A small army of reporters formed a semi-circle in the middle of the New York Giants locker room. Within seconds, it was literally lights, camera, action. The huddle, oblivious to their surroundings, soon resembled a soccer scrum; pushing, shoving and swaying from side to side around an object obstructed from sight.
Osi Umenyiora was not impressed. The media overflow was beginning to spill into his space. Umenyiora has no problem with the press; he’d just prefer some personal space. He doesn’t need an overzealous cameraman all up in his business, backing into him, tripping over his stuff.
Whats he, like some kind of rock star? Umenyiora said, shaking his head in disbelief. This is crazy.
Hunkered down at the core of collective press was teammate Michael Strahan. After 39 days and $557,232 in fines, the 15-year veteran ended his hold out on September 3 and, with the Giants on the fast track to the post season, it’s a date fans should celebrate.
But Umenyiora was right, you’d have thunk Mick Jagger or Bruce Springsteen had wandered into the Giants locker room and was holding an impromptu press conference. But, that’s Strahan. He is a rock star – or, at least, lives the life of one.
The evolution has taken No. 92 to Page Six, from making toast of quarterbacks to toast of the town and sometimes tabloid fodder.
Over the last 18 months Strahan’s name has been splashed in the headlines after a messy divorce settlement, allegations by his ex of being gay, and most recently a new book, Inside the Helmet: Life as a Sunday Afternoon Warrior, released in October, where he takes aim at players, coaches, opponents, you name it.
It’s all very salacious and makes great gossip for the New York tabloids, but for Giant fans, the only question they wanted a straight answer on was, “Will you be a Giant in 2007?” So, when the circus returned to the Big Blue locker room, fans were relieved.
At 36, he has embraced the New York lifestyle like he does an unsuspecting quarterback on a Sunday afternoon at the Meadowlands. Strahan loves the attention, soaking up the microphones and cameras and using the media as a promotion and marketing tool.
“I missed you guys so much,” Strahan said, smiling sarcastically at the reporters. He didn’t miss them. He missed the attention, the spotlight, but not the media.
A reporter asked Strahan, how hard was the decision to come back? Strahan said, “It just boiled down to the fact that I wanted to play.”
Strahan sounded more like a veteran who was still trying to convince himself he could play and he was still passionate about playing. It sounded transparent. Giant fans wouldn’t buy that answer. For all the love and respect fans have for Strahan, they would prefer he move on if he couldn’t perform.
Fox Sports NFL reporter Jay Glazer, the co-author of Strahan’s book, claims it takes Strahan 15 minutes to get out of bed in the morning. He can’t wear shoes with laces because on most mornings hes unable to bend to tie them. A few vertebrae in his lower back are completely shot. Strahan’s fingers are so mangled he actually suffered a dislocation while sending a text-message.
“My family is definitely concerned,” said Strahan. “They see me limping around and see all the unglamorous things that most people don’t see. They know how hard it is, they have known for my entire career.”
Even at six-foot-five, 255 pounds, a Giant among men, fifteen seasons of professional football has physically caught up with Strahan.
A Giant Presence
Strahan arrived at Giants camp six days before the season opener against NFC East rival Dallas Cowboys. Unshaven and inconspicuous, teammates described him as looking like Harrison Ford’s character in The Fugitive. He bypassed the practice field and weight rooms, instead meeting with general manager Jerry Reese and head coach Tom Coughlin. The principles met for 45 minutes to clear the air.
As I’ve stated several times since the beginning of training camp, Reese told the media, Michael Strahan is a Hall of Fame player and we are a stronger team with him.
The Giants know that now, because Strahan has proved it – on and off the field.
He has rare leadership skills, I’ve always said that, Coughlin said of Strahan. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do.
The Giants needed Strahan’s presence. He is still the heart of the Giants locker room, the face and spokesman of the organization. Who can predict where the Giants would be today if Strahan decided to retire.
