A Giant Second Act
Michael Strahan’s rise to NFL greatness was improbable. His second coming as a television star is even more remarkable
The crowd lined up out front on Manhattan’s Columbus Avenue mills restlessly, as Michael Strahan—fresh from a twice-weekly stint on “Good Morning America” at its studio in Times Square—slips in a back door of WABC TV’s studios near Lincoln Center.
There are only about 15 minutes until his show, “Live with Kelly and Michael,” airs to more than 200 syndicated markets around the country, but Strahan is loose and easygoing. The 6-foot-5 former New York Giant, slimmer than in his playing days but big and athletic enough to look like he could still put on the football pads and hit the turf running, is greeting friends in his dressing room as his assistant helps him out of one suit and into another. One of the show’s guests that day will be actor Liev Schreiber, prompting Strahan to marvel about a particularly violent ending to a recent episode of Schreiber’s Showtime series, “Ray Donovan.”
At precisely 9 a.m. he and co-host Kelly Ripa come strutting out to their theme music as the studio audience of 240 rises and cheers their return from a summer hiatus for this season of new shows, Strahan’s third as cohost. The morning chat fest kicks off with Ripa and Strahan jawing about the latest events in their lives, including their upcoming Tough Mudder competition, an extreme obstacle course that includes crawling through mud under barbed wire, leaping over flames and being dunked in icy pools, among other hurdles, all in skimpy athletic outfits. Strahan shakes his head at the thought.
“I thought that, when I retired from sports, I was not going to have to do anything physical,” he jibes. “But I have my clothes off here more often than I do at home.”
Ripa, who stands more than a foot shorter than Strahan, can’t resist tweaking him: “I warned you when you took this job that you’d be nude most of the time,” she chirps, reducing Strahan to helpless laughter.
A gentle giant with a familiar gap-toothed smile, Strahan seems right at home chatting and chuckling with Ripa and the audience. Which makes it easy to forget for a minute that he was one of the fiercest and most feared defensive ends of his NFL era.
Having retired in 2008 after 15 years with the New York Giants (and an unexpected Super Bowl victory over the then-undefeated New England Patriots), that’s just the way Strahan likes it.
“Someone asked me what I’d like my legacy to be,” he says later, relaxing in his dressing room. “When I thought about it, I decided I’d like to have been more successful outside of football than I was in it. That’s why I work so hard. I want to be a good example that hard work pays off.
“When people see someone who’s successful in one thing, they want to keep you there. I want to be successful doing different things. I’ve been fortunate that people accept that.”
Jay Glazer, NFL Insider for “NFL on Fox” and a friend of Strahan’s since his rookie season, says, “Michael has always been incredibly diverse in what interested him. He knows something about everything. You could never pigeonhole him. He’s always done things that are unheard of.”
Unheard of—and improbable, the latter word being a key in Strahan’s speech when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at the beginning of August.
“My life is improbable,” he told the crowd in Canton, Ohio, during his speech. “I’m an improbable Hall of Famer. I’m an improbable football player.”
Seemingly undersized for a professional defensive lineman at 6 foot 5 and 255 pounds, Strahan took a student’s approach to the game to find ways to compensate for the height and weight advantage—sometimes as much as 100 pounds—that offensive linemen had on him. Endlessly studying game film of his opponents taught him what to look for in their attack and how to counter it.
That discipline, and particularly that ability to analyze an opponent’s game tendencies, started early on. Strahan, 42, was the youngest of six children of an Army major and lived the itinerant military life. Born in Texas, he started playing football as a youngster in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, and continued when his father was posted to Mannheim, Germany. Pudgy as a kid, he decided to start working out when he was 13. As he noted in his Hall of Fame speech, he used Jane Fonda workout tapes and former NFL star Herschel Walker’s workout book to get into shape.
Before his senior year of high school, his father shipped him back to Houston to live with Michael’s uncle Arthur, who had played pro football. After almost a decade in Germany, the return took some adjustment.
“When you were in Germany, you would hear all these bad things about what was going on over here,” he recalls. “The crime, the drugs. Especially the drugs. I remember being at the airport, in the back of my uncle’s car, thinking, ‘This isn’t a visit. You’re living here now.’ I felt like a foreigner in this country. As we were driving, we passed a drugstore, with the word ‘DRUGS’ in neon in front of it. I was so naive that I thought, wow, this drug problem is so bad that they’re advertising drugs in neon lights. Moving back here was a big adjustment.”
Strahan played his senior year of high school football in pigskin-crazed Texas, and his size and performance were enough to land him a football scholarship to Texas Southern University. By his senior season, he was a skilled student of the game, an All-American known for his ability to shed linemen and shred offenses, sacking quarterbacks at a record-setting pace and earning accolades as Black College Defensive Player of the Year.
“When I got to college, I’d played one year of real high school ball and didn’t really know what I was doing,” Strahan says. “I read a lot of magazines. Until I did, I didn’t know that sacks were a big deal. I just figured, well, whoever has the ball, I’d get ’em. I watched a lot of pro football to study the techniques.
“I had a coach who spent his summer working with the Redskins. He’d bring back video of the practices and I’d study the pass rushing. I studied the footwork and all the different moves they had: swim moves, club moves. I was kind of coaching myself, by imitation. If I saw something that worked for someone else that I could do, I’d add it to my game.”
