A Giant Second Act

Michael Strahan’s rise to NFL greatness was improbable. His second coming as a television star is even more remarkable
| By Marshall Fine | From Michael Strahan, November/December 2014
A Giant Second Act

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.

“That Hall of Fame weekend was the highlight of my freakin’ life. To get there, to see the video piece Jay put together to induct me, to see my family, my kids and all my friends—that took me back,” he says. “I never thought it would happen.”

He may not be playing, but football still figures heavily in his routine  and keeps him exceptionally busy. During the NFL season (which, with its extended postseason, runs from August to February), Strahan spends his weeks in New York doing “Live with Kelly and Michael,” then flies to Los Angeles each weekend to be part of a “Fox NFL Sunday” team that includes Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long and Johnson. Then he hops a plane back to New York, in time to be in the “Live” studio first thing Monday morning.

Johnson says the grueling nature of Strahan’s schedule never shows in his performance.

“He’s a fun guy who brings a lot of energy to the broadcast,” Johnson says. “The thing that always impresses me is how personable he is, and that’s genuine. And he knows the game, having been in it. He’s someone who can give real insight to professional football. He makes it entertaining.”

His Fox football job, Strahan’s third broadcasting gig at the moment, is in many ways his most demanding.

“You’ve got to pay attention to everything,” says Strahan. “What direction are they going, what are the match-ups, who’s injured and who’s playing. It’s the hardest of all three jobs I do, the one that requires me to know more in depth.
“Look, if it’s Sunday, I’m going to be watching football somewhere. I might be at home or at a bar with a drink in my hand—and I’m going to be commenting on it. I might as well do it in a studio with a bunch of guys I love.”

On Fox he’s a football expert, but cohosting “Live” gives him the chance to be funny, silly, serious and everything in between. Though the various segments of the show are set, Strahan and Ripa work with only an outline, not a script. The two walk (or dance) out to their chairs each morning and wing it.

“All he has are strengths,” says Ripa. “He can talk about anything. He’s a pop-culture expert and knows sports. He has so many gifts that football is the least of it. He’s funny, he’s a quick study and he’s incredibly charming. If charm was a drug, you could extract it from his body and give it to everyone. And he’s got this great, self-deprecating, irreverent sense of humor.”

Michael Gelman, executive producer of “Live” who’s been with the show since it went on the air more than 30 years ago, remembers the first time Strahan appeared on the show. It was the day after Super Bowl XLII and Strahan did a walk-on to surprise Ripa and Regis Philbin, the show’s original host. Gelman liked what he saw, and brought him back.

“The next time he came around, I thought he was a real player,” says Gelman. “We had him do a football bet.” If Strahan won, he would cohost for a day, but he ended up losing—and babysitting Kelly’s daughter, Lola. “So we filmed this whole day with them babysitting her, playing dress up in women’s clothes. And he had the confidence to put himself out there,” says Gelman. “He had so much personality that we decided to give him a day to cohost anyway. And we put him on the list of fill-ins for when Regis was off.”

When Philbin retired three years ago, Gelman and Ripa took a year to decide on a new cohost. More than 50 different substitutes sat in with Ripa, including Strahan, who logged more than two dozen guest-hosting stints before he was chosen to take on the role on a permanent basis.

The hardest part of “Live”? “Waking up that early,” Strahan says. “I used to have to be at football practice by 8—but I could kind of warm up to waking up by sitting through the meetings. Here, I’ve got to come in and be ready to go right away…. I’ve got to be prepared every morning, five days a week.

“I love Kelly because she makes it easy. We know each other so well that we can pick up the slack for each other. We mesh well. Plus we’ve got that live audience. Those people are the only ones we really think about talking to,” says the man who used to take on 300 pounders in front of thousands of screaming fans. “If I started thinking about how many people are actually watching us on TV, it would freak me out.”

Beside his three TV jobs, Strahan has other ventures to keep him occupied as well. He has a production company and a management company that represents, among others, rapper Snoop Dogg and former NFL star Deion Sanders.

“I don’t limit myself and tell my kids not to let anyone limit you,” he says. “That’s one of the great things I learned from my dad. He never said, ‘If…’ It wasn’t ‘If you get a college scholarship,’ or ‘If you’re drafted by the pros.’ It was always ‘When.’ When you’re drafted by the pros. He made things seem like they were supposed to happen.”

