Overcoming Adversity: Michael Oher’s Life and Mission

Audio Description

Should you ever separate passion from purpose? Michael Oher, Superbowl champion and famed subject of “The Blind Side,” doesn’t think so.


This transcript has been generated by an A.I. tool. Please excuse any typos. 

This is Changing the Trajectory. I'm James Seth Thompson, Bernstein's head of Diverse and Multicultural Wealth Segments. And I'm Maci Philitas, the emerging wealth strategist here at Bernstein. Thanks for joining us.

Our colleague, Adam Sansiveri, recently interviewed football star Michael Oher, in front of a live audience of business executives in Nashville, Tennessee.

Michael is such an empowering and inspiring figure. We are thrilled to share some highlights of their dynamic conversation with you today.

Michael discusses his mission to leave a meaningful legacy by chasing greatness and inspiring the next generation.

Michael spent eight seasons in the NFL winning a Super Bowl title with the Baltimore Ravens and playing for the Tennessee Titans and the Carolina Panthers.

He's a New York Times bestselling author, a father of four, and the founder of the OR foundation dedicated to making a difference in the lives of disenfranchised kids.

And let's not forget, Michael's childhood spent overcoming the effects of extreme poverty and homelessness was the subject of an Academy Award, wedding film you may have heard of, and it's one of my favorites, The Blind Side.

This month as we celebrate Juneteenth, we hope that Michael's story, the strides he's made personally and his mission to give back will inspire you as much as it does us. So let's get started.

Born the six of 12 kids in Memphis in a community rife with drug addiction, incarceration, and extreme poverty.

Michael discussed his challenging childhood and answered the tough questions of whether or not as a kid he'd ever been able to envision a life outside of his circumstances. Michael shared the purpose, he believes he was put here to achieve.

You know, my first memory is being homeless at three years old.

And from three years old to probably about 11 years old, I was in a foster care shelters, you know, homelessness and just on the streets.

You know, I can remember for a full year and a half that I, I didn't go to school at all. So when I looked back, you know, going through the things that I went through at that early age, thinking about where I am today.

And talking to so many kids around the country, not many kids took the path that I took to get to where I am. That's why I believe in God.

I believe in a higher power because I believe that I was divorced for kids coming behind me. I think the only thing that I could do was try to survive and just try to stay alive.

Waking up and just, you know, putting my mind to it.

You know, starting this journey when I was. You know, about 12 years old and from the time I was third grade, no one has ever had to tell me to get up or go to school. I've always did it on my own.

And if you're like me, you're probably wondering when Michael first started dreaming of playing in the NFL.

The first thought of, uh, professional sports came when I was about seven years old.

It was, uh, watching Michael Jordan and the Phoenix Suns playing in the finals, and everyone was around the tv, you know, cheering, you know, Michael Jordan, this and that.

Just enjoying it. When I started to think about my future when I was about to turn 13 years old, and when you're a teenager growing up in a situation and an environment that.

I grew up in, once you turn 13. Well, for me, 13, but once you turn 18, you don't get, uh, government assistance anymore.

So a lot of the kids, you start to get thrown outta your homes. People you know, they're turned off from you because they're looking at you as a grown man at 18 years old. So when I was 12, I about to turn 13.

I decided right then and there and I kinda, I understood how fast time was gonna fly for me. So I started to change my life right there.

And sports growing up in the neighborhood, you play everything. Basketball, baseball, football, everything. So 13 was when I decided that I was gonna be either an NBA player or football player.

You know, I was smart enough to say I didn't have the body type for an NBA guy. So being, you know, over 300 something pounds can't jump like these guys. So I went to Plan B: football.

Michael's road to success has been paved with drive resilience and perseverance. He was generous enough to share one of the biggest lessons he's learned throughout his life, the importance of staying the course.

You know, the biggest thing for me, it was the doing everything right every single day and, and not knowing that what I was doing was the right thing when everybody around me was doing the total polar opposite.

Um, you know, that's drugs, everything else. And I'm going to school every day. I'm getting up on my own and, you know, I'm going through this process.

Of doing something that I don't even know was right.

I didn't see anyone that had jobs that were doing positive things. It was plenty of days where, You know, I wanted to give up, you know, I wasn't as motivated, but the determination for me was, uh, just staying consistent.

I was gonna be the first one to school. I was gonna be the first one to practice every day.

