Carolina Panthers left tackle Michael Oher was living in Nashville last winter rehabbing a toe surgery that ended his subpar season with Tennessee.
Oher said he’d been “left for dead” after the Titans cut him in February, until Panthers quarterback Cam Newton texted him with a lifeline.
Newton had contacted other free agents during his first four years with the Panthers trying to woo them to Charlotte. But Newton said his conversation with Oher was different.
“I didn’t say ‘I want you to be here,’ (but) I need you. That’s a difference. Want and need is two big different words,” Newton said. “That’s what I used in that text, along with other words and explicits before the ‘need.’ And I think he got the feeling from it.”
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Oher got the message.
And a year after critics wondered whether Oher was washed up, the inspiration for the Hollywood hit “The Blind Side” will protect Newton’s blind side in Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 7.
Newton reminded Oher about how far he’d come on the Panthers practice field Wednesday.
“He said, ‘To think that nobody wanted you last year around this time.’ I was like, ‘You’re right, man. They left me for dead and stuff like that. But I knew I was going to be all right once I got the call from you.’ He said, ‘I told you I didn’t want you. I need you,’ ” Oher said. “That made me feel at home, made me know that they wanted me.”
Oher, who signed a two-year, $7 million deal in March, filled the Panthers’ need at left tackle after the failed Byron Bell experiment in 2014 caused byJordan Gross’ retirement.
Oher started every game, joining with center Ryan Kalil to add a veteran presence to the line that instilled confidence in Newton.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said recently Oher was the team’s biggest offseason acquisition.
“I know everybody killed me on that one,” Gettleman said. “Michael has been a huge boost to us. He’s settled it down. You guys have been around Cam his whole career, and you see the confidence he has when he sets up behind those five hog mollies. It’s a sight to behold. Michael has been huge.”
Oher and the rest of the offensive line face a big test in Denver, which led the NFL with 52 sacks this season. The Broncos had a remarkable 17 hits last weekend against New England’s Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game, including seven by outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware.
Oher will be matched up primarily against Ware, who had 7.5 sacks in 11 regular-season games.
The two faced each other once previously, in 2012 when Oher was Baltimore’s left tackle and Ware was in Dallas. Ware had one sack for a loss of 4 yards in the Ravens’ 31-29 win, and finished with no other tackles.
“He’s a great player. He gets after it. He did a great job against the Patriots,” Oher said. “It’ll be a good challenge for us.”
This is Oher’s second Super Bowl appearance. He won a ring with the Ravens in 2012 after they beat San Francisco in New Orleans during a game that was interrupted when the Superdome lights went out after a power grid malfunctioned.
Oher said the key is to treat the Super Bowl like a normal week and maintain the same routines. In Oher’s case, that meant making a long walk to the hot tub in the Ravens’ hotel every morning, then retreating in the other direction to find the sauna.
Oher also spent a good chunk of the week answering questions about “The Blind Side,” the 2009 motion picture that starred Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw and chronicled Oher’s rags-to-riches story in his hometown of Memphis, Tenn.
Oher isn’t crazy about the way the movie portrayed him as an oafish character with little football training. But he likes the film’s message of perseverance and credits the Touhy family that adopted him with helping him overcome a rough childhood.
“It’s a great story. It seems like they helped me to get to this point. They’re my family and without them I wouldn’t be here,” Oher said. “They taught me a lot of things, showed me a lot of different things. It shows that if you help somebody and give somebody a chance and don’t judge people, look where they can get to.”
Offensive line coach John Matsko, who also coached Oher in Baltimore, recently made the point that Oher’s career was never dead. But it’s been reinvigorated in Charlotte, thanks in part to Newton.
Newton said his older brother Cecil Jr., a member of the Ravens’ practice squad for two seasons, vouched for Oher’s professionalism and work ethic.
“He told me Mike is a person that would be a key asset to the team,” Newton said. “And we were still unclear with our tackle situation at the time.”
Oher has solidified the position and will have a shot at winning his second ring next weekend in Santa Clara, Calif. But he’s not going to get too hyped until the job is done.
“I know we’ve still got another game to play, so you can’t get too excited,” Oher said. “We’ve got to finish. We came a long way.”