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Milton Un
Milton Un

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Michael Strahan Will Blitz His Way Into Your Living Room (And Heart)

After a career spent coming at quarterbacks from every possible angle, the Hall of Famer is now doing the same to TV viewers on ‘Good Morning America’ and seemingly everywhere else

We talk about TV all the time, but we hardly talk about all the TV. This week, we’re looking at the shows, people, and networks that we know people love — that we love — but typically fall outside of the critical hivemind. This is TV Airing in Plain Sight.

On September 6, the first day of his new job, Michael Strahan bear-hugged Usher and mimicked the singer’s smooth falsetto. He solemnly discussed Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s recent issues with concussions. ("I’m sure you can relate, Michael," a NASCAR analyst said as an aside at one point.) He sat down for a one-on-one interview with Meg Ryan, who talked about directing a new movie featuring her son and admitted she had no idea she was the proprietor of an active, verified Twitter account. "It does feel like the first day of school around here, doesn’t it?" asked Robin Roberts, who has been a Good Morning America co-anchor since 2005 and knew Strahan, a former defensive end on the New York Giants, through her work as a sportscaster long before that.

To welcome Strahan to the show, Good Morning America put together an advertisement featuring an adorable kid look-alike getting out of bed and facing the world, and the young actor was brought onto the set on Strahan’s first day. He remarked that his own first day of school was the next morning. Strahan gave him a surprise gift: a Pikachu backpack stuffed with toys. They posed and flashed matching gap-toothed grins. (In 2001, Strahan told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King that the vast space in his smile was like a "security blanket" to him and that he had no plans to ever change it.) It was all in a Tuesday morning’s work.

Technically, it wasn’t Strahan’s first-first day; he’d been appearing on GMA on a part-time basis, twice weekly or so, since 2014. That April, sitting next to Kelly Ripa, he insisted that his segments on the morning program would not alter his role on Live! with Kelly and Michael. "This is what I do," he said to Ripa, referring to their show. "This is me. This is my home, right here. Like, I love you. So no matter what, I go nowhere." Video of this exchange would be revisited when, two years later, Ripa was caught completely off-guard by the news that Strahan was leaving their show for a full-time GMA gig.

Since retiring from the New York Giants in the spring of 2008, on the heels of their Super Bowl win, Michael Strahan has been one of the most ambitious personalities in sports and entertainment. On Sunday mornings, from a studio out in L.A., he appears on FOX’s jovial NFL pregame program. He had a cameo in Magic Mike XXL. This summer, he hosted the reprisal of classic game show $10,000 Pyramid (which, thanks to inflation, is now the $100,000 Pyramid). (When Strahan promoted the return on Good Morning America, he proved his live-TV bona fides. Asked if he was nervous to fill the shoes of a famous former host, he said: "I have very big feet, but Dick Clark, I mean, what a legend" without mangling the tricky phrase in any sort of career-ending fashion.) He has a docu-series called Religion of Sports premiering in November and a drama, Hobbs, in early development with ABC.

And of course, Strahan has been one of the lead anchors, every Monday through Friday from 7–9 a.m., on GMA, ABC’s flagship production. Back in his All-Pro heyday with the Giants, a sack-happy Strahan came at opposing quarterbacks from what felt like every possible angle. Now he’s basically doing the same thing to TV viewers.

This was all supposed to happen to a different New York Giant. Early in the 2006 Giants season, running back Tiki Barber announced that he was beginning to think about retirement, preparing to leave football before football left him. "I think he feels he’s perfected his craft, in a way," Barber’s business agent Mark Lepselter said at the time, "and is ready for something else." Barber made it clear that his next venture would be something he’d long dreamed of doing: broadcasting, with the goal of hosting morning TV.

For years, Barber and Strahan had been two of the brightest lights on the New York Giants’ roster, and for years they also hadn’t really gotten along. Strahan stopped speaking to Barber at one point in 2002, and was annoyed anew at the start of the 2007 season — Strahan’s last — when the retired Barber disparaged quarterback Eli Manning on NBC. Later that season, Barber was uncomfortably on hand to eat crow when the Giants won the Super Bowl.

