Why you should care
Because you don’t have to be raised in America to dominate American football.
When Michael Strahan stepped onto the stage during his induction to the National Football League Hall of Fame in 2014, he began his speech by remarking on a theme that has pervaded his life and career. “My life is improbable,” said one of the greatest defensive ends in football history. “I am an absolutely improbable Hall of Famer.”
As Strahan explains to OZY’s Carlos Watson on this Friday’s episode of Breaking Big (airing on PBS at 8:30 p.m. EST), there was a lot that was improbable about a chubby kid who rose from playing college ball at tiny Texas Southern University to dominate the NFL with a gobsmacking 141.5 sacks over a 15-year career. And perhaps the most improbable part of that journey was the place where Strahan grew up: Mannheim, Germany. A U.S. Army brat, Strahan spent much of his childhood in Germany, where his father was stationed. It was not exactly a feeder nation for professional football players, but Strahan’s years there nonetheless helped shape the self-made player he would become.
I’m just a figure-it-out type of person.
Strahan, who has five siblings, was 9 years old when his father, Gene, a major in the Army, was transferred from Houston to Mannheim. Every Tuesday during football season, Gene would wake up his young son at 3 a.m. to watch Monday Night Football on Armed Forces TV (the two jokingly referred to the broadcast as “Tuesday Morning Football”). Strahan says his parents, who lived in Germany for 19 years, came to love the lifestyle there, and he has two older brothers who still live in Europe. But when it came to youth football — of the American sort — there weren’t a whole lot of options or much competition, and as a result, Strahan gave up on playing the game he loved for a few years.
Still, thanks to his father, an Army boxer who once beat a future heavyweight champ, Ken Norton, while Norton was in the Marines, Strahan continued to train to pursue his football dreams as a teenager. Father and son went to the gym together to work on strength and conditioning and took long runs in the local forest. “In the summertime he’d wake up at 5 in the morning,” says Strahan, “and say, ‘Let’s go running,’ and every morning we’d go into the woods in Germany, and we’d hit that trail.” The prize for a race well-run? A large bottle of Gatorade. “That was enough motivation,” he reflects. But there was also a long-term reward: Strahan attributes his stamina during his professional career to the lung capacity he built up in those daily workouts with his father.
And it wasn’t just his father who was responsible for young Michael’s athletic prowess. His mother, Louise, a basketball and track star in her day, not only passed down her good genes to her son but also coached his youth basketball teams in Germany. “When your mom’s the coach,” Strahan jokes, “it’s almost worse than your father. Usually you can go cry to your mama, [but] my mom was like, ‘Well, you decided to be out here. Get yourself up and go finish the job.’”
The summer before his senior year in high school, Strahan returned stateside to live with his uncle Art, a former pro footballer himself, in Houston. The 6-foot-5 defensive end played just one season of American high school football that fall before returning to Mannheim in the spring to graduate, but his performance on the field was enough to catch the eye of nearby Texas Southern University, which offered him a scholarship. And, after four years and 41.5 sacks in college, Strahan was selected in the second round of the 1993 NFL draft by the New York Giants, where he became a Hall of Famer before embarking on a second highly successful television career, including stints as a Fox football analyst and co-host of Good Morning America.
Strahan, 46, says he has lost a lot of his German-language skills but maintains a love of cars that he picked up in Mannheim, where Carl Benz, who patented the first motorcar, had his workshop. Growing up with American football dreams in Germany also helped him learn something else about himself. “I’m just a figure-it-out type of person,” reflects Strahan. “When I came from Germany to Houston for one year of high school, I didn’t know what I was doing. When I went to college, I really didn’t know what I was doing.… But, you figure it out along the way, and hopefully by the end of it … you look back and you go, ‘OK. Hey, that worked out pretty good.’”