Being cool to me was doing the total opposite for everyone else. If you didn't want to hang around me, if I wanted to go watch a movie in the house for me, hey, so be it.

You know, I want to do something different. But the determination of being consistent every single day, even when you're not getting the results or you're not, You know, accomplishing them things that you want to accomplish.

I think the most important thing is just, you know, stay consistent.

Getting old worries a lot of people, but it never worried me because I knew if I was doing the right thing every single day, once I hit those landmark ages where when I turned 18 to get ready to go to college, or when I got to where I am right now.

I was going to be fine because I was going to, you know, stay consistent every single day and just doing the right thing. And I put that in my mind early on that hey, if you do right, you're gonna be where you need to be.

From childhood into his adulthood, Michael is no stranger to overcoming adversity.

In 2016, while playing for the Baltimore Ravens, Michael suffered a severe concussion taking him permanently out of the game.

As a result of this catastrophic injury, Michael's mental health suffered tremendously. Listen, as he emphasizes for us why we should prioritize our mental health.

It was a tough time and you know, I was blessed with talent. I was blessed with ability to, you know, outwork a lot of people, but the mind is the most powerful thing and for all of us.

You know, we are here. Not just athletes, just everyone. You're here because of your mentality.

You're here because, uh, your sense of urgency and you know the importance of every second men in an hour, every single day. That's why you guys are here.

And, you know, I was an athlete. It's, it's the exact same in the real world.

It was frustrating because it was mine over matter for me all my life, you know.

And just getting the job done. I've gone through knees, gone through just all kind of injuries, played through 'em all.

You know, you can't play through the mental, you can't play through the brain. It's nothing to play with. And then it's nothing to take for granted. And, uh, I think we all do, for me to getting healthy, it, it, it took a lot of patience.

It took, you know, having a great circle and it takes being vulnerable. And understanding. It's just like I said earlier, we're so tough mentally.

We all are, and we think that hey, we don't need anybody to help us or get us where we need to be.

But you do need a circle. You do need help. You do need someone to talk to.

That's the healing process. And you know you have to let your guard down and you have to be vulnerable in those situations and ask for help. And not be so tough.

You're, you know, I can remember thinking, no, I can get through this.

You know, I can outthink this thing, but you can't. It's the most powerful thing in the world. And. You know, I tell young people, everyone here on this earth is here for a reason, and you have an ability to, you know, go do something great.

And when you don't accomplish the greatest thing that you reset on this world to do, you're taking energy and that synergy from this planet.

And because you didn't reach your full potential, because you didn't think that you were capable.

You know, it's all up here, so it's the most important thing, and you have to find those tools to keep it healthy, to keep it going. But, uh, mental health is, it's the key to success.

Next, Michael dives into the creation of the Oher Foundation.

As we've learned, he retired from football due to the effects of his concussion. When asked how much thought he'd put into his future before retirement, and exactly how he homed in on what he wanted to do next.

Michael's insight may surprise you.

My mindset starting this journey was to be where I am right now.

After football, I was working hard. I was beating everybody in the facilities on the fields, and because I wanted to be comfortable, I. After I was done with sports, I'd been, you know, working, just struggling my entire life back against the wall.

My thought process was I didn't want to do anything, you know, I was gonna save, I was gonna, you know, just be smart about everything.

You know, A lot of people know me, The Blind Side, who I am. I was always bigger than that, what you've seen on the screen.

I always prided myself on being smarter than the next person. But when this journey first started for me, you know, school was the first thing that I had to do first.

Like I said, going to school in the third grade and you know, getting up on my own and starting that journey, even before I started playing football in eighth grade, catching a bus across town just to go to school.

The journey started with education for me. I always pride in myself on that.

So I really didn't like the legacy that I felt would be painted of me. I wanted a bigger legacy, and that legacy for me was still chasing greatness, but inspiring the next generation. You know, that's what greatness is for me.

That's what I wanted my legacy to be, is inspiring those young kids who aren't gonna go into the entertainment or being a sports athlete.

And being something greater. And the game that I'm playing now is, uh, I feel that it's 10 times the game that I played, you know, on the field.

And when you can see the kids that's coming through the foundation that we're providing these opportunities, uh, to, I can lay my head on the pillar and say, geez, you know, that's an amazing feat right there.

You're given a different destination to a young person who. You know, would've went down that road or. Ended up where you would've ended up without sports.