A few days later, Strahan screamed "we stomp you out!" on the steps of City Hall, retired in glory — "It was like at the end of the movie Babe," he told Parade, "where the guy tells Babe, ‘That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.’" — and was almost immediately snapped up to be part of Fox NFL Sunday. By the time Strahan made his first guest hosting appearance on an episode of Live! with Regis and Kelly in the fall of 2010, Barber’s nascent career was already over: He had been dropped by NBC in the wake of a tabloid scandal in which he left his pregnant wife for an NBC intern. (They’re now married, and Barber hosts a CBS Sports Radio show.) It was Strahan, who told Stephen Rodrick that in college he felt frustrated because he felt "a step behind on what was cool," who would become the widely known and popular daytime host.

The youngest of six children, Strahan lived on an Army base in Mannheim, Germany, from age 9 to 17, at which point his parents sent him to Texas to live with an uncle and play a season of high school football. According to Sports Illustrated, Strahan woke up at 3 a.m. on Tuesday mornings in Germany to watch Monday Night Football with his father. Strahan said in an email that his exposure to TV was otherwise limited, but that he remembered watching episodes of Knots Landing, The Jeffersons, Quincy M.E., Murder, She Wrote, and Dynasty on the American Forces Network. In a profile for Men’s Journal last winter, Rodrick wrote that Strahan’s memories from Germany included being made fun of by his siblings for the size of his ass and occasionally working out to Jane Fonda tapes. In high school, he stood out for his raw size and strength, and at Texas Southern University, he was an All-American and set the school’s sack record, which still stands.

Drafted in 1993 by the Giants in the second round, Strahan was named to his first of seven Pro Bowls in 1997 after recording 14 sacks. His team lost Super Bowl XXXV and won Super Bowl XLII. Over the years he argued publicly with head coach Jim Fassel, and thought he’d last maybe a year under the dictatorship of Tom Coughlin. (He lasted four.) He held out; he came back. In 1995 he fought a teammate, who was chastened into admitting Strahan was in the right. In 2001, he set an NFL record with 22.5 sacks in a season. He went from being scared of New York City to being one of the tri-state area’s favorite humans. If anything, the time he spent being overwhelmed by the atmosphere of New York was good practice for his future career. These days, the NFL holds a robust Broadcast Boot Camp for players who wish to learn about the industry. "We didn’t really have any broadcast boot camps," Strahan said about his time in the league. "Our boot camp was being in New York City and having the microphone in your face every day."

On Monday, Strahan and some of his Good Morning America co-hosts appeared on The Chew, ABC’s loosely food-based show. It was a case study in pure corporate synergy: Not only were the GMA folks guests on another ABC program, their segment, "Food Pyramid," was a nod to the Strahan-hosted version of $100,000 Pyramid. (Surprisingly, a trip to Disney wasn’t somehow involved.) For someone who is beamed over the airwaves and into your house six days a week, Strahan constantly insists he isn’t a publicity hound.

"I’m not a fan of all the fanfare," he told the Canton Rep in 2014. "The second the cameras go off or somebody walks up to me, I’m like this," he self-deprecated to Jimmy Fallon two weeks ago as he ducked his head. "When I was a kid and I played football and I was 7 and 8, I cried the entire game. I didn’t like the applause. I didn’t like the cheering. It scared me. I didn’t like the attention, and I still don’t in some ways."

In the past year, few inside-media topics garnered as much attention as Strahan’s awkward internal job change. Ripa — who called Strahan "addicted to work" in Men’s Journal but added that "he’s good at gauging his own exhaustion level" — was so blindsided in April when Strahan told her he was leaving for a full-time gig on Good Morning America that she failed to show up to work the next day and didn’t reappear on the program until the following week. (Disney and ABC executives later apologized to Ripa for the way the reveal went down.)

The drama wouldn’t end there. Being a professional athlete means daily back-page scrutiny, but even the hottest sports takes can seem chill compared with the sniping that goes down on Page Six. "Michael doesn’t want to do news," a Page Six source sniped in a summer item about Strahan’s increased role potentially unseating GMA’s Lara Spencer. "He’s not going to cover Libya or Brexit. … But Lara does human interest stories and entertainment, like Britney Spears or ‘a cat in a tree’ and ‘my favorite pickle!’ Michael wants to do all that."

