College friends meet as opponents at the Dome

Seventy miles of Mississippi and Tennessee freeway separate the high schools of Falcons defensive tackle Peria Jerry and Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher.

Jerry’s hometown of Batesville, Miss., considers itself a distant suburb of Memphis, which is where Oher began his journey from a difficult childhood to the NFL in what eventually became the story behind the movie “The Blind Side.”

That’s not the story Jerry knows, though. Oher is a college friend who came from the same part of the South. Their moms even knew each other when the budding football stars were in high school.

When they arrived as freshmen at the University of Mississippi, it didn’t take them long to find common ground.

“Really, we didn’t know each other coming in,” said Jerry, whose Falcons host Oher’s Ravens on Thursday night. “But I guess being around each other through camp and everything, we got a feel for one another. And I guess that’s how it happened.

“The Michael I know is nothing like the movie. … It doesn’t really seem real, being with somebody every day like that, and the movie comes out about him.”

It’s a friendship that was forged through football and grew on the field and off.

The friends took classes, studied and worked out together, and pushed each other daily to get better on the practice field.

Thursday's game will be the first time they’ll be opponents in a game of this magnitude. But if they line up opposite each other, it won’t be the first battle they’ve had on a football field.

“We went up against each other all the time for bragging rights,” Oher said of their time at Ole Miss. “We used to get in the middle of the circle all the time. One-on-one blocks. It was very competitive.”

They tried to beat each other on the practice field, but it never affected their friendship. They blossomed together as players during their time with the Rebels.

Oher had a chance to leave for the NFL after his junior year but decided to stay, and no one was happier than Jerry.

In the 2009 NFL Draft, they became the first pair of Rebels taken with back-to-back, first-round picks: Oher went 23rd to the Ravens, Jerry 24th to the Falcons.

Oher knew Jerry had that sort of potential and the draft was a moment they savored together.

“He was always a great player," Oher said. "He had a few problems here and there, as far as injuries, but I knew once he stayed healthy, it was lights out. We were first-round picks, and that’s a big deal.”

The injuries still follow Jerry. The second-year player is working his way back into the rotation after undergoing surgery to repair a knee injury that ended his rookie season after two games. He’s played in every game this season but hasn’t started yet because of the knee.

“Any surgery you’re coming off of is going to be kind of tough at first,” Jerry said. “You’ve just got to get a feel for the game and get all the curves out and the bumps out."

Oher has established himself as one of the top young offensive linemen in the league, displaying the form that earned him All-Rookie Team honors from the Pro Football Writers last season.

Their friendship remains solid. Competition, however, will trump that connection Thursday for a few hours.

“It’ll be fun,” Oher said. “We’ve got to do our jobs, and we’ve got to compete and win this game."