Michael's dedication to education really fuels and informs the legacy he wants to leave.

Listen as Michael shares details about the Oher Foundation's mission and how through a holistic approach the foundation seeks to help disenfranchised kids.

What the foundation is doing is provide opportunity and the resources socio disadvantaged, uh, youth and, you know, providing them with the mentorship, the programs I'm giving them.

It's basically when I got out to the school that I graduated from, Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis, Tennessee, it was a holistic approach for me. I was provided mentors, you know, we go take trips out of town. We do so many other things that I had never seen before.

You know, I had people that was helping me with clothing, everything.

So a quick story, uh, eighth grade year. I wore the same white t-shirt every single day.

I got up, washed it, and the thing I, I felt that, I still think that it was a smart thing for me because, you know, kids make fun of you. In order for me to not be made fun of about my clothing, I wore a, a white t-shirt every day.

They didn't know I was wearing the same shirt every day.

You know, it was nothing on it, no design. So, When I was finally started to have two or three different pair of shoes I can pick from in the morning before school or different clothing, it started to give me the confidence that I needed to be successful in the classroom.

Going to school with confidence and feeling that I was alone around.

All these, these young people who were, you know, had all the resources and opportunities.

So, uh, we're doing the mentorships, clothing, transportation, and providing the, you know, the education piece, putting them in schools, we're there, get a, you know, get a great education.

So it's the holistic approach, providing them with, uh, scholarship funds. Everything that I saw changed my life and gave me the confidence and the, the opportunity to go out and be great.

So, uh, that's what we're doing.

Michael is a natural born leader. His advice on leadership is refreshing, and it goes back to the basics.

An approach that I took when you have to be a leader, when you're trying to be a leader, you have to be vulnerable.

You have to show the people that you're trying to lead that, Hey, I'm human. We're all human.

I don't have this thing figured out, so I'm gonna show. You had to get better through action. I'm not gonna manage anyone.

I'm not gonna look down on anyone. We're gonna all come up together, we're gonna all be great together.

But, you know, leading is a, it's a actionable item type thing for me.

You know, I think, uh, through actions is the biggest way to lead for me, and showing people how to do it without dehumanizing people, without showing people up and being accountable, having great character.

All those things are the traits of a great leader, but if you're talking to, you have to walk it, you know, so you can't, you know, contradict yourself in that way.

One word can mean different things to different people. When asked how he defines success today, Michael went straight to the heart.

For me, it's family.

For me, success is, uh, raising a great family.

Being a great father, a great role model to the young people around me, family's everything. It's something that I never had, uh, growing up I wasn't taught. You know how to do much of anything.

So it, it's a leading by example in my home first of course, through my foundation, showing young people that it is possible.

And I think once the first group of students come through the, OR foundation and graduate, which we'll have our first students this fall, once they, you know, come through.

Uh, and be successful, and you see those young people like I was, and they walk across these stages or going through the halls of these schools that, you know, I was able to attend.

And seeing that right there, you know, that's success.

I feel that, like I said with my calling, why I struggled the way that I did as a young kid, to be able to share these messages and to tell people, to show people, it's more kids out there like me, they're out there, they're smart, there can change this world, uh, with their mind.

So seeing those kids be successful, I think for me, that's success.

If there's one thing Michael proves daily, it's that he leads with purpose. He shared an important takeaway for leaders seeking to be more impactful in the work they do.

The more that I get, the more I give. You know, I love giving, I mean, I just, I would give it all if I didn't have to, you know, eat, you know, so, but I, I think the more, the more success you get, the more you have to give back.

You know, we're only as good as the people, you know, at the very bottom, you know, that's success. And that's, uh, that's what we all should be doing is, you know, give and.

Give back. You know, the pillow test, that's the true success teller right there.

You know, when you can lay your head down every single night and be able to sleep well, you know, that's how you know you're doing something right, and like I said, chasing greatness and inspiring this next generation. That's what I'm doing every single day. That's the legacy that I want to live and leave.

We love Michael's message, and we hope you have too. For more about Michael's story, watch for his new book coming out on August 8th titled, When Your Back's Against the Wall, which he describes as a playbook on life, we can't wait to read it.

I hope you enjoyed today's episode. We'd love to hear from you, so please email your thoughts, questions, and any feedback to diverse markets@bernstein.com.

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