When I was a kid, I loved New Year’s Day for the line-up of college bowl games I would spend the afternoon and evening watching, but I have long put away such childish things—for the most part. I don’t follow college or professional sports as ruthlessly as I did in my youth (in fact, I barely follow them at all), and the NCAA has done their part as well, spreading out oodles of bowl games over the course of weeks. However, there is one bowl game I will be watching this year, The Michael Lewis Bowl. Most people refer to it as the Cotton Bowl, a storied game that during my childhood used to pit the champion of the Southwest Conference, as I remember it, against another team I didn’t care about that much, maybe the winner of the Big 8. (I was always more of a Rose Bowl guy myself.)
This year again it features two teams I wouldn’t care about—Texas Tech and Ole Miss—if it weren’t for Michael Lewis. Lewis is the husband of former MTV news cutie Tabitha Soren, but more importantly he is a remarkable sports journalist—when he isn’t committing other forms of journalism. His article on the innovative and unconventional Texas Tech coach Mike Leach in the New York Times Magazine just over three years ago was the best piece of writing on football I had read in a long, long time. I was photocopying it, and sending it off to anyone I thought might appreciate it. I didn’t have cable at the time, and the next season I would scour the tv listings to see if I could find a Texas Tech game to watch. Leach was clearly a character, but the way Lewis wrote about his team’s offense, it sounded like something I had never seen before, something that had to be seen to be fully believed and appreciated.
After falling for that article in such a big way, I was overjoyed to hear that Lewis’s next book was going to be about football. I hoped it would be an expansion of the piece I had loved so much, but it turned out to be on entirely different aspects of the game, though they proved to be no less interesting. The Blind Side weaves together two different threads. The first traces the evolution of the game both on the field and in the front offices of the NFL as the Offensive Left Tackle develops from an anonymous member of the faceless, seemingly interchangeable, often-ignored offensive line, to one of the highest paid positions on the team. The other thread follows Michael Oher, a young African-American who can barely read or write and is growing up in brutal poverty, at real risk of becoming another statistic who falls through the cracks (I realize I am mixing metaphors here, but I’m sticking with it). He is taken in by a wealthy white evangelical family, and before he has played a single down of high school football at Left Tackle, he is being projected by scouting reports as the foremost college prospect at that position. It is a smart and surprising book that I can’t recommend highly enough.
Which brings us to tomorrow afternoon’s game. For me, it is the only must-see bowl of the season. Michael Oher will be playing in his last game at Ole Miss, and after his most successful season, Leach may be coaching his last game at Texas Tech. I hope he stays on, but rumors have been flying all season that a number of more glamorous programs that have fallen on hard times may try to woo him away from Lubbock. I imagine Texas Tech will wallop Ole Miss, and I guarantee the broadcasters will drop Doak Waker's name at some point and mention Leach's interest in pirates, but when I watch the game I will be doing so through the eyes of Michael Lewis.