Glazer saw his friend’s drive up close at a contest during Strahan’s first Pro Bowl.  “He was up against the best in the NFL competing in bench-pressing, sprints, agility. It got down to the final event and he said to me, ‘I’m going to go out there and nail this and win it.’ He was up against all these veteran dudes who were so much bigger than he was. And he went out and won. That was a turning point, when I said to myself that Michael can do whatever he wants, that he controls his own destiny.

“I’ve never seen the guy fail at anything. I can see him owning a team one day.”

Asked about Glazer’s prediction, Strahan laughs and says, “Is he going to give me the money to buy one?” But he calls owning a team “the top of the ladder. That’s a serious boys’ club there. But who knows? Maybe one day it will be the case.”

If Strahan has a trait that would surprise people, it’s his own admitted shyness: “People run up and hug him,” Ripa notes. “They see that big personality. But in his private time, he’s really very shy.”

“One of the most embarrassing things to me is people yelling out my name in the street,” Strahan says. “I want to be the guy who can walk in and out of a room and you don’t know I’ve been there.”

The problem, of course, is that he’s noticeable without trying to be. Even if you don’t see his trademark smile, you can’t help but notice Strahan’s size.

“Yeah, I can’t blend in,” he shrugs. “If I smile, then it’s immediate. If I don’t, I’m still 6 foot 5, so that’s always a conversation. Even if they don’t know who I am, it’s, ‘Are you a basketball player?’ I miss being able to sit in a restaurant and not have people trying to sneak a photo with their cameras.”

The combined visibility of a Hall of Fame football career and being a daily TV presence also makes his personal life fodder for everyone from tabloid journalists to random bloggers. Strahan has been married and divorced twice, with four children (two in college, and 10-year-old twins) from the two marriages. His most recent relationship, in which he was engaged to Nicole Murphy (ex-wife of Eddie Murphy), ended with a public announcement just prior to his Hall of Fame induction—along with gossipy speculation about why the betrothal collapsed.

That kind of media attention, Strahan says flatly, “sucks. It’s one of the worst things ever. Everybody deserves a certain degree of privacy when you’re going through something tough, like a divorce.” Strahan experienced some of the anonymity that he’d been missing during a summer trip to Sweden with long-time pal Waleed Rahimi. They also used the time to pursue one of their hobbies.

“We got to Sweden and our hotel room wasn’t ready, so we went for a walk, and the first thing we see is a cigar store,” Strahan says. “Every day, it became part of our routine: We’d go to the cigar store, then go find a sidewalk café, have a latte and smoke a nice cigar. Before that, we were in L.A. on vacation for a couple of weeks, and every night, there we were: feet up by the fire pit, a cigar in one hand, a drink in the other.

“That’s what cigars are great for. They solicit conversation…You see someone smoking a cigar and you feel instantly closer to them. I’ll start talking to someone at the cigar bar and pretty soon I’m, like, ‘Here, you should try this one.’ They’ll walk away and Waleed will say, ‘You know, that was a $30 cigar.’ But it just feels like the right thing.”

Strahan had been in the NFL a couple of years when he smoked the first cigar that really made an impression on him. Though he’d tried them before, it wasn’t until he was given one by Harvey Sanders, former CEO of Nautica, that he began to develop an appreciation for fine tobacco.

“We were playing golf on Long Island and, as I was leaving, he gave me a cigar and said, ‘Try this during your drive back to the city,’ ” Strahan recalls. “I drove back and smoked it—and it was pure happiness. I’d never had a cigar that good.”

Strahan has a locker at a cigar bar, several humidors at home, and thoughts on building his own walk-in. Among other places, he counts The Peninsula Hotel’s rooftop smoking lounge in New York City as among his favorite spots to puff.

Strahan’s taste runs to Partagás and Cohiba: “I’m a big Cohiba fan. For the most part, I like my cigars light and sweet. Sometimes, though, give me something robust that will knock my socks off. I think the little ones look funny in my hand because I’m such a big guy. But I don’t want a cigar that’s the size of my thumb, either. I guess I like an intermediate size.”

Between his TV jobs and his other outside activities (as well as spending time when he can with his twin daughters, who live in North Carolina with their mother), Strahan has plenty on his plate, which is just the way he likes it. Activity is the tonic that keeps him sharp.

“When I retired from football, I thought, ‘I can sit back and be lazy or, while I’m young and healthy, I can go out there every day and do something.’ The motto I always operated by was to work hard while I was young—and enjoy it along the way—so I can really enjoy it when I’m older. I’m not done yet. I’ve got a long way to go.”

Marshall Fine writes about film and entertainment at his website, www.hollywoodandfine.com. Follow him on Twitter @hollywoodnfine.

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