When Strahan walked off Lincoln Financial Field after a 23-20 loss in the opening round of the 2006 playoffs, every comment about the Giants future closed with a question mark. Was this Strahan’s last game? Can Eli Manning win in New York? Will Tiki Barber change his mind about retiring? Will head coach Tom Coughlin finally be replaced? How about defensive coordinator Tim Lewis?
The last question first.
On January 22, the Giants named Steve Spagnuolo defensive coordinator, less than two weeks after Tim Lewis was handed his walking papers. The Giants once-tenacious Giant defense was slipping. Lewis’ defensive unit allowed 362 points in 2006 (48 more points more than 2005). The Giants ranked 25th in overall defense in 2006, 14th against the run and 28th vs. the pass.
The “Dallas Debacle”
Coughlin resigned for one year, Barber retired as advertised and Strahan shuffled in and out, collecting five tackles and no sacks, while Tony Romo threw for 345 yards (career high) and four touchdowns as the Dallas Cowboys cleaned the Giants clock 45-35 in the 2007 season opener.
Eli Manning was sidelined with a bruised shoulder. Brand Jacobs and Umenyiora went down with knee injuries. The Giants defense struggled. Spagnuolo alter called it the “Dallas Debacle.”
The Giants took their bruised bodies – and egos – back to New York.
But it got worse. The resurgent Green Bay Packers humiliated the Giants 35-13 in Week 2. Two weeks, two losses, 80 total points and 846 yards allowed, the Giants were dead last in defense and had hit a new low in team history.
I’ve seen worse, Strahan said. Trust me, I’ve seen worse. No hope is lost here. We take our whipping like a man. The key thing is don’t panic. We got a long season to go. We got 14 more of these things.
But fans had already hit the panic button. The blogosphere was littered with finger-pointers: Fire Coughlin. Dump Eli Manning. Bring back Tiki. Strahan was called a “has been.”
“After two games, two things are obvious: the Giants’ defense sucks, and it’s going to be a long, long season,” wrote a Giants fan at BigBlueInteractive.com.
Another Giant fan commented, “Fire Coughlin right now, and he can take Spagnuolo with him high school coaches could do a better job. With this defense they can’t win 3 games.”
So much for Spagnuolo’s new system, right?
On the outside, Spagnuolo was confident. On the inside, Spagnuolo would admit later that he was concerned that if it continued I knew how hard it would be for them to continue to buy in. So down deep inside I certainly was hoping (the turnaround) would come as soon as possible.
Everything changed the next week on the one-yard line of Fed Ex Field in Washington, DC, when Spagnuolo’s defense clicked, making a spirited goal line stand for a 24-17 win.
“We were 0-2, giving up 80 points in two games, and he [Tom Coughlin] said, ‘When you are tired of losing, you’ll win,’” remembers Strahan. “And being in Washington and down at halftime, it was like, ‘Oh, man.’ But nobody quit. We came back and we won that game. And from then, our confidence has been a lot better.”
The Giants righted the ship, winning their next six games. During the streak Spagnuolo’s defense allowed 79 points, one less point than the team surrendered in the first two games combined. After two team sacks in the first two games, the Giants piled up 28 more over the next six games including a 12-sack performance against the Eagles (Spagnuolo’s former team) in Week 4.
The Giants have gone from last to second in the NFC (seventh in the league) in total yards against and rank third in the NFC against the pass and rush.
Spagnuolo was quickly being lauded for his work.
“Execution is a part of confidence,” Strahan responded when asked about Spagnuolo’s influence. “When you are confident in what you are doing, you’re going to make it work. And for us, the first two games defensively, new system, he’s calling the plays and we know what we need to do, but we did it with no confidence and we were sort of waiting for what the offense did. Now we say, ‘Don’t worry about the offense. Go do what you need to do and worry about yourself.’ ”
I guess the best analogy I can say is hes [Spagnuolo] like having a teacher that you just like going to his class, said Gabril Wilson. Whatever it is about him, you just like that guy. You don’t want to disappoint him. You want to play hard for him.
And, the New York Giants have.
One game too many?
