These days, 6-foot-5-inch, 240-pound Michael Strahan scares few people, and he likes it that way.
"They go, ‘Oh, he's such a big, jolly fellow,'" says the co-host of ABC's syndicated morning talk show Live With Kelly and Michael. "They don't understand that I used to take people's heads off for a living."
For 15 seasons, Strahan, 43, played defensive end for the New York Giants, and he terrified quarterbacks. He still holds the NFL record for most sacks in a single season. But the Michael Strahan that sportswriter Jay Glazer described as nastier and tougher than everybody else on the field? His new fans don't know that guy.
"I like that they have no idea what I used to do," says Strahan, who lives in New York City. "I think it's really cool that I've been able to make the transition to where people say, ‘He used to play football?'"
After retiring in 2008, he joined the Emmy Award-winning Fox NFL Sunday team. His celebrity and obvious ease in front of the camera got him his first guest-host spot on Live in 2010. Strahan settled in for good on Sept. 4, 2012. A year and a half later, he also joined Good Morning America as a part-time host.
Was this all part of his master plan for success? Hardly.
"TV is just like football for me, in that I kind of got into it blindly," says Strahan, who was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in August 2014. "Back when I started playing football, I was just happy to have a job so that I didn't have to move back home."
As a high school senior in Houston, Strahan had little experience with football. What he had was the faith in himself that he'd gotten from his father, Gene Strahan, an officer in the U.S. Army. As for a plan, Strahan's was simply to live up to his father's expectations.
"As a football player, I was driven by failure," he says. "I wasn't driven to be successful, per se. Failure meant disappointing my parents, not giving my best, having them look at an effort that they knew was not my best."
The Strahan family -- Michael's the youngest of six kids -- was living in Mannheim, Germany, when Gene Strahan sent his son to live in Houston with Michael's uncle, Art Strahan, who had played pro ball. There, Michael's father told him, he would excel at football. His dad believed it, and that's all Strahan needed to believe it as well.
His one season of high school football earned him a scholarship to Texas Southern University, where his uncle had played before him. By the time he graduated, he'd been named to the College Football All-America Team in 1992, and he'd set the university record for career sacks. That got the attention of the New York Giants. They drafted him in 1993. He never played for another team.
Strahan became the bane of opposing QBs in 1997, when he took down 14 of them, then 15 the next year. In 2001, his record-setting 22.5 sacks in a season (the half refers to an assist) helped earn him the title of NFL Defensive Player of the Year. More accolades followed. In 2008, Strahan sacked his last quarterback. The Giants faced the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. They won. Strahan retired.
"Even after 15 years, I felt that I had a few more in me physically, but mentally I was exhausted," he says of his decision to leave the game. "Once I won that ultimate team award, I was like, 'Man, this is what you play for -- you play to win as a team.' It was time to get out. Some people, when they retire, they cry. I was smiling. I was ready to go. I was done."
The End Zone?
Done, maybe. But he misses it.
"You feel like a gladiator out there, in a physical battle," Strahan says. "You look at it like, 'It's me or you, and it's going to be you. I'm not going to let it be me in front of all of these people.' That's a great feeling. I absolutely miss that part of the game."
Last fall, when he received his Hall of Fame ring in a ceremony at Giants Stadium, he knew the moment would be bittersweet. "It put the cap on the fact that I'll never run out of that tunnel again as a player," he says. "You always believe that you've somehow still got it in you."
Psychologist Yolanda Bruce Brooks, PsyD, hears those words often from former pro athletes. "Even the guys who've been out for years, they'll tell you if they could get out there and play again, they would," says Brooks, founder of Dallas-based SportsLife Transitions Institute and a longtime consultant to the NFL and the NBA.
She says former pros often struggle with retirement. From a very early age, elite athletes' lives center on their sport. It becomes a key part of who they are. "There's nothing outside that sport, and that continues as the young athlete grows and evolves, to the elimination of other facets of life," Brooks says. After they retire, they often grieve, she says, in part because they rarely choose to leave. Injuries or the slowing down that comes with age often force them out.
Fortunately, most if not all leagues and player unions offer resources for retiring athletes and their families to help the switch to a new life. Still, it's rarely easy for them to plan for the future. "Planning," Brooks says, "is a distraction that they can't afford if they want to do well in the game."
For Strahan, retirement brought a new field of play: television. Like football, it constantly challenges him. "It's kind of like a puzzle for me each week. How do I fit into Fox NFL Sunday? How do I fit into Live, how do I fit into GMA? Every day, I can learn something, every day I can be creative, every day I can bring something different to the table. That's why I lasted 15 years in football and was never bored with it, because I always felt I had something to learn."
It helps that Strahan's part of a team, a place where he thrives. And he plays for his teams much like he did for the Giants -- constantly seeking new angles, new plays, new ways to engage onscreen. "You're always looking for a way to improve by paying attention to yourself and what you've done in the past."
True confession: "I always hated mornings. I'm so far from a morning person, but I've adapted." In fact, Strahan has come to like being an early riser. He sees it as a mark of maturity. He says he now reminds himself of his mom, who always had too much to do to think of sleep. "If I can get 8 or 9 hours, I'll be up at 5 or 6," he says. "I now enjoy getting up in the morning, and with these jobs, I'm up early."
And he shares it with his family whenever he can, from his 10-year-old twins, to his college-age son and daughter, to his nephew in Los Angeles, when he's there shooting Fox NFL Sunday, says Strahan, a twice-divorced single dad. "It's fun, it's exciting, it keeps us together."
But staying fit these days, he says, is a lot more work than when he was a Giant. "I think one of the hardest things when you retire is maintaining your health," he says. "We all think it's going to be easier when we retire, but I don't think guys realize just how much work they did to stay in shape. And that's all work that gets taken away from you."
Strahan, a spokesman for Meta, a line of wellness products from the makers of Metamucil, has also learned the value of a healthy diet. "I understand more about eating than at any time when I played football," he says. "You have your indulgences, but in moderation. Who doesn't love a good burger and fries?"
He says what drives him now are the same things that have always driven him. First, the best advice his father gave him: You get what you work for. And so he continues to work hard and push himself to excel. Second, there's his abiding fear of disappointing the people who love him and those he loves, whether it's family, friends, fans, or teammates -- on the field or on-set.
"I'm more driven by the fear of failure than the spoils of success. That's why I'd always put in the extra work, the extra hour. If I'm doing something just for myself, I don't feel like I'm motivated. If I'd been playing football just for me? That would have been too hard. I would have quit," Strahan says. "It's important to me to know that, while we might not have won every game, while we may not win every day on these shows, those around me can say Michael did his part, he brought his best."
Be Like Mike
The key to retirement, Strahan says, is to position yourself for success before your last game. The lessons he learned on the football field don't apply only to athletes. His wisdom is universal to off-the-field, everyday life as well.
Know it's coming. "There will come a day and time when you'll never put on another helmet, another set of shoulder pads, so make sure you are prepared for it. My biggest advice: Save your money. Save your money so that all this work you're putting in now -- you can benefit from it later."
Think before you act. "The best advice I got at the time of my retirement was, be happy about your decision, but be sure about it and take your time to make it. It wasn't something I did abruptly. It was something I took my time to do."
Keep growing. "I never thought, 'Oh, I know it all.' Any time you feel that way about any business, it's probably time to quit. I always had that desire, I still have it. That's what keeps me up, that's what wakes me up."
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