Strahan, Michael 1971–
Michael Strahan 1971–
Although he was raised in Germany, where the only football played is soccer, New York Giants’ record-breaking defensive end and sack specialist Michael Anthony Strah-an’s lack of experience with the game ultimately did not hurt his career. During the 2001 season Strahan broke an 18-year-old mark by setting a single-season record in the National Football League(NFL) with 22.5 sacks. A dominant force on the defensive side of the ball, he was named the 2001 Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press.
Strahan has been generous with his time as well. He has been involved with Housing Enterprises for the Less Privileged, the American Cancer Society, the Children’s Miracle Network, and the Starlight Children’s Foundation, and has filmed a public service announcement for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. After the September 11th terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., Strahan led the call for the NFL to cancel its games in the week following the tragedy.
Grew up in Germany
When football fans think about how an elite football player is developed, they do not often think about people who grew up in Europe. Strahan was born on November 21, 1971, in Houston, Texas, but his father, Gene, a major in the U.S. Army, was sent to Mannheim, Germany, in 1980. The elder Strahan brought his family with him, including nine-year-old Michael. The most ferocious defensive lineman in the NFL not only avoided football in his early childhood, but avoided sports altogether. Strahan told Denis Dillon of The Sporting News that his brother called him Bob, which stood for ‘booty on back.’ You know—where your butt’s so high you can reach over your shoulder and grab your wallet.’’ When he was 13 Strahan became more interested in athletics. He began working out and exercising with his father. The two would rise at 5:30 a.m. in the summer to go for five-mile runs. And although he did not know much about football, Strahan knew he liked it. He and his father watched Monday Night Football live-which came on at 3:00 a.m. on Tuesdays in Germany. By the time he was a senior in high school, Strahan was an enthusiastic weight lifter and in excellent physical condition.
Gene Strahan thought his son had the potential to play football in college and possibly earn a scholarship, so
At a Glance…
Born Michael Anthony Strahan on November 21, 1971, in Houston, TX; married Jean Strahan; children: Tanita, Michael, Jr. Education: Texas Southern University, 1989-92.
Career: Drafted in the second round by the New York Giants, 1993-.
Awards: Southwestern Athletic Conference Player of the Year, 1991, 1992; Black College Defensive Player of the Year, 1992; first team All-America, 1992; Giants Defensive Player of the Year, 1997; Giants Most Valuable Player, 1998; selected to start the Pro Bowl, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001; named Pro Bowl alternate, 2000; named Defensive Player of the Year, 2001.
Addresses: Office —New York Giants, Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ 07073.
he sent Michael to live with his uncle in Houston. Strahan told The Houston Chronicle about the influence of his father on his career: “My dad saw something in me, but I’m not sure what it was. When I was in high school in Germany, he told me I was going to make it to pro football. I couldn’t believe it because I wasn’t even playing football at the time. He told me I was going to get a scholarship. It was a dream of his, and through his will, I’ve been able to accomplish it.” Strahan played one season of football for Houston’s Westbury High. Though he did not understand the game thoroughly, his size and strength impressed coaches enough to give him a football scholarship at Division I-AA Texas Southern.
Strahan was miserable at Texas Southern. He was too inexperienced to make an impact on the field and too homesick to fit in on campus. After his first semester away from home Strahan returned to Germany for Christmas, not intending to return to school. At the end of his Christmas break Strahan told his father that he would be staying in Germany. His father had other ideas, and informed his son that indeed he would be returning to school and would also be playing football. Strahan described to Dillon the impact of his father’s determination to have him return to Texas: “Right then, a light bulb clicked on. I thought, ‘Your mom and dad aren’t going to take care of you forever. If you’re going to go back to play football, try to be the best at it. Don’t be satisfied with being just another player.’” With new resolve, Strahan returned to Texas Southern and became a star. By the time he was finished with college he had set a school record of 41.5 sacks, with 19 quarterback takedowns in his senior season alone. He was named Black College Defensive Player of the Year after his junior and senior seasons, and was an Associated Press All-American in 1992.
Became a Giant
Strahan realized his father’s dream when he was drafted by the New York Giants in the second round of the 1993 NFL Draft. Being chosen to play professional football was one thing, but going to New York was quite another. His first trip to the Big Apple was traumatic for the sheltered former Army brat. Strahan told Peter King of Sports Illustrated about his first exposure to New York: “The first time I went to New York, I stayed in my hotel room, at the Marriott Marquis on Times Square, for three days. I’d only leave to go to the weight room in the hotel. I was afraid if I stepped out of the hotel, I’d get robbed and killed.” He warmed up slowly to his new life and his new home. In his rookie year Strahan played only nine games and made only three tackles because he was injured for most of the season. As he did in college, Strahan underwent a period of adjustment both on and off the field. He gradually began to extend himself in the community and on the gridiron. In his second year in the NFL he became a regular and started in 15 of 16 games.
Strahan made progress in the following two seasons, but in 1997, during his fifth season, he came into his own. He tied for third in the NFL with 14 sacks, and was named a starter on the NFL Pro Bowl Squad. In 1998 Strahan led the team in sacks for the fourth straight year with 15, and became a leader of the Giants’ powerful defensive unit. Unfortunately the team did not play well, and Strahan was still plagued with doubts about his level of play. All his worries should have been cleared up after the 1998 season, when he signed a four-year $32 million contract, but he was about to go through the most difficult year of his career.
