As Michael Oher made his way around the room signing footballs, T-shirts, napkins — anything his young fans could get their hands on — he told them that he always wanted a better life.
"So the movie was really about you?" one teenage girl asked.
"Yeah," the Ravens offensive lineman replied, reaching across the table to sign a piece of paper. "It was rough."
Oher's story, portrayed in the book and movie "The Blind Side," has inspired millions, and on Monday he visited the Arrow Child and Family Ministries in Parkville to meet about 70 children going through similar challenges. He was accompanied by Leigh Anne Tuohy, his adoptive mother who was portrayed in the film by Sandra Bullock, who won an Academy Award for the role.
Their appearance "shines a spotlight on the fact that there are foster kids out there in the world, and that one person can make a difference," said Joe Leshko, director of Maryland programs for the Texas-based Arrow school, a 12-month program for troubled children that receives funding from the Maryland State Department of Education. Many of them are foster children or living in group homes, officials said.
There are about 8,300 children in foster care placements in Maryland, and the state spent more than $350 million in fiscal year 2008 to administer foster programs, according to the Department of Human Resources.
"Hopefully, someone will hear about foster care and adoption, and decide they want to make a difference, too," Leshko said.
Oher, who will turn 24 this week, and Tuohy were not made available for interviews, with publicists citing their forthcoming book projects. But Tuohy and her daughter, Collins, toured the school, and the three of them chatted with students and tossed small footballs to them during a brief appearance.
Students at the Arrow school prepared for Oher's visit by watching "The Blind Side" and decorating jerseys with Oher's No. 74. They also drafted questions for the player, who answered one at each table as he went around the gymnasium.
"What keeps you motivated?" one student asked.
"I don't want to go back where I came from," Oher said. "That allows me to work hard and be the best I can be."
Twelve-year-old Nahjil lives in a group home and said Oher's story inspired him. He wants to be a mechanic one day and says he pushes back against the negativity around him.
When Oher came to his table, Nahjil realized he didn't bring any items with him to get signed, but no matter — he took off one of his white Adidas shoes and handed it to the former Ole Miss star.
"I just had to get something signed," Nahjil said with a shrug.
Last month, Oher completed a book deal to tell "The Blind Side" from his perspective, and he is expected to move from right tackle to the left side this season.
Despite his increasing prominence, Oher acknowledged that he was at a loss for words when asked to speak to the students at a microphone.
"Years ago I never dreamed of coming to a place like this, seeing jerseys with my number on the wall," he said. "I know you guys are going through some of the same things. … Keep fighting, keep overcoming adversity."