In his early years, Strahan played alongside one of the game’s all-time greats, Giants’ Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor. “When I played with L.T. I saw that he did everything—even at practice—at 100 mph. When he was on the field, everything was all out. I’d never seen somebody like that.”
Moving from Germany to the United States was almost less of an adjustment for Strahan than the move from a small black college in Texas to the New York Giants. For one thing, it was New York, a city larger than any he’d ever lived in. For another, he had counted on being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. Jimmy Johnson, who coached Dallas at the time, flew Strahan and a handful of other prospective draftees to Dallas before draft day to meet everyone in the front office and some of the players. The Dallas executives told him they would take him in the first round. Sitting with a Dallas scout in his hotel room—“With my million-dollar contract sitting right there,” he recalls—Strahan watched as the Cowboys traded their first-round pick to another team, and was shocked when the Giants drafted him before the Cowboys’ turn came around again.
“I thought, ‘Why do they want me?’ They had L.T. Plus I knew New York was cold as hell in the winter—and it was such a big city.”
Johnson, who is now Strahan’s colleague in broadcasting on “Fox NFL Sunday,” came up to Strahan at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony to chat. “I’m mad that I didn’t draft you when I had the chance,” he told Strahan. “But I didn’t know you’d be that good.”
Strahan felt out of place that first year with the Giants. “There I was in a locker room with people like L.T. and Phil Simms, on a team not that far removed from winning a Super Bowl. I’d been kind of a big fish in a little pond in Texas, but now I was definitely a little fish in a big pond. That first year, you just shut up and do what you’re told. And living in New York was a tough adjustment as well.”
Strahan overcame those early jitters to become a ferocious defender, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection and four-time first-team All Pro. He led the league in quarterback sacks twice, setting the NFL record for most sacks in a season (22.5 in 2001) and ranks fifth all-time in the NFL for career sacks with 141.5. He also holds the Giants’ all-time record. During his record-setting 2001 season, he was Sports Illustrated’s NFL Player of the Year and AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He led the Giants to two NFC championships and the win over Tom Brady’s Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
Glazer remembers meeting Strahan during his rookie season of 1993, a moment that forged what has become a 21-year friendship. It was Glazer’s first day on the Giants’ beat for the New York Post and he was accompanying a Giants’ executive to the team’s practice field. A short fence separated them from the field—and the executive, who was wearing a suit, decided to hop the fence. The attempt ended with him falling flat on his face.
“I was laughing. And then I heard this booming, cackling laugh,” Glazer says. “That was Michael. That executive never talked to me again. But I got a great friend out of the deal.”
The two became such pals that Strahan would give Glazer a ride from New Jersey back to New York every day after practice, because Glazer didn’t have a car: “I was working for New York 1 and the Post and making about nine grand a year,” Glazer says. “I was barely able to afford bus fare to Giants’ Stadium, so he’d drive me back to Manhattan—and he lived in New Jersey. I probably owe him about $22,000 in tunnel tolls.”
Glazer could tell early on that Strahan would be one of the greats.
“A few years in, he started to tell me things he saw in other players,” he says. “The great ones have got you figured out before the snap. If you watched him, before he would get down in his three-point stance, he would look at every player on the offense. They all did something to tip the play to him and he would see that. He’s absolutely brilliant like that. Plus he understood how to use leverage to compensate for his size. He learned from the greats. He was an egoless player who was just as willing to learn from players who were younger than him. He never stopped learning. Never stopped.”
Notes Strahan, “I always looked at football as psychological. It was like chess, where you’re figuring out what your opponent’s next move will be, or how to make them move where you want them to. I was very analytical. That’s one of the things I miss—that chess match.”
Part of that approach came into play during his 13th season. Early in the 2004 campaign, Strahan tore a pectoral muscle and missed half the year. As he began to rehabilitate, he took the advice of a colleague and started to drop weight, losing roughly 25 pounds. “Coach [Tom] Coughlin would look at me and say, ‘Are you eating?’ ” Strahan recalls. “But I changed the way I ate. I got away from sugary drinks and drank a ton of water instead, ate a lot of salads, got protein from things like chicken. I was maintaining my strength but I totally changed my mindset. I told Coach, ‘Let me try this. If it doesn’t work, I’ll put the weight back on.’ But I never had to.
“I realized I didn’t have to be overweight, that if I streamlined myself, I had better stamina and was quicker. It was all about mental preparation; I knew the techniques and I knew what the offense would do. I didn’t need that kind of girth to plant my feet and dig in. And that literally gave me the last three years of my career. I was a totally different player.”
After that galvanizing Super Bowl win, Strahan retired from football in 2008, avoiding the temptation to return to the game. “They called me to come back for another season, offered a lot of money, but you’ve got to know when good enough is good enough,” he says. “There are two things I’m particularly proud of: that I spent 15 years with the same team and never even had to think about getting cut. Plus I was able to finish how I started: as a starter, playing the biggest game and I made a contribution to winning it.”
The difference in his life since leaving football? “I’m not sore every morning,” he says with a laugh. “I’m a person who compartmentalizes,” Strahan notes, reclining in the makeup chair in his dressing room. “Once I do something, I move on. When I went to the Hall of Fame ceremony, I’d already moved on from football. I’m doing so many other things that even I forget that I played—or at what level I played.