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Who Let This Dog Out? After a lame 1999 season, Giants defensive end Michael Strahan got his head and heart back into the game and now is a key to New York's title chances

Jan. 29, 2001
Jan. 29, 2001

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Jan. 29, 2001

Who Let This Dog Out? After a lame 1999 season, Giants defensive end Michael Strahan got his head and heart back into the game and now is a key to New York's title chances

Twelve nights before Super Bowl XXXV, New York Giants defensive
end Michael Strahan was in Manhattan doing what he does
second-best: entertaining an audience. He's an engaging speaker,
a storyteller who makes an hour of listening seem like 10
minutes. In a Park Avenue restaurant, Strahan told a gathering
of Sony executives, over drinks and cigars, what it felt like to
play the 1999 season with two hyperextended elbows, a burst cyst
behind his left knee, lower back spasms, a pulled quadriceps, a
strained shoulder and a torn thumb ligament, all while taking
heat from the media and fans for playing poorly after signing
the richest contract ($8 million average annual salary) for a
defensive lineman in NFL history. He pointed out the window.
"Have you ever gotten hit by a taxi on Park Avenue?" he said.
"Eight times? Physically and mentally, that's what last season
was like."

This is an article from the Jan. 29, 2001 issue Original Layout

Later, on his way from the restaurant to his house, in Montclair,
N.J., Strahan looked at Giants Stadium as his limo rolled by.
"Home, sweet home," he said.

"What was it last year?" he was asked.

"Damn place, I hated it," he said. "If I could have retired last
year, I would have. I was mad at the world. I hated football."

There are many reasons for Strahan's return to dominance. For
one, he's back to full strength and again able to beat tackles
who outweigh him by 60 pounds or more. He's mentally refreshed,
in tune with the teachings of a behavioral therapist. He has a
deeper faith in his teammates, largely because this Giants
offense is the best in his eight years with New York. He has at
last discounted the statistic that makes defensive ends and
outside linebackers too selfish--the sack. "No question this is
the best year of Michael's career," says Giants linebacker Jessie
Armstead. "He's playing the run better than ever, because he's
not overly worried about sacks the way he had been."

Strahan's importance to New York's success will be magnified in
the Super Bowl because the Giants will need big plays--probably
even points--from the defense to beat the Baltimore Ravens. The
Ravens thrive on turnovers, having forced a league-high 49 during
the regular season and seven more in the postseason, so the New
York defense had better respond in kind. Even though it erupted
for 34 first-half points in the NFC championship win over the
Minnesota Vikings, the Giants' offense can't be counted on to do
much against a Baltimore defense that has given up all of 16
points in three playoff games. Strahan must continue to break
down the pocket the way he did in postseason wins against two of
the league's best right tackles: He had two sacks and a forced
fumble while steamrollering the Philadelphia Eagles' Jon Runyan
and a sack and two redirected passes against the Vikings' Korey
Stringer. Actually, on a number of plays against Minnesota,
Strahan tangled with Stringer and guard David Dixon.

On the night following his speech to the Sony execs, after a
takeout dinner of General Tso's chicken atop vegetable fried rice
at his 12-bedroom estate, Strahan rolled the videotape of the
Giants' 41-0 destruction of Minnesota. What he did on the first
snap he watched didn't show up on the stat sheet, but that play
was a doozy. With the Vikings trailing 17-0 early in the second
quarter, Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper looked for
wideout Randy Moss, who was open across the middle. If Culpepper
had completed the pass, Moss would have had only a safety to beat
for a touchdown that would have put the Vikings back in the game.
Strahan, however, put Stringer off balance with a deke move,
power rushed past him and placed a big right paw on Culpepper's
arm just as Culpepper threw. The ball fluttered to the ground.