At the beginning of the 1999 campaign Strahan hurt one elbow during the final preseason game and hurt the other one in the first real game of the season. After the first four games Strahan had zero sacks. He experienced a host of injuries through the course of the year, including two hyper-extended elbows, a pulled quadriceps, a separated shoulder joint, and wrist and thumb problems that required him to undergo off-season surgery. His lack of productivity, coupled with his massive new contract, led to harsh criticism from the fans, the media, and even his coach. One New York paper’s headline regarding Strahan simply read “Moneybags.” The Giants were losing and Strahan was not getting to the quarterback. He played the whole year with a variety of injuries, refusing to take a seat on the bench. The whole matter boiled over in the latter part of the 1999 season after a three-game losing streak.
On the day after another Giants loss, Strahan held court regarding the state of his team. He criticized the offense for not doing its share on the field and also criticized coach Jim Fassel for trying to over-control the team’s defense captain, Jesse Armstead. The timing of Strahan’s remarks was especially unfortunate, as Fassel was in California at the time attending his mother’s funeral. Fassel returned and had an intense meeting with his frustrated star. As a result, Strahan apologized to his coach and his teammates, and stopped talking to the media for the rest of the year. The Giants limped to a 7-9 record, with Strahan recording just 56 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Despite the lower numbers, the negative publicity, and his many of injuries, Strahan was voted to the Pro Bowl for the third year in a row, receiving the most votes of any NFL defensive end.
Strahan began the 2000 season in better physical health but with the same attitude that had affected him during the previous season. Three key people—his wife, his coach, and a teammate—helped him turn himself and his team around. He straightened things out with his coach. His wife, Jean, advised him to begin enjoying the game again, as he had before he signed the mega-contract. The third and perhaps most important piece of advice came from teammate Jesse Arm-stead. The defensive leader told Strahan to stop worrying about trying to get to the quarterback on every play. Strahan took all three talks to heart. He told Kevin Manaban of The Star-Ledger about the difference between 1999 and 2000: “I admit it, sacks were messing with my head. I was obsessed with them, I was. I don’t know when I realized that, but I just knew it had to change. I’d expect to get a sack, then I wouldn’t and I’d be miserable. This year, sacks come and go, and I’m doing my best. But when I look over and see that I have two guys on me, three guys on me, there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m not going to sweat it anymore.”
Strahan finished the season with only 9.5 sacks and was named an alternate to the NFL’s All-Star Game, but many thought he had completed his finest year as a professional. Fassel told Manahan about Strahan’s season: “The change in Michael has been unbelievable. There is no doubt in my mind that he has had a Pro Bowl year. But it’s not just that. He works as hard as anyone on the team. He has played hard every snap this year—training camp, games, practices, you name it.” The proof of Strahan’s selfless play was in the defense’s performance. The Giants ended up with one of the top run-defenses in the NFL and led their team to the NFL Championship in the 2002 season. Though the Giants lost the Super Bowl to the Baltimore Ravens, the season marked a dramatic turnaround for the team and its star defensive end.
Back to the Sack
If the 2000 season marked Strahan’s evolution into a more complete defensive player, the 2001 campaign was all about the sack. After the first two games of the season Strahan had compiled zero quarterback takedowns. But from that point, Strahan went on a binge, netting 13.5 sacks in the next five games, with four in one game against the St. Louis Rams and 3.5 in another against the Philadelphia Eagles. Strahan broke the NFL single-season sack record taking down Brett Favre in Green Bay on the last day of the season.
Though Strahan broke an 18-year-old record, was named a Pro Bowl Starter, and Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press and Sports Illustrated, he was still the object of some criticism. Many in the media felt that Favre had given Strahan that final sack of the season. Others, such as prominent broadcaster John Madden, felt that the star concentrated too much on his own individual success and not enough on the team, when the Giants failed to make the playoffs one year after playing in the Super Bowl. The criticism continued after the season, when the team offered to extend his contract for seven years and $58 million-a figure that included a $17 million signing bonus. Strahan rejected the deal because the bonus was spread over two seasons and would not be guaranteed. The media trumpeted the “greedy athlete” headline and even teammate Tiki Barber publicly criticized Strahan and told him to accept the money through the newspapers. Teammates took sides in the dispute—many split along the old lines of the offense verses the defense, and Strahan found himself in the middle of yet another controversy.
Strahan explained his stance to Adam Rubin of the New York Daily News: “It’s not that I don’t trust Mr. (Wellington) Mara and Mr. (Bob) Tisch, but my agent told me a long time ago, “There’s no side deal, there’s no promises, you can’t do that in this league.” So it’s not that I don’t trust them. I just know what the system is. I don’t trust the system.” Whatever the outcome of the controversy, Strahan will remain one of the most controversial, hard-working, talented, and charitable athletes in professional sports.
Houston Chronicle, January, 31, 1998.
New York Daily News, March 25, 2002.
Sporting News, December 10, 2001.
Sports Illustrated, January 29, 2001.
Star-Ledger, December 17, 2000.
—Michael J. Watkins
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