Many offensive linemen play their entire careers in relative obscurity, which is fairly remarkable given the popularity of the NFL.
The diehards know their names and where they fit on the depth chart, but until fantasy leagues start awarding points for pancake blocks, most fans only hear about linemen when they’re flagged, arrested or referred to by the team’s general manager as hog mollies.
And then there’s Michael Oher.
Any hope Oher had of living a quiet life disappeared when Michael Lewis decided to write a book about his rags-to-riches story and Sanda Bullock agreed to star in the subsequent movie.
“The Blind Side” brought fortune and fame to a man who never went looking for it.
“For me I was always just a down-to-earth guy. From Day 1 my rookie year, I’ve been the same,” Oher said Friday before his first training camp practice with the Panthers. “As an offensive lineman, we just want to be under-the-radar, humble guys, just like to do our work and not be noticed. When we’re being noticed it’s not a good thing, getting flags and things like that.”
After the success of Lewis’ 2006 book and the 2009 motion picture, which made more than $300 million at the box office, Oher could not escape notice. He no longer was Michael Oher, the Baltimore Ravens’ 2009 first-round pick from Ole Miss.
He was the guy who grew up dirt poor in Memphis, Tenn., before being adopted by a wealthy white family – a move that turned around his life and eventually led to scholarship offers from nearly every SEC school.
Oher believes the movie fame also raised fans’ expectations for him, he told ESPN.com in June.
Despite starting all 91 games he’s played in the NFL and winning a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens, Oher is considered by some to be a bust. He’s never been to a Pro Bowl and he was cut by Tennessee in February, one year into a four-year, $20 million contract with the Titans.
Oher blames the movie for some of that perception. But any time Oher wonders whether he would have been better off had the book and movie never happened, all he has to do is open his mail.
“It’s helped so many people across the world. It inspired so many people. You’d be surprised how many letters I’ve gotten, people have adopted kids or how many lives have changed,” Oher said.
“So I’m definitely excited about that because coming from poverty in the inner city where I come from, so many people look up to me. They say if I can do it, they can do it. So definitely happy about that and proud about that part of it.”
The other part – the negative attention and criticism – Oher will have to live with.
The Panthers signed Oher to a two-year, $7 million deal in March to fill the hole at left tackle Byron Bell tried unsuccessfully to plug following Jordan Gross’ retirement after the 2013 season.
He understands this is a prove-it year after a disappointing season in Nashville, Tenn., which was cut short by a toe injury.
“For me personally, yeah I probably do have to get some things done and continue to prove myself, and prove myself even more this year,” Oher said. “Just working hard to play great and be the best player I can be.”
Oher, 29, was ranked among the 10 worst tackles in football last season by Pro Football Focus. He allowed six sacks and 26 quarterback hurries in 11 games at right tackle before going on injured reserve for the first time in his career.
But he says his toe is healthy following surgery and he’s glad to be working again with Panthers offensive line coach John Matsko, Oher’s position coach in Baltimore.
Cam Newton, whose blind side Oher will be protecting, called him the puzzle piece the Panthers’ offense was missing. Newton described him as “hard-working guy that brings so much to us.”
But one thing Oher won’t bring is attention to himself.
Asked if his teammates call him “Blind Side,” Oher said he “gets all kind of stuff in the locker room,” some of which might even be suitable for a family newspaper.
But in his first five months with the Panthers, Oher – despite his high profile – has tried to lay low and blend in.
So far, so good.
“I’ve been in that kind of (offensive line) room a few years where guys come in and they fit right in,” he said. “The character these guys have is no different. They just welcomed me right in.”