Strahan One of NY's Greatest Sports Leaders

Michael Strahan tied for 203rd in the NFL with 57 tackles in 2007. He tied for 19th with nine sacks. There were key moments of games in which you looked up and saw him standing on the sideline. By the end, he was the third best defensive end on the team.

Oh, and another thing, he was the most important player not named Eli Manning in the Giants' run to their third Super Bowl championship.

There is a number we can always put next to Strahan's name: 141.5. That is the number of sacks for the Giants' career leader. But even that digit only begins to explain Strahan's impact. When he heads to Canton on the first ballot, Strahan's presenter can sum up the big man's career in one sentence:

He is one of the greatest leaders in New York sports history.

I was far from the locker room when Lawrence Taylor or Harry Carson roamed the halls. But it's hard to imagine anybody exerting the kind of influence that Strahan did for most of his 15 seasons.

LT took over games. Strahan took over locker rooms. Teammates didn't just follow Strahan. They worshiped him. Many of them were attached to Strahan's hip, guys such as Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora who learned how to become pros, then stars, while sharing the right quadrant of the locker room with No. 92.

It's why when Strahan finally called it quits, you heard from players such as Tuck who summed up the lessons learned from Strahan quite simply: "Everything.''

He was everything to an organization that suffered through bumpy times since getting blown out by the Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV more than seven years ago. The exasperating playoff loss to San Francisco in January 2003. The final pitiful Jim Fassel season that followed. The 2004 season when Strahan and others struggled to accept Tom Coughlin's militaristic style. Consecutive first-round playoff losses the following two seasons.

But Strahan and Coughlin found a middle ground and their relationship eventually, if not amazingly, blossomed. Once it did, once Strahan and Coughlin realized how much each of them cared, you just knew the rest of the team would meet Coughlin halfway as well. The Giants didn't begin their Super Bowl run with a 24-14 wild-card win at Tampa Bay. They began the greatest season in team history by developing a tight bond during an uneven regular season.

Not until the playoffs did we begin to understand the value of this team's chemistry. That hidden ingredient became the Giants' rallying cry as they proceeded to topple over every opponent in its own building. None of us thought it was possible. Even Strahan wondered if it could be done. But by the time New England joined the Giants in Glendale, Ariz., they fully expected to drop the zero from New England's gaudy record.

Other guys played leadership roles: Antonio Pierce, Amani Toomer and Sam Madison to name three. But just about everyone relied on Strahan, not necessarily on the field but always when situations grew tense or uneasy.

"He loved the locker room; he loved the weight room; he loved his teammates,'' Coughlin said. "He saw the big picture and he worked extremely hard to keep everyone in the locker room on the same page.''

Only Strahan could skip training camp and still have his best season as a leader. His motives for staying away from Albany were questionable at best. Yet while the media were fairly bent out of shape at Strahan, and I was as incredulous as anyone, teammates continued to speak about him with reverence. They elected Strahan a captain upon his return, and Strahan headed up Coughlin's leadership council that acted as a buffer between the head coach and players.

I was always amazed at the level of respect Strahan commanded while teammates barfed in the 90-degree heat of Albany. I never understand why he couldn't reach a decision on retirement before the draft to smooth the team's blueprint. I've seen his perpetual smile for the cameras suddenly turn to a snarl when the red lights went off. Strahan offered no apologies despite being dead wrong for bullying ESPN's Kelly Naqi two seasons ago despite Naqi asking a reasonable question. And his very public divorce proceedings made you wonder how he played off the field.

But then, I didn't watch Strahan sweat daily through 15 seasons, didn't sit through meetings with him, didn't have the opportunity to absorb his lessons from a few lockers down, didn't see the effort he put forth in practice each day. Some of us didn't fully appreciate Strahan until we saw the work he did in his final season. But if you ask anyone inside the organization, Strahan was putting a fitting capper to a special career.

"I think if you saw the way he conducted himself this year way above and beyond being team-first,'' Coughlin said, "he was team-first all the way in everything that he did. The message that he sent to the younger players, the people in his group, was a great message.''

You didn't usually see Strahan passing knowledge to his cubs. He loosened the class system by breaking chops relentlessly and absorbing return volleys playfully. But everybody in that locker room knew where to go for advice. Strahan's cubicle was in the far right corner as you walked into the door. His office, however, spread across the spacious room, an open-door policy for anyone wearing Giants blue.

Tuck and Umenyiora and veteran Renaldo Wynn still make defensive end a strength of this team, and coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will continue to create sleepless nights for opposing quarterbacks.

But there is no replacing Strahan. He was Mark Messier but for a decade. Strahan was Derek Jeter with a voice.

So when you put it all together, the leadership and the sacks and the run defense and don't forget the longevity, Strahan was among the top five Giants of all-time. I can think of only four better defensive ends in NFL history: Deacon Jones, Reggie White, Gino Marchetti and Jack Youngblood.

Strahan is like many athletes, and many people, an anomaly who is hard to decipher. It's much easier to measure his contributions to the Giants. Strahan led the Giants to the greatest upset in Super Bowl history. And he led them to many, many wins before that.

Kevin Gleason covers the Giants for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y.


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