Michael Strahan’s happy now

The NFL Hall of Famer is working harder than ever to build a media and branding empire — and stay pumped

TRD New York /
Mar.March 07, 2016 01:00 PM

Fans line the entranceway as Michael Strahan prepares to step out into the spotlight. The crowd screams wildly, brandishing bright yellow signs scrawled with his name. Some reach out in hopes of stealing a touch from the Super Bowl champion and NFL Hall of Famer. But Strahan keeps his eyes focused straight ahead on the camera. Then he struts out medium fast over the red carpet, extending both arms to high-five outstretched hands along the way. Pharrell Williams’ hit song “Happy” plays over the loudspeakers and Strahan pulls a goofball smile, exposing just a hint of his boyishly gapped teeth.

“We’ve got good news for you, America! Your mornings just got happier!” the announcer bellows. “It’s time to say good morning to Michael as he joins ‘Good Morning America.’”

The room erupts with applause as Strahan takes the stage on “Good Morning America” for the first time, grabbing co-host Lara Spencer for a hug and blowing kisses to the rest of the cast.

He keeps up those pleasantries with every show. After a recent morning on the set, he gets into the back of a car. “I’m a true believer that your energy is what everyone else feeds off of,” the former Giants defensive end tells LLNYC. “Your energy when you walk into a room is very important to the team, so it’s always a good morning kiss to Robin [Roberts], Lara [Spencer] and Amy [Robach]. Then I give a nice firm, steady handshake to my man Mr. George Stephanopoulos. This is my team. I just greeted my [‘Good Morning America’] team.”

Of course Strahan was once better known for being the member of a very different kind of team. It’s been eight years since Strahan retired from the NFL with 141.5 sacks, 854 tackles, four interceptions, 24 forced fumbles and three touchdowns in 200 games over a 15-year career. He is the stuff of football legend and “the best two-way defensive end in NFL history,” according to Ralph Vacchiano, a Giants beat reporter for the New York Daily News.

“He was as good at rushing the passer as he was playing the run — tackling the running back or playing the angles and forcing them to run in a different direction,” Vacchiano says. “Most defensive ends can do one or the other well. But he was great at both.” 

Adding to his aura, Strahan left the league at the high point of his career. Only a handful of noteworthy players can say they won a Super Bowl championship in their last game; Strahan is one of them. Even fewer athletes have built such a broad career in the public eye outside of sports. Few would even want to after years of bone-crushing collisions on the field. Their tour of duty is, presumably, over. It’s time for the house in South Florida. It’s time to bask in the good life.

But not for Strahan. Today he is working harder than ever to build an expansive media and branding empire.

Twice a week, Strahan wakes up at 5 a.m. sharp and hustles down to Times Square from his Upper West Side apartment for “Good Morning America.” He lays out his clothes the night before, “like a mother getting their kid ready for school,” he says. At 8 a.m. he’s back in a car racing up to 67th and Columbus for “LIVE! with Kelly and Michael,” the long-running nationally syndicated show on ABC.

“Michael is the only person who said immediately after co-hosting that he wanted to do it again,” Kelly Ripa tells LLNYC.After long-serving host Regis Philbin left “LIVE” in 2011, the show featured a rotating cast of co-hosts alongside Ripa. Strahan is the one who stuck.

“Officially co-hosting with Michael for the first time was incredible. I felt like we won the jackpot. He is an amazing storyteller, he is a very generous person, he makes the audience feel totally at home and he just fit right in — it felt like he had always been there,” Ripa adds.

Every weekend Strahan jets to Los Angeles, where he puts his former career to work as a football analyst for Fox NFL Sunday. This summer he will add game-show host to his resume as the emcee and executive producer of ABC’s revamped version of “$100,000 Pyramid.” He has also done big-screen acting for films like “Ice Age: Collision Course” and “Magic Mike XXL.”

But those are just his day jobs. On the side Strahan runs a production and management company that counts rapper Wiz Khalifa, NFL tight end Tony Gonzalez, television sports analyst Deion Sanders, television personality Erin Andrews and sportscaster Curt Menefee as clients. He’s the spokesperson for Meta, makers of wellness products like fiber bars that promote heart health. He’s also partnered with J.C. Penney on a line of men’s suits, which he wears whenever he appears of television.

“All the guys on Fox NFL Sunday wear my suits,” he says, adding that he wears them six days a week during football season and often changes throughout the day. “I never wear the same thing on both shows [GMA and ‘LIVE’]. I don’t want the audience to look at me on one show and then look at me on the other and go, ‘Oh it looks like he just walked next door in the same outfit.’ It’s not in my contract. That’s me. I feel like I owe it to the shows to at least care enough to do that extra bit,” he tells LLNYC.

Somehow in the infinitesimally small gaps in that schedule, Strahan finds time to make personal appearances across the country. He’s out promoting his new self-help book titled “Wake Up Happy: The Dream Big, Win Big Guide to Transforming Your Life,” giving speeches at universities and even appearing at the odd bar mitzvah.