Brian Stelter’s 2013 book Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV looked at the ongoing wars for content and ratings between GMA and NBC’s Today. Good presentation and journalism matters, Stelter wrote, but "you also do it by hoodwinking the Nielsen raters, figuring out sneaky ways to pay guests for interviews, sabotaging the competition, and spending a good deal of time and energy trying to divert attention from your stars’ sexual peccadilloes, marital problems, and monstrous personalities."

Viewed through that lens, the Page Six item doesn’t seem like much. Still, it’s a reminder that, for better and for worse, a little bit of conflict kind of makes for great TV. Dissecting Spencer’s interactions with Strahan can be a guilty pleasure. Last October she assured him, ominously, that she definitely knows how to hold a grudge. (It was in the context of Halloween pranking, but still!) Back in April, when Strahan announced his new GMA role and feigned worry, as he often does, over how he’d wake up so early, a half-kidding Spencer said: "The whole sleep thing? Just get over it, you’re going to be tired."

Strahan took the comment in easy stride; he always does. He is the ultimate in disarming: both physically imposing and impossibly affable. He’s super corny, but he’s also a Hall of Fame NFL defensive end, so it kind of evens out. He wears an apron really nicely. He is independently famous enough that other famous people are excited to be around him, and seem to regard him less as The Media than as a peer. "The whole thing is challenging," he said about working on GMA. "The live audience and the interviews with celebrity guests play more toward my strengths, but at the same time I have to work at it. It’s not natural and I have to work at it." He continues to develop his gravitas, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is neither daffy nor scoldy. It’s almost impossible to take him down.

Just as surprising as the Michael-Kelly split was how little lasting blowback, in the grand scheme of things, he really got. (I often encounter unexpected people in my life who reveal themselves to have been faithful fans of Michael and Kelly and who sincerely lament the split; no one ever really seems to take sides, it’s just regarded with a sigh as an all-around shame.) And whereas Barber is forever defined by his former affair, Strahan’s own ugly marital problems — his 2006 divorce from Jean Muggli was a pre-Twitter tabloid staple — are rarely remembered. The newest issue of People features him and his four kids on the cover.

Strahan’s new role on GMA precludes him from hawking all his usual endorsements, but he’s still allowed to promote his line of men’s dresswear at JCPenney. Following a dip while NBC aired the Olympics, Good Morning America’s ratings are back on top of its rival, Today — though it’s probably a few weeks too early to see if Strahan’s presence has moved the needle. (GMA is also experimenting with a new live-studio audience during the last half-hour.) GMA is hoping that Strahan’s presence can do for the show’s ratings what it did for Live!’s.

As always, he keeps himself busy beyond the main job, juggling multiple projects. His latest work is proof that he’s come a long way since his first television stint as a guest host of a DIY Network show that constructed sporting fixtures and mini-stadiums in people’s backyards. He is collaborating with Tom Brady and Gotham Chopra (Deepak’s son) on the six-part Religion of Sports. (Strahan has said that watching Germany react to winning the 1990 World Cup approached a spiritual experience.) The man who will be writing the Hobbs script, which centers on a former college football player becoming a buddy cop, has The Sopranos and Rescue Me on his résumé.

Working alongside him on just about all of these ventures is his longtime friend Constance Schwartz, a former NFL marketing executive and Snoop Dogg handler. Schwartz was working at an NFL celebrity golf tournament in Carlsbad, California, in the late ’90s when she and a colleague realized the executive in charge wasn’t there. "We gave Michael the microphone and a script and said, ‘Get on stage and host this event,’" she recalled, adding that she always considered Strahan one of the league’s go-to guys. "Without missing a beat, he nailed it. That skill set has only grown."

Schwartz and Strahan launched the talent-management and production company SMAC Entertainment in 2011. "Our relationship has been like brother and sister for over 20 years," Strahan said. "So to be able to work with her creatively is another blessing in disguise because we know each other well enough that we are a good team when it comes to producing together."

On his former good team, Strahan was once a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him kind of guy, moving too quickly to be stopped (or, for some poor quarterbacks, even seen). He’s still moving quickly — but these days he is nearly always doing so in the line of sight: grinning, dancing, hugging, stirring, introducing, acting a fool. During Strahan’s recent The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon appearance, Fallon had barely said hello before Strahan took over. He’d just come from St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, he said, and then launched into a story that culminated in a shout-out by name to a little girl he had met. It felt as if Strahan were suddenly hosting the show, and hey — you never know. He’s already done almost everything else.

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