“I don’t think he’s anywhere close to retiring, to be honest with you. I think he’s got another couple of years left in him. He might think differently. If you’re playing like that, why would you retire? That would be stupid.” – Osi Umenyiora, New York Times
But as the Giants gained momentum, Strahan struggled to get on track. He didnt record his first sack until Week 4 against the Philadelphia Eagles, one of 12 sacks the Giants had in the game and by Week 7 Strahan had just one-and-a-half sacks.
Fans and the media wondered out loud, was Strahan done? Had age and injuries finally caught up with him? Had the Giants all-time leading sacker played one too many games?
The only person convinced that Strahan still had something left in the tank was Strahan himself.
I worry more about getting pressure on the quarterback, getting close and hitting him, Strahan said. I look at it now, over the course of five, six, seven games, I have been consistently doing that and Ive been lucky enough to pull off a sack here or there. For defensive linemen, consistency is more important than reeling off something this game, and then nothing for three games. I like to be there every week so you know what you can expect from me.
He silenced his critics in Week 7 collecting two-and-a-half sacks against the San Francisco 49er quarterback Trent Dilfer. Strahan collected 6-1/2 sacks over the next four games, including three sacks and six tackles in Week 11 against Detroit.
From the time he got off the bus, he was very focused, very energetic, cornerback Sam Madison said of the Giants 15-year veteran before the Lions game. He looked like the Stray of old.
Is Strahan experiencing a resurgence like his offensive counterpart Brett Favre in Green Bay? If so, it’s a frightening proposition for opposing quarterbacks. Strahan is a seven-time All-Pro and was named the 2001 Defensive Player of the Year. He holds the Giants single-season sack record (22.5 in 2001), ranks fifth on the all-time N.F.L. sack list and has played in more games than any other Giant in the team’s 83-year history.
That, in short, is what the Strahan “of old” represents.
“Who knows? 2007 is just another year in my career. This could be probably one of my best years. If it turns out to be one of my best years, why wouldn’t I come back for another?”
One thing missing
After 15 professional seasons, one Super Bowl appearance, seven Pro Bowls and a mantle full of personal records, Strahan longs for one thing: a Super Bowl ring.
“My dad has been the one guy, if anything, that I have always tried to prove something to and always make sure that he can be proud of what I have accomplished on the field,” said Strahan. “When he looked at me he said, ‘Well, you know what? You don’t have anything else to prove to anybody.”
Strahan will be a Hall of Famer when he hangs it up.
His peers will speak highly of him. They do already. Before the Giants played the Minnesota Vikings midway through this season, nose tackle Pat Williams was asked to name the top three pass rushers in the 88-year history of the NFL: I think its Lawrence Taylor, Bruce [Smith] and then Strahan because Strahan brings it.”
Accolades are nice, thinks Strahan, but it’s not a Super Bowl ring.
His records will define for his talent: 22-and-a-half sacks (the single season record, 2001), New York Giants all-time sack leader, most games played as a Giant and on and on …
“I said, ‘If I had the sack record, is that worth it?” said Strahan before the season. “No. It is not all about records and stuff like that. In my opinion, LT was the greatest player ever to play and maybe it shouldn’t be broken. If I do have an opportunity to do it and do it, I will be proud of it, but that is a record and I am tired of records. I just want to win the Super Bowl.”
Strahan has heard the stories. He’s seen the highlights of the Giants glory days and Simms, Taylor, Carson, Bavaro and Parcells. He’s reminded of it daily in the Giants locker room, when he walks by the preserved lockers of Giant legends and Super Bowl champions Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson.
“I have Marshall Faulk and Warren Sapp and all those guys hitting me up all the time,” said Strahan. “Those guys have the rings so when I say to them, ‘Hey Marshall, how is it to retire?’ ‘Great.’ Yeah you have a ring; it is a lot easier to leave that way. It is definitely something I want and that is why I am here.”
For Strahan, there’s unfinished business and, with all due respect to his father, the Giants legend still has something to prove. That’s why – along with his aches and pains – No. 92 will be lined up Sunday.
as published in New York SportsScene Magazine