On a bright summer morning at Lincoln Center in New York City, men in three-piece suits and women in summer dresses sip on mimosas in the posh Lincoln Ristorante. No one would mistake these people for football fans. In fact, the odds are good that many of them probably never saw Michael Strahan play a single game for the Giants during his 15-year Hall of Fame career. But their eyes keep darting to the front door as they make polite conversation and wait for him to arrive.
When Strahan does appear, he’s wearing a suit, too. Instead of being greeted with a chorus of his famous pre-game calling card, “Stomp you out!” as he would anywhere else in New York, these folks instead quietly jockey for position to get a quick word in with the man of honor at this launch party for his new book, Wake Up Happy. An incongruous scene such as this, so unimaginable 10 years ago, is as clear a sign as any that Strahan’s metamorphosis from shit-talking gridiron monster to media darling is complete. In his heart, though, he is still a football player and relishes the awkwardness of being embraced by a brand new audience. When a speaker gets on the microphone to introduce him, she gushes over his charity work, his new book, and his charisma as co-host of Live with Kelly and Michael and contributor on Good Morning America. But when she starts to bullet-point the myriad accomplishments of his football career, she sounds like a high school student struggling to read a foreign language. At one point, she says Strahan “won the NFL Super Bowl.”
When the intro is done, Strahan accepts the mic and says, “Thank you so much for that…I just want to say: I knew you didn’t know much about football, but if you called it ‘the NFL Super Bowl,’ then I know you really know nothing about football! There’s only one Super Bowl!”
He laughs from his belly at his own punch line, tossing his head back to exhibit the iconic gap-toothed smile. The whole room erupts with him, the embarrassed speaker most of all. Strahan puts an arm around her, tells the crowd how lovely she is, and gives a short speech to tease the Oct. 13 book release.
“The book is about your attitude in life,” Strahan explains later. “And really, that’s what I’ve learned life is all about. It’s about approaching something that a lot of people see as a problem, but you see a way through it. I had years when I didn’t think like that. I wasn’t really trying to enjoy a moment or I’d look at something and think, ‘That’s too big to overcome.’ Then I had a total mindset switch to enjoy every day. There’s nothing so big that you can’t overcome it if you put your mind to it and wake up happy. That’s how I live my life—which is to find the good in everything.”
After football player and TV host (he’s still a studio analyst on Fox NFL Sunday in addition to his year-round work on Live and GMA), the book gives Strahan a third career as a motivational author and speaker. Strahan cites the work of self-help personalities Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, and Tony Robbins as influences, but his application of the philosophy wouldn’t mean much if it didn’t draw on his own life experiences, which are all the more poignant because Strahan has been so famously unhappy.
You have to go back to the mid-2000s to understand there was nothing preordained about Strahan’s ascendance to the heart of mainstream American culture. Having a Hall of Fame career, even in New York, doesn’t guarantee any sort of cultural relevance beyond sports. If anything, it was supposed to be Strahan’s teammate, Tiki Barber, who would go on to have the morning talk show, the endorsement deals, and the new fan base who didn’t know he played football.
Before Strahan retired on top of the football world in 2008—finally getting a Super Bowl ring at the expense of the previously undefeated New England Patriots—it looked like his legendary career would go out with a whimper. He suffered from nagging injuries, most notably a pectoral muscle tear that sidelined him for eight games in 2004 and a Lisfranc (midfoot) sprain that kept him out for another seven games in 2006. He also went through a nasty, highly publicized divorce in 2006 that seemed to play out entirely through headlines in the New York tabloids, which covered Strahan’s hard times with the same unbridled zeal previously afforded to his greatest achievements.
“Playing in New York is hard,” Strahan admits. “Getting divorced in New York is one of the hardest things ever. Especially when the papers decide that they want to sell papers. I used to see those papers and, at first, it bothered me because I thought people really believed these things. But then I realized, ‘This is just done to sell papers.’ You can’t go around in life trying to change the opinions of everybody. You just have to live life for what you know is true and be who you know you are. It taught me if someone really was important to me and they knew me, then it didn’t matter because they knew it wasn’t true. I did not have to go around and seek approval from people who meant nothing to my life.”
Having experienced life in New York as both a hero and a villain gave Strahan perspective on a point that every coach tries to make to his athletes: Your actions and attitude are the only things you can control. Circumstances are ever shifting, for better or for worse, and are beyond control. So with a plan to play just one more year in 2007, Strahan didn’t saddle himself with extra expectations. He just got happy.
“I can’t say I enjoyed all 15 years of my career,” Strahan says. “There were years when I said, ‘This is miserable. I hate it. I’m having success at it, but I’m not in love with it.’ I totally had to change my mindset and say, ‘I love it. I love practice. The good things override the bad things in this business.’ I had to realize that one day I’d never button up a helmet or put on shoulder pads again. This is such a blessing and you should be so happy to be a part of it. Once I started looking at things as the glass half full instead of empty, it totally changed my life.”
