Michael Oher, the former NFL star whose life story inspired the Oscar-winning film "The Blind Side," says he genuinely believed he'd been adopted by Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy after they took him in as a teenager in Memphis, Tennessee.
With a mother who struggled with drug abuse, Oher often found himself without a stable home and became a ward of the state by age 11. By the time he met the Tuohys, he was homeless.
Now, nearly 20 years later, Oher says the couple misled him into signing away his legal rights and entering a conservatorship under the guise that it would legally make him a member of the family.
Conservatorships are legal arrangements that can strip people of their civil rights, putting third parties in charge of their ability to make contract or medical decisions for themselves.
Oher genuinely believed he was a part of their family, and the Tuohys referred to him as their son and brother. For years, the Tuohy family leaned in to the popularity of the book “The Blind Side” by Michael Lewis, as well as the film, becoming advocates for adoption and foster care.
Leigh Anne Tuohy established the Making It Happen Foundation for underprivileged youths and has spent years encouraging people to consider adoption on television and social media. Testimonials on the foundation website even include comments about how inspiring the family's story has been to people when they look on their own families and in how they treat others.
That legacy might now be called into question.
According to a petition to end the conservatorship filed Monday, Oher learned the conservatorship didn’t have the power to make him a legal member of their family in February.
“The lie of Michael’s adoption is one upon which co-conservators Leigh Anne Tuohy and Sean Tuohy have enriched themselves at the expense of their ward, the undersigned Michael Oher,” the petition reads.
The Tuohys used 'The Blind Side' fame to promote adoption
Sandra Bullock won an Oscar in 2010 for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy in "The Blind Side," bringing attention to the mother who saw her daughter's homeless classmate and gave him a place to stay.
The movie chronicles how Oher, with the Tuohy family's help, made the transition from homelessness to attending college as a star player for the Ole Miss Rebels. (He later played in the NFL, primarily for the Baltimore Ravens.)
Over the years, Leigh Anne Tuohy has used the platform the movie gave her to advocate for adoption and fostering of children. She posts about a child who needs a home nearly every week in what she calls #ForeverFamilyFriday on Instagram.
In multiple interviews over the last decade, she insisted that her message to people everywhere is that "families don't have to match."
She even hosted a television series on UpTV in 2013 called "Family Addition," which centered on stories of adoption.
In a trailer for the series, Leigh Anne Tuohy describes Oher as "our son" before she noted that many "heroes" make homes for children across the country.
She also did a 2018 interview with NBC affiliate KSDK of St. Louis about the NBC series "This Is Us," saying people reached out to her after every episode of the drama airs. The Emmy-winning drama centers on a white family who adopted an abandoned baby, who is Black, after the couple lost one of their newborn triplets the same day.
"It has scarily paralleled our journey, and it's very interesting," she said. "And it's not just our journey. There are many people that are on this journey. Ours just happens to be the one, you know, that got told."
In an interview on NBC’s “TODAY” show in 2016, she said she loved Oher "as much as I love my two biological children. There’s no difference in them."
But the Tuohys did receive financial compensation as a result of their relationship with Oher, according to his petition to terminate the conservatorship. He alleges that the Tuohys received hundreds of thousands of dollars in pay and charitable donations as part of the deal they negotiated for his life story — while he was paid nothing.
In a statement through their attorney, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy described the allegations as "hurtful and absurd."
The couple said that they have always been upfront with Oher about the conservatorship and that they have split any profit from "The Blind Side" with him equally.
"Even recently, when Mr. Oher started to threaten them about what he would do unless they paid him an eight-figure windfall, and, as part of that shakedown effort refused to cash the small profit checks from the Tuohys, they still deposited Mr. Oher’s equal share into a trust account they set up for his son," attorney Marty Singer said in a statement.
Singer said in the statement that Oher would "plant a negative story" in the news unless the Tuohys paid him $15 million.
The couple also alleged that Oher has tried to "run this play" before but struggled to find a lawyer who would represent him.
"The Tuohys will always care deeply for Mr. Oher. They are heartbroken over these events," the statement said. "They desperately hope that he comes to regret his recent decisions, makes different choices in the future and that they someday can be reconciled with him."
In response to Singer's statement, an attorney for Oher said they have confidence in the judicial system and their client.
"We try cases in the courtroom based on the facts, attorney Don Barrett said. "We believe that justice will be served in the courtroom, and we hope to get there quickly."
Oher believed the Tuohys were legally his family
In his 2011 memoir, “I Beat The Odds,” Oher seemed to genuinely believe the conservatorship was a form of adoption for legal adults.
Oher wrote that Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy had “assumed responsibility” for him as guardians already but that the couple was making the formal decision to make him “a legal member of the Tuohy family.”
“Since I was already over the age of eighteen and considered an adult by the state of Tennessee, Sean and Leigh Anne would be named as my ‘legal conservators.’ They explained to me it means pretty much the exact same thing as ‘adoptive parents,’ but that the laws were just written in a way that took my age into account,” Oher wrote.
He went on to say he was simply happy that no one could argue what he already knew was true: He and the Tuohys were family.
Oher briefly spoke about the Tuohys in an interview Monday with Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Marshall Ramsey, who interviewed Oher, said the conversation occurred before news about the petition broke.
Oher was promoting his latest book, “When Your Back’s Against the Wall: Fame, Football, and Lessons Learned Through a Lifetime of Adversity,” and discussed his life before he lived with the Tuohy family.
“The things I went through and had to do to go through to that point I went through from 3 years old to 18 when I moved in with the Tuohy family — who I’m grateful for letting me stay my senior year there — but you have to understand ... what it took for me to get to that point,” Oher said.
Over the years, Oher has made it clear that he is not a big fan of “The Blind Side” because of how he felt it misrepresented him. He also has said the film often distracted people from who he actually is as a person.
In his memoir, Oher wrote that he had to deal with a bit of wounded pride over how the film made him seem like he knew nothing about football. It allowed people to believe that he was “so clueless about something I had always taken pride in being pretty smart about,” he wrote.
“I liked the movie as a movie, but in terms of it representing me, that’s where I had a hard time loving it,” he said. “I felt like it portrayed me as dumb instead of as a kid who never had consistent academic instruction and ended up thriving once he got it.”
Oher told ESPN in 2015 that the film has added scrutiny to his professional football career. He noted that much of the criticism had “nothing to do with football,” saying: “It’s something else off the field. That’s why I don’t like that movie.”