching around and barking orders. That said, hanging around the Tuohys, there's something about Sean that makes you think if Sean wasn't there, the whole thing would fall apart. He's the Southern ex-athlete who has his own kind of easygoing swagger and is very successful in his own right but doesn't feel the need to be out in front."

Sally Jenkins caught on to their marital teamwork when she met the Touhys in Memphis in February. The book interweaves the couple's joint narrative with individual chapters given to the voices of Leigh Anne, Sean and their children. That structure derived from Jenkins' immediate recognition that "Sean is a stronger personality with a much funnier and livelier voice than you heard in the earlier book. Everyone knows Leigh Anne's got this big personality and big voice with all that frankness and nerviness. Sean is every bit as large and charming as Leigh Anne is. When I told them my first impression was to let everybody have their own voice, Leigh Anne and Sean both brightened up. Because that's who they are as a family in that house. Everyone is funny, quirky, going off in a different direction, each with a striking personality. They're a family in which everyone will be jabbering at the same time."

Sean grew up lean and hungry in New Orleans only to become a fast-food mini-tycoon, starting with a single Taco Bell franchise. His father, a physical-education teacher at the Isidore Newman School (and a talented, generous coach for the school's varsity teams), suffered a massive stroke at age 41 and "never really worked again." You grow to understand Sean's drive and resilience and to appreciate his sneaky wit. (He compares Leigh Anne to the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail.") In the book, he explains, "I wanted to make a lot of money as quickly as possible. And I accomplished that soon enough. But once I started to making money, I immediately developed the urge to give some of it to kids who didn't have any." By then (page 58), you believe every word.

Leigh Anne has a compelling narrative of her own. Her father was a deputy U.S. marshal "whose attitudes were a function of his time and place and job. … He thought nothing of using the N-word." He also was a conscientious lawman who helped enforce desegregation, and a Christian who didn't merely tithe, but gave more than 10 percent of his income to charity. Her mother "was a go-getter who worked all the time." She "was as expansive and sparkling as my father was flat and terse, and she still is." (Her mother is her partner in her interior-design business.) She "had a habit of looking after stray kids," including Leigh Anne's best friend, who ended up moving in with the family — making her the true precursor to Michael Oher.

But Sean says, "This thing was kid-driven. I didn't give up part of my bedroom, SJ did; I didn't sacrifice my advance classes in senior year to take classes with Michael — Collins did. But they got a brother. If you're trying to score this like a football game, who won?"

Football remains a top Tuohy priority. Their publishers had to agree to release their book before the Ravens opened training camp. "Leigh Anne told them, 'We are not getting in the way of the Ravens,' " Sean recalls. Leigh Anne adds, with proud delight, "We started in February, and on July 13 the book was in the stores. I want all this to be finished so I can take Michael to camp and go to practice and start going to his games again."

The Tuohys' Ravens-centricity extended to the movie. Leigh Anne says she made it clear to Warner Bros. that "Michael worked his butt off to get where he was and the movie is not a factor. The second time they asked about him doing something with the movie, I said, 'What part of that confused you? He will not have anything to do with the opening of the movie. All he is supposed to do right now is play his first year of NFL football.' Everyone on the Ravens came together to support him; they couldn't have been better. He had a great year. He played well. He should have been Rookie of the Year!"

Right after his season ended, Leigh Anne left her younger son in Oher's care for three days. The first day she got an e-mail from the woman taking attendance at Sean's school, saying how sorry she was that Sean wasn't feeling well. Oher lamely explained, "SJ just wanted to sleep in." Wrong answer. That's why, while she takes this trip, Collins has stayed home with her brothers.

Leigh Anne is "helping facilitate" Oher's own book, which he's writing with Don Yeager. "He's having to dig down deep and pull out things he doesn't want to talk about. It's more about his life before what you read about or saw in 'The Blind Side,' and it's more inspirational — more like 'If I can do this, you can do this too.' " When does it come out? "In February. A week after the Ravens win the Super Bowl."


Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy are coming to Baltimore July 23, appearing at BJ's Wholesale Club in Columbia at noon and at the Enoch Pratt Free Library at 7 p.m.

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