PROVO — Once upon a time, the lives of Michael Oher and Jerrell Powe bore a striking resemblance to each other — right up until they enrolled in BYU Independent Study courses.
Then their paths diverged.
During the five years since, Oher — the subject of the popular film "The Blind Side" — graduated from college and vaulted to riches in the NFL, while Powe bounced among four schools and worked as a jailer to make ends meet.
Like a riddle wrapped up in an enigma, the same catalyst — credits from BYU Independent Study — proved to be Oher's big break and Powe's stumbling block.
In the spring of 2005, Oher and Powe were 18-year-old dancing bears: 300-pound behemoths blessed with freakish agility.
Both were big-time football recruits — Rivals.com ranked Oher and Powe 48th and 24th, respectively, on its list of the 100 best high school players in the country. The pair even signed to play for the same school, the University of Mississippi. But before they could suit up and play for the Rebels, Oher and Powe each faced an uphill battle to meet the NCAA's academic eligibility requirements for playing college football.
In an effort to boost their GPAs, the two players turned to BYU Independent Study, which offers 81 NCAA-approved high school courses in subjects ranging from first-year Latin to Alaskan history. Most classes allow the student to choose between an online or hard-copy lesson manual. Courses producing the equivalent of a semester-long grade cost $124.
Within the last decade, BYU Independent Study developed a reputation as an ideal mechanism for repairing the pockmarked prep transcripts of prospective college athletes. Oher and Powe both enrolled in BYU courses on the advice of adult benefactors who were helping guide the prodigiously talented linemen toward college eligibility.
In 2006, the best-selling Michael Lewis book "The Blind Side" shined a national spotlight on BYU Independent Study. Lewis details how Oher replaced several failing grades in high school English by taking BYU "Character Education" courses that merely required Oher to "read a few brief passages from famous works … and then answer five questions about it." The author coined the phrase "the great Mormon grade-grab" to describe Oher's accelerated grade rehabilitation.
Initially, using BYU Independent Study appeared to be a success for Oher and Powe. Thanks in no small measure to the credits from BYU, Oher raised his GPA from the sub-1.0 range to upwards of 2.5. Powe, despite never having earned an A in any high school course not named physical education, received A's in four of the 14 BYU courses in which he enrolled.
Oher received his clearance from the NCAA to play for Ole Miss as a true freshman. In his first season, he earned 2005 first-team freshman All-America honors, eventually developing into a first-round NFL draft pick. Today he is a multimillionaire and the starting left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. And Hollywood turned his life story, "The Blind Side," into an Oscar-winning movie.
However, Powe failed in his quest for eligibility. Based on suspicion of malfeasance, the NCAA refused to acknowledge Powe's BYU credits despite a lawsuit and slew of appeals, according to The Associated Press and ESPN. In an effort to engineer an extreme makeover on his high school transcripts, he attended two post-secondary prep academies and returned to his high school more than a year after graduation to retake several classes. He supported himself with a job at a jail.
Finally, in 2008, Powe gained academic clearance to play college football for Mississippi, but all told, the disallowance of Powe's BYU credits resulted in him sitting out three entire football seasons. In 2010, Powe will line up for his senior season with the Rebels at defensive tackle.
The simple explanation for why the NCAA treated two cases that were seemingly similar with such striking disparity goes a long way toward giving context to the recent announcement by the NCAA of its decision to no longer allow BYU Independent Study classes taken by prep athletes to count toward athletic eligibility at Division I schools.
According to NCAA spokesman Chuck Wynne, the NCAA wants to ensure that prospective student-athletes are prepared for a college-level curriculum.
"What we don't want is somebody showing up on campus and not being able to do that classroom work," Wynne said Friday.
Based on that philosophical foundation, the NCAA announced May 25 a decision effective Aug. 1 to decertify BYU Independent Study nontraditional secondary education courses. The prescription for regaining certification is twofold: The BYU courses must require instructors to initiate contact with students (currently instructor-student interaction is available but solely at the discretion of the student), and minimum time frames for course completion need to be established.
The implied message is simple: The NCAA believes those two regulations will discourage abuse of BYU Independent Study credits for the purpose of establishing academic eligibility for college athletics.
"Our membership decided to find a way to make sure that prospective student-athletes who take these courses actually do the work and learn what they're supposed to learn from the courses so that they're prepared for the classroom," Wynne said. "That's what this is all about."
BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said the university is already taking steps to achieve compliance.
"We've always had a good working relationship with the NCAA," Jenkins said. "I know we've been in communication with them since the decision, and we'll be looking at how we can be in compliance, looking at some of the standards that have been implicated."
Allen Wallace, national college football recruiting expert and publisher of SuperPrep magazine, believes the reason Powe had to wait three years to play college football is because he simply wasn't prepared for the rigors of the college classroom.
"I admire the NCAA in sticking to its guns," Wallace said. "Obviously, there were suspicions all along the way that the system was being abused to accommodate Powe. He's paid a price, which I wouldn't say is unfair, because now it looks like he'll get a degree and he'll get to the NFL."
Mock drafts on CBSSports.com do, indeed, project Powe going anywhere between seventh and 13th overall in the 2011 NFL draft, which would make him a millionaire many times over.
History suggests the NCAA made the right decision in granting Oher's eligibility but initially denying Powe his. By 2006, Oher was on the dean's list at Ole Miss; he eventually graduated in four years with a degree in criminal justice. Powe, meanwhile, failed to make the grade at both Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy and Penn Foster (Pa.) Career School.
But once Powe was ready, he received the green light from the NCAA and has maintained his eligibility since.
"I know that Michael Oher ended up being on the dean's list, so he obviously can do the work," Wynne said. "And I know that Jerrell Powe, once he proved to us he could do the work, he's fine, and he's still playing for Mississippi."
e-mail: [email protected]