I can play as well as I've ever played

When you are preparing for your 15th NFL season, the grind and monotony of a forgettable June mini-camp rarely registers deeply in the memory bank. But this particular three-day event resonated with Michael Strahan, but not for anything that happened out on the field or down in the film room.

Strahan this past spring attended the mini-camp but didn't exert himself much physically, as he continues to take it slow following last year's foot injury. He did, however, feel an emotional and nostalgic tug of the heart when he saw his good buddy and former defensive partner in crime, Jessie Armstead, make an appearance for the purpose of officially retiring as a member of the New York Giants.

The finality of that moment struck Strahan, just as a recent conversation with Tiki Barber also gave Strahan reason to pause and reflect. Barber, of course, bid adieu to football and the Giants after last season, still in his prime, building a 10-year résumé that includes his status as the best running back in franchise history.

"To see Jessie on the field and think he's retired, and talk to Tiki the other day and he's talking about he's enjoying his retirement, it kind of makes you sit back and think maybe it is getting to that point where I'm long in the tooth,'' Strahan said. "But as long as I feel good and feel like I can contribute and they want me around it's hard to quit, because you love the camaraderie and the competition of it.''

Not an NFL dinosaur just yet, Strahan at 35 years old knows he's not far from football extinction. He took a look at Armstead, who is merely one year his elder, and realized that Armstead's legs gave out and he hadn't played in an NFL game in four years. As long as ageless punter Jeff Feagles is on the scene, Strahan is not the oldest member of the Giants. But in terms of seniority with the Giants, no one has been around longer than Strahan, no one intertwined as deeply into the fabric of the organization.

But that doesn't mean he is always treated with great reverence.

"[Linebacker] Reggie Torbor just said to me 'Did you play with Steve DeOssie?' '' Strahan revealed. "He said 'Well, his son is here. When they're signing up sons of guys you played with, it's time for you to quit.' He could be right.''

Indeed, Steve DeOssie's last year with the Giants was 1993, Strahan's rookie season, and now 23-year-old Zak DeOssie is a new teammate. The old defensive gang is long gone. Barber is retired. Other than Amani Toomer -- who is coming back from knee surgery for his 12th year with the Giants -- there's no one left to share stories about Lawrence Taylor and Dan Reeves, much less George Young or Dave Brown or even Jim Fassel.

Keeping his body and mind in shape for the grind grows more difficult each year.

"I woke up this morning thinking, 'I don't know if I can do it again,' '' Strahan said. "But when I get here and you get out there on the field and you see everybody running around, I feel like if I'm not here, what else am I going to do? I feel like I would miss it more than I would hate being here.''

After playing in every game for five straight seasons (and missing only three games in a 10-year span) Strahan has missed 17 games the past three years. There was a torn pectoral muscle in 2004 and last season's Lisfranc mid-foot sprain. Strahan was able to avoid foot surgery but he knows all eyes will be on him to see if he can regain the form that produced 132.5 sacks (tied with LT for the franchise record) and made him a sure-fire future Hall-of-Famer.

He's preparing for his 15th Giants season -- which will tie the franchise record held by Mel Hein and Phil Simms -- knowing it will be difficult to reach the heights he once soared to with regularity.

"I feel like I can have my best year this year," Strahan said. "I feel great. If I pop on the film, I can still show you why I'm the best at what I do. It's my opinion. To be 14, 15 years in the league and still have to get double-teamed and still play the run better than I've ever played it and better than anybody at my position ... usually at 14 years in the league they sit you on the bench and tell you to watch that young guy and tell him what he's doing wrong. I still get treated out on the field with the same respect I was five, 10 years ago. That's the ultimate compliment to me. I know that now people are going to say, 'How's he going to be?' My goal is to go out there and make them do what they used to do, which is double-team me and challenge me.''

Strahan continues to be paid ($4 million this season) like a star defensive end but surely the Giants will seek to reduce that financial obligation if he once again breaks down. He is using his health issues as motivation. Once training camp arrives, Strahan will participate in only one practice per day, as the Giants do not want to put too much stress on a foot that has to endure constant pounding.

"Coming back from the injury – I enjoy it, because it's a challenge," Strahan said. "After so many years, sometimes you lose out on challenges. This is a challenge to myself. When I came back from the pec injury, it was not only could I play, but could I play at 250 pounds. Now the challenge is, can I come back and play and play on a bad foot 15 years into it and still try to be a Pro Bowl-type, All-Pro player. That's my personal challenge for this year, my motivating factor.

"I hurt my pec and the next year I came back and made the Pro Bowl and played great. And I wasn't anywhere near as strong as I am now and probably not in the shape that I am now. And I have two years more experience added under my belt. I feel like I can play as well as I've ever played.''

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