Two plays later the 348-pound Stringer and the 356-pound Dixon
double-teamed the 268-pound Strahan, who drove into Stringer, got
him backpedaling and threw him to the left. Strahan's momentum
carried Dixon back into Culpepper's path. Strahan threw Dixon to
the left and sacked Culpepper. Later in the second quarter Fox
analyst John Madden said, "Korey Stringer darn near outweighs
[Strahan] by 100 pounds. Strahan these last two weeks has been
like a Superman."

In a steely near-whisper, Strahan said, "And there's no
kryptonite."

Last year there was.

Because his father, Gene, a U.S. Army major, had been stationed
in Germany beginning when Michael was nine, Michael didn't play
much organized football growing up, but he watched NFL games, and
he loved what he saw. Every Tuesday morning in the fall, father
and son got up at three o'clock to watch Monday Night Football
live. Michael was an avid weightlifter, and Gene believed Michael
would have a good chance to get a college scholarship if he
played a year of high school football in the U.S. So in July
1988, just before Michael's senior year, Gene sent his son to
live in Houston with his brother, Michael's uncle Arthur, who had
been an NFL defensive lineman. On his way from the Houston
airport to Arthur's house, Michael saw a pharmacy with a neon
sign that blared DRUGS. My God, he thought, it's worse than my
friends in Germany told me. They sell drugs right out in the open
in America!

That fall Michael was unspectacular, but his size and strength
were enough for him to get what Gene had envisioned: an athletic
scholarship. In four seasons at Division I-AA Texas Southern, he
racked up a school-record 41 1/2 sacks, including 19 as a senior,
and the Giants picked him in the second round of the 1993 draft.

Talk about culture shock. "The first time I went to New York, I
stayed in my hotel room, at the Marriott Marquis on Times Square,
for three days," Strahan says. "I'd only leave to go to the
weight room in the hotel. I was afraid if I stepped out of the
hotel, I'd get robbed and killed."

Gradually he took to the Big Apple, just as he adjusted to the
jump in competition in the pros. By his fifth year, 1997, he was
one of the NFL's best at getting to the quarterback; no other
player had more than his 29 total sacks in 1997 and '98. He went
to the Pro Bowl both years, and in August '99 he signed a
four-year, $32 million deal.

Nevertheless, as he rose to stardom Strahan didn't feel very good
about himself, his game or his team. "The thing that haunts all
players is self-doubt," he says. "Toward the end of 1998 I had 10
sacks in 10 games, but I thought I sucked, and we were losing. It
was like we had no hope."

After a 31-7 loss to the 49ers in San Francisco dropped the
Giants to 4-8, New York was to play at the Arizona Cardinals.
Sensing her husband's discouragement, Michael's wife, Jean,
arranged for him to meet with Jean Pierre Marques, a Tucson
therapist whom she had visited some years before. Michael
agreed. "I picture chasing the quarterback, almost getting
there, not getting there; and then everything goes black,"
Strahan recalls telling Marques when asked to describe his
vision of what it was like to be on the field.

Marques put Strahan in a recliner and delivered 60 minutes of
psychological nirvana. As he spoke, his words were recorded on
an audio cassette with MASTERMIND inscribed on its white label.
Marques told Strahan to play the tape before every game. Here's
a sampling of the hypnotic words, spoken in a thick French
accent: "As you close your eyes now, Michael, control and relax
completely each muscle in your body. You are closing your
conscious mind and opening your subconscious mind...You are more
relaxed than you have ever been...Love yourself, Michael. You
are now achieving your goal of modifying your personality, to
make your life better than it ever has been, to use your full
potential as a human being and as an athlete. To be the best...
You have the power and the ability to be the living example of
the beautiful, perfect athlete. Physically. Mentally.
Spiritually...Create a mental movie where you see yourself
perform your very best. Make that situation real..."

The night before the game against the Cardinals, Strahan fell
asleep to the tape. "It was amazing," he says. "I woke up [the
next morning] and felt I could run through a wall." A sack of
Jake Plummer and two tackles behind the line to foil an Arizona
scoring chance earned Strahan a game ball.

