By Selena Roberts
January 31, 2008

PHOENIX -- Michael Strahan knows how to make love to the camera without being cued.

Say hello to Japan, a reporter asked him on Tuesday. Strahan had already cocked his head toward the lens and flashed a familiar gap-toothed grin that he fancies as more SpongeBob SquarePants than David Letterman of WorldWide Pants.

"All the gap-toothed people stick together," he joked.

Surely, Tokyo was smitten by this steamy dental talk. How about all the lovely ladies stateside?

What starlet would he like to impress by leaving her Super Bowl tickets at the will-call window, asked a reporter of the E! variety. "If I'm trying to impress you, I'm not going to bring you to a Super Bowl," Strahan said with a voice containing a hint of Barry White.

Who is this McLovin in Giant blue? Strahan has morphed into Bachelor No. 1 amid his clever Dating Game with the public. He wants his audience -- and every TV producer with a job opening this side of Tiki Barber -- to love him madly should his grand Giants career end in victory or loss against the Patriots on Sunday.

If slipped truth serum, he'd tell you he wants to live on in the lighting he craves, in the Bentley lifestyle he is accustomed to, with a gig he can enjoy without waking with his body feeling as if it had been starched overnight.

He is not alone in this pursuit. More than the NBA and Major League Baseball, the NFL seems especially stocked with players wanting work in retirement. It's a numbers thing, in some ways. More players, more need.

But the NFL is also a league with few guaranteed deals, brutally short careers and high turnover rates. And with team systems and gladiator uniforms designed for anonymity, players have to fight -- and sometimes woof -- against the homogeny to distinguish themselves on the field.

There is a reason the jawing has escalated between players and celebrations have grown more elaborate and defenders preen on even the most pedestrian tackles: To be seen is to be relevant in today's NFL.

To be heard is even better. So the Super Bowl week provides the perfect set for the chatty charm offensive by Strahan, who is in the right place at the right time to assemble what is essentially an audition tape for his football afterlife.

"There are cameras everywhere," said Howie Long, who remains in the public eye 15 years after his retirement as a part of Fox's NFL coverage. "The NFL is a built-in publicist."

And a good publicist makes an even better revisionist.

The images of Strahan's unseemly divorce tales consuming the tabloid pages have been replaced by scenes of him as the affable single guy, albeit one about $15 million lighter in the wallet after his ex-wife's take last year.

The moment Strahan chewed out a reporter last season while gobbling a peanut butter sandwich has been reduced to a small breach of dining etiquette. And the summer he spent holding out in spa tub while the Giants sweated it out in training camp in August has been written off as a veteran getaway out of the "Manny-being-Manny" playbook.

"I was in California and working out, but at the same time enjoying it," Strahan said. "I never knew what having an August felt like away from football. So to have that life away from football and not watching it at all, not caring what was on TV about it or about me and not reading the newspapers. It was relaxing and peaceful.

"It felt like a relief of pressure that I've never had. It was very tempting just to keep it and make that my normal life."

Do you believe him? Strahan isn't the vanishing type. To exit the game amid a nasty holdout would have been to leave the game as the brooding star with a tainted image after 15 glorious years. Not a telegenic look.

"When we started 0-2 this year, I was like, 'Man, the beach sounds good. Is it too late to start over and say that I'm done?' " Strahan said. "There was a time when I was like, 'Man, can I go back to retirement without everybody hating me?' I'm glad I hung in there.'"

Hung in? He'd just arrived. And yet, with a heavy dose of spin, Strahan has managed to twist his self-imposed exile into a glorious comeback tale.

Is he manipulative? Yes. Is he duplicitous? Definitely.

But Strahan is smart at masking insincerity, astute in the ways of using charm as subterfuge for any character blips. Strahan and the Patriots' Randy Moss have a lot in common on their journeys to the Super Bowl. No doubt Moss has experienced this more than Strahan, but their great plays have often been spliced with their surlier, moodier moments.

Now, neither could be more beloved by their teammates, more embraced by their fans. Good for them for discovering their way back into the good graces of public perception. As the Super Bowl illuminates, self-awareness is the best route to redemption. And redemption is the path to revisionism.

How quickly everyone forgets in the fog of Super Bowl week.

So Strahan smiles for the cameras, revealing the emotional range of a game show host -- from effervescent to extra effervescent -- as he invites the public to adore him.

"This is like walking down Broadway," Strahan said of Media Day, sprinkled with everyone but Elvis impersonators asking questions. "Where is the Naked Cowboy? Is he here strumming his guitar in some tighty-white shorts?"

The Naked Cowboy on Broadway is playing the fame game. And like so many other NFL stars who near a career exit, Strahan is doing the same.

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