Strahan is building a brand based on positivity, playful banter and disarming handsomeness. And it’s all happening so fast it’s easy to forget that for more than a decade he was a meat grinder on the football field.

“In many ways he is the Frank Gifford of his generation,” says Brett Topel, a sports journalist and author of the new book “When Shea Was Home: The Story of the 1975 Mets, Yankees, Giants, and Jets.” Frank Gifford was a Hall of Fame player for the Giants in the ’50s and ’60s who went on to have a second career as a Monday Night Football host and play-by-play man. His television host wife, Kathie Lee, sat where Strahan sits now on “LIVE.”

“Now I talk for a living. I’m not sore on Monday. I don’t get blamed for losing.”

“He was known by another generation of people that had never seen him play,” Topel says. “I think Michael Strahan is going in that same direction. If you had told anybody that he would be the new Regis Philbin in his playing days they would have laughed. He was this ferocious, outstanding, dominant player who feasted on quarterbacks.”

Strahan’s drive can feel superhuman. As a player he supplemented his natural abilities with serious research and strategy off the field. When his marriage to Jean Muggli disintegrated into vitriolic tabloid headlines of the highest order and a $15 million settlement that was later appealed to a lesser amount, Strahan, who has four children, ages 11 to 24, smiled and turned up the dial. He didn’t get a second job, he got 10. (Strahan ended his engagement to model Nicole Murphy in August 2014).

For much of his career, Strahan wasn’t well liked by the media or his teammates, Vacchiano says. “He had battles with just about everybody you can think of —  coaches, general managers … No one would have thought during his playing career that he would become one of the most beloved personalities on daytime TV. He had no problem approaching reporters in the locker room and saying that he didn’t like what you wrote. He was very sensitive to media coverage that was in any way negative.”

Strahan doesn’t disagree.

“I was no different than anybody else. I was sensitive as hell and took everything personally and really cared what other people thought,” he says of the start of his career. “Now I am just totally not in that mindset. I’m totally clear and happy. Everyone is going to have an opinion. Not everyone is going to like you. I understand that. I get it. And I don’t try to please everybody. You can’t worry about the ones that don’t [like you], all you can do is worry about yourself and do what you feel is best. That is what I have adopted. I think it made my life a lot easier and a lot less stressful.”

“Mindset” is an important idea to Strahan. He uses the word over and over again throughout our interview. That’s because behind his wide-smiling, strip-teasing, free-style rapping TV antics, there is self-doubt. Strahan’s battle isn’t out there on the football field or in the television studio, it’s in his own head. “The hardest thing for me,” he says, “is talking myself out of failure.”

“The transition for a lot of other people seemed easier than I felt like it was for me,” he says of his transformation from athlete to morning-show mainstay. “I’m my own worst critic … You can talk yourself out of being able to do something, because you’re saying, ‘No athlete does this. I don’t have any example, so I can’t do it.’ You have to talk yourself out of the negative stuff and really believe that you can do anything that you put your mind to.”

But that constant battle for affirmation is one he says that he prefers to wage on television than on the line of scrimmage.

“Football is a really tough sport and it’s a lot of hard work even to make it through a season,” he says. “Now I talk for a living. I’m not sore on Monday. I don’t get blamed for losing. I’m not being criticized for losing. I get criticized in a different way that doesn’t seem as a harsh. I can take that. It’s a blessing the way it is going now.”

But he does miss the heat of the game. “I miss it all the time. I don’t miss practice. I don’t miss being sore. I don’t miss a lot of things. But I miss the guys and I miss that sensation you get when you get a good sack.”

The sack is almost a metaphor for Strahan. It represents a way of living life and a moment where performing at your peak means getting out of your head and believing that you can do the impossible. When pulled off, it’s the greatest feeling, he says, because it’s not really about pummeling the other guy, it’s about proving something to yourself.

This is how NFL sack record holder Michael Strahan describes the perfect sack:

“The perfect sack requires that you beat the guy in front of you. It’s not like you just want to run and hit the quarterback. I mean, that is a sack but is not as fulfilling as when you’ve got your hands down in the dirt and you look up and there is a 320-pound guy there who wants to crush you. He’s basically thinking about ending your life right there. They hike the ball and everything is like slow motion. You set him up with a move and he bites. You beat him on the move and after you clear him, all you see is an open path to the quarterback. All you are thinking is ‘Don’t throw it. Don’t throw it. Don’t throw it.’ And the closer you get, the more those words speed up. Then you hit him. And you feel his feet lift off the ground, the air leave his lungs like ‘uhhhhh’ and you land on top of him. You hear the roar of the crowd. You stand up and you flex like you are a gladiator. That is the best feeling in the world. You turn around and look at an offensive lineman and you go, ‘You can’t touch me, big boy!’”

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