But early in 1999 the self-doubts returned. Strahan hurt his
elbows in back-to-back weeks--the final preseason game and the
opener--and the injuries forced him to curtail all upper-body
strength work for the season. "My game is power and leverage," he
says. "Not to be able to bull-rush robbed me of my whole game."

After a sackless September, Strahan was labeled MONEYBAGS in one
newspaper headline. He stopped getting treatment for his aching
back, stopped the acupuncture that alleviated the pain in his
neck and shoulder. He stopped listening to the Marques tape
before games. Armstead needled Strahan about his obsession with
sacks. On Nov. 29, with the Giants 5-6 and coach Jim Fassel in
California for his mother's funeral, Strahan criticized the
offense for its feebleness and Fassel for muzzling Armstead, the
defensive leader, who had also criticized the offense. After he
returned to New York, Fassel ordered Strahan to apologize to the
team, which upset Strahan.

Operations on Strahan's wrist and thumb and an off-season of rest
cured him physically. A heart-to-heart with Fassel helped him
mentally. As did Jean's asking, "What happened to the man I met
who loved football?" With an improved offense, the Giants started
this season 7-2. The Marques tape was back as a Saturday-night
staple, and Strahan seemed indifferent toward the NFL sack race.
Even a two-game midseason skid--home losses to the St. Louis Rams
and the Detroit Lions--didn't discourage him. After the loss to
the Lions, Fassel gathered Strahan and the Giants' four other
captains and told them that the assistant coaches, instead of
working on the upcoming week's game plan, would dissect film with
the players. "No, Coach," Strahan told him. "It's on us. The
coaches didn't play like crap. We did, and we'll fix it."

The Giants have won all seven games since then. Strahan is
content with his modest 9 1/2 sacks this season, but, more
important, in those seven games he has tackled ballcarriers
eight times for losses, keying the NFC's top run defense. "Now I
go into a game not thinking about sacks but thinking about being
disruptive in any way I can," he says. "I feel I'm learning so
much about the game. When we were getting ready to play
Philadelphia, you'll never guess who taught me the most about
playing [the 330-pound] Runyan. A rookie, Courtney Brown [of the
Cleveland Browns]. His game is like mine--power and speed. Can
you believe that, I'm learning from a rookie?"

Strahan smiled, showing off the gap between his two upper front
teeth. It's been a while since he's been this happy late in a
season, but you'll be seeing that space between his front
teeth--wide enough to throw a spiral through--often this week.
Recently, cornerback Dave Thomas approached Strahan with a domino
in his hand and said, "Hey, found your missing tooth." Defensive
tackle Ryan Hale told Strahan, "You ought to put a sign on your
right front tooth."

"A sign?" Strahan said.

"A sign," Hale said, "that says, NEXT TOOTH, 100 MILES."

Strahan has looked into having the gap corrected. "I can afford
it," he says, "but I probably won't do it. It'd be like taking
away my security blanket. I met [gap-toothed former supermodel]
Lauren Hutton a while ago, and I told her, 'I want to thank you
for making the gap fashionable.'"

On Sunday the only gap Strahan will care about is one he can
shoot through en route to separating the football from Ravens
quarterback Trent Dilfer or running back Jamal Lewis. At his home
in Montclair it was close to 10 p.m., and Strahan needed his
sleep. He rose to get ready for bed. He'll listen to his
motivational tape again on the night before the biggest game of
his life, but he really won't need to. He can hear Marques's
voice. It has become his voice: "You will wake up feeling
incredibly rich and refreshed, full of power!"

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER GREGOIRE PARTY OF FIVE These days Michael, at home with Jean and their three dogs, has plenty of happy reasons to show off the gap.COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER HEAT WAVE With Strahan pressuring Culpepper, the Giants shut out the high-powered Vikings' attack.
"Now I go into games not thinking about sacks, but thinking
about being disruptive in any way I can."