A few weeks after the book announcement, Strahan is working out at FitSpace NYC, the home of celebrity trainer Richard Louis, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Strahan’s personal trainer, Latreal Mitchell is there, and she’s coaxing her client through a set of “deadmill” pushes. The treadmill is left off, and Strahan holds on to the handles, pushing the unpowered belt with his feet. After three or four powerful strides, the belt is flying and Strahan’s at top speed. The sweat pours off him. At the end of a 30-second set, he glares at Mitchell, who rolls her eyes. The two share a mock-adversarial relationship that goes back a few years. Just because Strahan’s mantra is to wake up happy doesn’t mean he always arrives for their sessions that way.
“There are times when he comes in, and he’s had a really rough day,” Mitchell says. “I can tell he’d rather have an easy workout, and I’m just like, ‘Sorry.’ So he’ll talk himself through the workout. It’s almost like when a football player is mic’d up. He finds it each time. He really pushes himself.”
Later, in a power rack set up for the bench press, Strahan sees the bar is loaded to 225 pounds. He hasn’t warmed up his shoulders but says, “Come on, we can do a little more.” He and Mitchell add a pair of 25s, and he bangs out an easy set of 10 at 275. For the guy who once benched 500 at Texas Southern University, the high 200s will probably always be easy. Throughout his career, Strahan made an art of maintaining strength while losing weight. As a rookie at the combine, he weighed 250 pounds, and the Giants encouraged him to gain weight. When he reported to camp at 265, coaches told him to gain more. He promptly blew up to 285.
“They didn’t say how to gain weight, they just said gain,” Strahan says, laughing. “So I ate pizza, steak, you name it. But I was a blimp! I couldn’t move!” Over the course of the next 14 years, Strahan learned to do more with less, dropping to 270 the next year, then into the 260s a few years later, and so forth until he found a fighting weight in the 240s during his final years in the league. It was a move that prolonged his career and made him a faster, more efficient pass rusher. Today, the 6’5″, 43-year-old Strahan is still a lean 240, and even showed off his six-pack in a Magic Mike XXL cameo.
When his workout is finished, Strahan plunks down in a chair. He considers the notion that his motivational speaker and author career began with just over two minutes left in Super Bowl XLII, when the Giants trailed the Patriots 14-10. On the sidelines, NFL Films captured one of the most enduring images from that game, Strahan standing before the offensive line as they were about to take the field. He needs no reminder of what he said.
“17-14 is the final!” Strahan shouts, his booming voice filling the gym at the exact pitch and cadence of his famous speech. “17-14. One touchdown and we are world champions! Believe it, and it will happen!”
He sees the connection between what he did in that moment and what he’s now trying to do for a mass audience. He explains that the seed of that speech came from his dad. Born in the U.S. but raised as a military brat in Germany—his father Gene was a major in the Army—the stars weren’t aligned for Strahan to become a football star. There was no American football scene to speak of in Germany, and besides, as an adolescent he was fat and out of shape. His brothers teased him relentlessly for his weight, calling him BOB, which stood for “Booty On Back.” His father, though, saw raw potential that only needed to be molded and bought his son copies of Muscle & Fitness and other bodybuilding magazines, setting up a strict routine for his son. In time, Strahan grew huge and strong and showed natural athletic ability like Gene, who was a heavyweight boxer for a time. It didn’t take long for Gene to fill his son’s head with the biggest dreams he could conjure.
“My dad was always a ‘when’ not an ‘if ’ guy,” Strahan says. “He always said, ‘When you’re in the pros…when you do this.’ My parents were at Super Bowl XLII, and he said, ‘You already won the game, so you just have to go through the formalities.’ He came into my head. At the end of the game, I was like, ‘My dad told me, and he has always been right! There’s no way we’re going to lose this game.’ I just felt compelled to tell the guys this was how it was going to happen.”
When the game played out just as Strahan said it would, his lack of surprise didn’t diminish his joy. “Our story was just too good to end with a defeat,” he says. “I’m glad that they believed it. I’m glad that we had guys who didn’t think that it seemed impossible. They made it possible. It was awesome, man.”
When you look at everything that’s fallen in line for Strahan in the past few years since that moment—the TV gigs, endorsements for everything from Vaseline to Meta (an expanded line born out of Metamucil), and his very own line of suits at JCPenney—you can’t help but marvel at how the philosophy he espouses in Wake Up Happy precipitated all of it.
“I truly have learned that most of the time when you put limits on something, that’s on you,” he says. “Things aren’t meant to be limited. I used to think like this: ‘Oh, I got one sack, I’m good now.’ But if I get one, why can’t I get two? If I get two, why can’t I get three? Stop limiting your production. Go out there and go for it. That goes past football.
“Everybody’s always like, ‘Once I do this, I’ll be happy. Once I do that, I’ll be happy,’” Strahan continues. “There were times when I fell into that trap. I’ve thought, ‘If I can buy that, I can be happy. If I can get this contract, I’ll be happy.’ That’s how we are programmed, but it’s just not true. Your happiness is waking up every day and really enjoying where you are and appreciating that moment. Once you learn to do that, your life is going to be so much better. Don’t think about yesterday or tomorrow. Think about right now.”
On his way out of the gym, he stops to take a few pictures and sign autographs. He’s still smiling and laughing—not at anything in particular, but to punctuate his sentences—the happiest man in whatever room he’s in.