Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Panthers’ Michael Oher refuses to be blindsided by movie

Michael Oher still isn’t crazy about the film. He has seen it only once. He hasn’t read the book. When asked the past few days about “The Blind Side,” the 2009 Oscar-winning movie that chronicles his difficult childhood and early football exploits, the Carolina Panthers left offensive tackle shrugs, sighs and repeatedly attempts to change the subject.

It’s not that he hated the film, but this is his life, and that was Hollywood.

“You see how fast they taught that guy (actor Quinton Aaron) how to play football?” he asked, an edge in his voice. “You’ve got to have some great coaches. It made it seem like the movie was responsible for my NFL career, not my play, not my hard work. I had to come to terms with that.”

Seven years after Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for best actress, Oher still seems intent on revising – or at least updating – the script. He is in his second Super Bowl and hopeful of punctuating his real-life NFL comeback with another ring.

While his boyhood was harsh, he acknowledged, and included homelessness, a drug-addicted mother, miserable experiences with foster care and a father who was murdered, he continues to persevere and overcome obstacles, among them a toe injury that hampered him throughout a disappointing 2014 season in Tennessee.

After playing five seasons with the Ravens, Oher (pronounced “Oar”) signed a four-year, $20 million deal with the Titans, but he struggled so mightily, mostly at right tackle, that he was cut after one season. But he wasn’t unemployed for long, which is the part he prefers to talk about. John Matsko, his first NFL offensive-line coach with the Ravens, had joined Carolina, and he convinced his general manager, Dave Gettleman, that Oher’s slump was caused by a combination of physical ailments and the frequent shuttling between left and right tackle.

“The next thing was,” Gettleman said, “that Matsko believed in him. We made calls to people we knew, and they all said he was a great kid, that he worked his fanny off. We just felt that, sometimes, there are certain players that just need a change of venue. That was Michael. And he has been huge for us.”

Initially, it turns out, too huge. When Oher arrived for his first visit, Matsko was stunned by his size.

“I said, ‘How much you weighing, Mike?’ After that, he sent me a text to show me how hard he was working, at 11 o’clock at night sometimes, to get his weight down.”

Matsko looks at the 6-foot-4, 315-pound veteran and declares him a prototypical NFL left tackle, a player whose primary responsibility is protecting the quarterback from blind-side hits when he’s standing in the pocket and working through his progressions. Matsko sees the wide posterior. The massive thighs. The long arms and huge hands. The quick, surprisingly nimble feet.

While the film centers on the relationship between Oher and members of the wealthy, white family that adopted him while he was homeless and attending high school, the bestseller authored by Michael Lewis also details the evolution of the left tackle position. It cites Lawrence Taylor’s bone-crushing, career-ending tackle of quarterback Joe Theismann as the motivation for the philosophical changes within the NFL, and, with a variety of insightful anecdotes and examples, reveals the late Bill Walsh’s near-obsessive and substantial influence in devising protection schemes that made better use of the left tackle.

One of Oher’s gripes is that too little attention is given to the difference between left and right tackle, along with the heightened scrutiny and expectations that come with the increase in salary; left tackles are among the highest-paid players in the NFL.

“Most people don’t know that stuff about me,” he said. “They just think I’m a left (tackle) or a right or a flip and stuff like that. That’s kind of like saying that you write with one hand and now you’re going to write with the other hand. I played more games at left tackle than right tackle with Matsko when I was in Baltimore. He knew the kind of talent I have and what kind of coach he is. So I think that’s why they trusted me playing left tackle this year.”

Oher offers another clarification: While quarterback Cam Newton texted and urged him to sign with the Panthers after he was released by the Titans, Oher went to Carolina mainly to be reunited with his former line coach. The affection between the two is obvious. Oher, 29, who was asked dozens of questions about the film this week, his reactions ranging from annoyed to amused, softened noticeably when elaborating on Matsko.

“That’s my guy,” he said.

The line coach was even more effusive. Asked about his left tackle, Matsko sat up and shook his head. He whipped out a cellphone and scrolled through his texts, eventually producing a photo featuring his 3-year-old grandson, Zachary Munter, in a Michael Oher jersey.

“My daughter calls and says Zach wants a Michael Oher jersey,” Matsko said. “Michael orders it to his house, autographs it and mails it to my daughter. That’s Michael Oher. He’s a very loyal guy. He is extremely smart and very, very tough. And you talk about dedication; I’m down there working out after practice today, and he’s in there working out with me. The guy is very, very hungry to be a good football player.”

So about that movie. Oher, who is enjoying his best professional season, says his feelings have evolved in this regard, too. (Who can deny Bullock was a hoot?)

“There was a time in my life, early in my NFL career, where the movie just seemed to take away from me,” he said. “I don’t talk about it too much because I don’t want the movie to overshadow my work as a hard-working football player. (But) I do know it’s a part of me.”

Super Bowl 50

  • Who: Denver Broncos
  • vs. Carolina Panthers
  • When: Sunday, 3:30 p.m.
  • Where: Levi’s Stadium
  • TV/radio: Ch. 13, 1140