‘No antagonistic movement’: The missable greatness of Mr. Giant, Michael Strahan

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Michael Strahan is one of 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, whose inductees will be announced a week from Saturday.

Strahan is on the short list of the greatest Giants of all time, and also among the most beloved: That part of his legacy was clinched not just by the Super Bowl championship with which he ended his career in 2007, but also by how he began 2008, his first as an ex-Giant.

How you comport yourself as a retired Giant can be nearly as determinative in these matters as how you played: Just ask Strahan’s longtime teammate and adversary, Tiki Barber, who by then had become persona non grata among Giants fans for his inflammatory comments about Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin. Strahan, having finally won a championship, was determined to take the exact opposite approach.

Hence his grand entrance into retirement before the Giants’ opening game: In time with a flourish of N.F.L.-commissioned music and a salvo of fireworks, Strahan burst forth from an inflatable replica of the Vince Lombardi Trophy at midfield. He was wearing his number 92 jersey, smiling wide and gap-toothed as always, and hoisting the actual Lombardi trophy.

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The gesture was vintage Strahan: Goofy and self-aggrandizing, sure, but also marked by perfect comic timing and undeniable awesomeness if you were in the right mood.  

Since then, Strahan has attained full-on national celebrity and been bronzed as an all-time New York sports icon. Where Barber attempted to establish credibility as a media personality by being brutally honest about his ex-team, Strahan has become an unabashed homer on his weekly gig on FOX football studio show, forever wrapping himself in that Big Blue jersey, forever Mr. Giant.

All of this was far from a foregone conclusion as Strahan’s career was winding down, championship-less and, consequently, deemed not quite worthy of New York’s ultimate embrace. Strahan was respected as a great player but hardly worshipped as a living legend.

This arm’s distance relationship was embodied by fan reaction to his record-breaking sack in 2001, which came with a clumsily obvious assist from the opposing quarterback, Strahan’s buddy Brett Favre, with whom he had discussed golf swings before the game. For fans, pride in Strahan’s achievement was undermined by the sacrifice of competitive integrity and the naked individualism that went into it.

His holdout from training camp in 2007, during which he was ostensibly going through a Hamlet-like crisis of contemplating retirement but was more likely using that as a ruse to extend his offseason, has been papered over in the public’s mind by how that season ended. If not for the opposite paths their post-Giant careers took, Strahan’s holdout would undoubtedly have been judged a worse offense than Tiki Barber’s oft-criticized decision to announce his retirement in the middle of the 2006 season.

Overall, Giants fans were somewhere between charmed and wary when it came to Strahan’s gift of gab and penchant for self-promotion, which ran counter to the franchise’s brand of strong-silent-type stolidity.

For as affable as he is on camera these days, Strahan’s relationship with the press was often contentious. He was famously hypersensitive, forever wary of reporters he once said were always trying to “put me under the doo-doo pile. Stop doing that. I have feelings, too.”

His hurt feelings often came out in a mean streak. No more vividly was this on display than during a threatening outburst at a female reporter in 2006, when Strahan, while adopting a crazy-eyed expression and spitting out particles of food, challenged the reporter to “look a man in the eye before you try to kill ‘em [in print] or make up something.”

This image, to say nothing of the ugly allegations stemming from his divorce, doesn’t quite jibe with the image of Strahan seated next to Kelly Ripa on “Live!” every morning in his new role as America’s cuddly big guy.

Nobody ever questioned Strahan’s effort on the field, but his relationship with the Giants organization had its share of ups and downs.

Strahan wasn’t immune to the ugly offense-defense wars of the late 1990s, when members of the defense grew increasingly vocal about propping up a perennially dreadful offense. The low point came when Strahan went on a rant to the press about the offense and then-coach Jim Fassel’s handling of the acrimony. He did it on the day Fassel was attending his mother’s funeral.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing with the Giants’ next coach either. Strahan and Tom Coughlin clashed immediately. Strahan, a disciplined self-starter, was insulted by Coughlin’s rigid rules. “When I first met Coach Coughlin, it wasn’t a dislike. It was a hate,” Strahan says in the NFL Network’s “A Football Life” documentary on Coughlin.

But all’s well that ends well, which might be the theme of Strahan’s career.

He patched things up with Fassel, and was instrumental in getting the defensive players to accept quarterback Kerry Collins, whose reputation before coming to the Giants was marred by an alcohol problem and an incident in which he drunkenly, and in a horrible attempt at humor, used a racial slur with a teammate.

“Kerry came in with people saying, ‘He’s this, he’s that.’ And I had a couple of guys I ended up releasing,” Fassel told me over the phone.

“Michael was one of the guys who was trying to help and bond it. He would judge you on your own merits, which is the right thing to do. And he wanted a quarterback in here who could take us to a Super Bowl.”

By the end of Fassel’s last season in New York, the Giants were an injury-ravaged shell of a team, having lost Collins and nearly every single healthy offensive linemen, cornerback, and safety. Consequently, they lost their final eight games, mostly by large margins.

“One of those games, I said, ‘Michael, I’m gonna get you out the game.’ He refused to come out, and he refused to take a day off of practice. And that’s the ultimate respect you have for a great player.”

As for Coughlin, the love-fest between them is well-documented by now. Strahan came to see the method behind Coughlin’s madness, to the benefit of team morale.

“I’ve gone from a guy who wouldn’t play for him for one year, to a guy who wouldn’t play for anybody else if I had to go back and play football,” Strahan said in Coughlin’s “A Football Life.”

All’s well that ends well. Somehow, 2007, a season that began with a not-yet-in-game shape Strahan and the Giants defense getting blown out of their first two games and mostly stumbling through the rest of the season as a mediocre outfit, ended very well.

One of the signature images of that Super Bowl was Strahan’s pep talk to the offensive linemen before the Giants’ final drive, when the Giants’ trailed 14-10.

“17-14 is the final, okay? 17-14, fellas. One touchdown, we are world champions. Believe it, and it will happen.”

The beef between offense and defense was a distant memory. It did happen, and with that, any ambivalence Giants fans had felt toward their longtime best player was swept away, and the greatness of Strahan’s career was rightly brought into focus.