Michael Strahan on going from Giants to GMA: "When you're successful, people don't see the failure"

The TV host appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss his part in "More Than an Athlete," backing HBCUs & life off-field

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published September 30, 2021 5:13PM (EDT)

Michael Strahan (The Michael Strahan brand)
Michael Strahan (The Michael Strahan brand)

"Oh, D! I heard you on NPR! I looked you up!" Rob screamed from the other side of the gym. "I didn't know you were so inspiring with so many ideas! Sheesh! I'm still in disbelief!" 

I was at an overpriced fitness club in downtown Baltimore. For years I've known Rob as a slow, but snappy defender who had a solid corner jump shot, if he was wide open. And for years he has never said a word to me, other than "Foul!" Even when all of the guys at the gym would talk about sports or politics on the sidelines between games, Rob never really acknowledged me or any of the other Black players who weren't Toms. I wasn't offended because I didn't really want his attention, and kind of wrote him off as one of those guys who thinks that all people who look like me are the same –– so pardon my shock at his happiness and new fandom. 

"D, we have to go out for a drink one day. There's so much I want to pick your brain about," Rob continued. "I felt everything you said. I just don't know where to start."

I gave Rob my number and told him to give me a ring, even though I had little free time, and even less interest in answering his questions or hearing what he had to talk about at. For what it's worth, Rob was not the first. Now I'm no Jordan, not even close, but I was one of the better ballplayers at that gym during this particular time and was used to getting a cold vibe from guys like Rob. I don't want to speak for Rob because I don't know what's in his heart; however, I was nice to him, as I am nice to most people for years. He was always extremely short with me, master of the one-word answer. I imagined he believed that I did not have much to talk about, that I played basketball all day and went home to whatever stereotypical world he dreamt up. Now that he had the opportunity to see and hear me on multiple public forums, I appeared to be different, worthy of his time, and not like the rest of the lanky Black guys who run ball at the gym.

That is a Black experience, and one that NFL Champion and Hall of Famer, Michael Strahan knows very well.

Many know Michael Strahan from his days as a New York Giant and most recently an award-winning co-host of "Good Morning America." In a time where many professional athletes make the news for their off-field antics, especially after retirement, Strahan has constructed one of the greatest second acts in sports history and deserves to be mentioned with the likes of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan when talking post-pro sports career success. Millions of people start their mornings off with Strahan, and he works extra hard to deliver not just the news, but the kind of upbeat energy working people need to make it through the week.

Strahan's unique journey in sports, and transition to "GMA" has been beautifully documented in Season 2 of UNINTERRUPTED's "More Than an Athlete" series, now available on ESPN+. I was lucky enough to discuss the series, and some of the most difficult aspects of Strahan's journey, including dark moments on an recent episode of "Salon Talks."

You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Michael Strahan here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear him reflect on his career, why he thinks Black athletes should consider HBCUs as their first option and the reality of being more famous for television than as an NFL star. 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did this whole project "More Than An Athlete" come about for you?

"More Than An Athlete" was with LeBron James' SpringHill, they did it last year, and it featured LeBron James. As we know him, LeBron is a basketball player with so many other hyphens behind that. SpringHill approached me and my business partner Constance Schwartz and asked us if we wanted to be the subject of Season 2 and so my production company, SMAC [Entertainment] teamed up with SpringHill and we made it happen.

I am actually kind of surprised and excited and honored that those guys would come to me about that because you think of all the people out there who they could have gone to, and for them to come to me means a lot because I respect them so much. We just sat down and they followed me around, talked to everybody who had the opportunity to be around me throughout my career in my life and we put this thing together. It's been a lot of fun to watch because it's just interesting to see your career through somebody else's eyes.

For me, the first thing that came to my mind was how come this didn't exist a long time ago? Mainly because I think when a lot of times when people think about Michael Strahan, you've probably had one of the best transitions from professional sports to a second act in life. I will put your transition up there with Magic. You know what I mean?


It's a beautiful transition and it's an inspiring story. One thing I wanted to ask just to kick everything off is just in general, what does that term even mean to you—"more than an athlete"?

It means that you don't settle for just the status quo. You don't settle for, you're an athlete and that's all you can do. You don't settle for the stereotype of what an athlete should be which is, people expect you to be one-dimensional. I pride myself in being able to do more than being a football player. Being able to do all the things I do now, physically is not as satisfying, glory is not as satisfying, running another man into the ground and getting the sack and jumping up is a lot more gratifying sometimes.

But just to know that I was able to transition from that guy to the guy who does a game show, delivers news, has the clothing company, a production company, all these things, it makes me even more proud because so many, especially now, don't even know me from football, which means that the transition from athlete is complete. I think being more than an athlete means literally don't limit yourself, be open to the opportunities outside of what you can physically do, show people that mentally you're as talented as you were physically on whatever playing field that you played on.

A lot of people say you had it easy, right? And you I will say this in defense of those people, I think because you're always smiling and your personality on camera, you make it look easy! Why do you think people feel like you had it easy?

You know, you may be onto something because I am smiling all the time, man. You may have given me the answer to that question I've been looking for for a long time. I think maybe that is it, or maybe people never understood my story because I came on into their consciousness at a time where I was already through a lot of that struggle that most people already know about. 

Most people probably don't know I went to an HBCU. I was at Texas Southern, man, and then to go to the pros and do what I do now, I'm always smiling because I realized that there's an alternative to doing what I'm doing, and that means not doing what I'm doing. I'm always happy and present to where I am because I appreciate where I am and where I came from and I don't lose sight of that. And I think that's why I'm always smiling and happy. Maybe that's why people don't think that I've had a tough road to get here. 

I also think that when you're successful, people don't see the failure. Even when they've seen you fail, if something works out that successful, they actually kind of forget about, "Oh yeah, that didn't work, but I ain't thinking about that because it's working for them now." And I have had a pathway to come up when it came to sports. Football was not easy for me. I didn't grow up playing football, I had to figure it out and moved to this New York City where you either sink or swim, you get swallowed up by the belly of the beast in New York. I was able to stay afloat here. 

After playing football, to be honest with you, everything I do now is gravy, and not gravy because it's easy, it's gravy because I know physically and mentally, I've done about the hardest thing anyone can ever do that I'll ever do. Everything I do now is just a blessing. I'm excited and I'm happy and I just hope people watch this and understand that it wasn't always easy, but not necessarily just to watch me, but to understand within their lives that there are going to be some challenges too. You're going to be in a place where you hope to get somewhere and you can see it down the road, the kids, and when you see it down the road, don't give up on that dream tomorrow, stay there until that dream happens in a year, in two years, in five years, in 10 years. And I think a lot of people are too short-sighted to see that. Hopefully my story will show them that short-sightedness doesn't get you where you want to go.

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New York is a beast, man. I was in New York all last week and it's like the money evaporates from your pocket. When I'm in New York, I walk up and down the street, I have to literally squeeze both of my pockets to make sure the money stays.

That's on you, man. You're living good. You're having a good time in New York. That's the problem.

I was talking to a young guy the other day, a musician, and he kept saying, he's "self-made." The first time he said it, I kind of ignored it, but then around the eighth time, I had to stop him and I said, "Well, it sounds to me like you have parents, right? Didn't they contribute?" Nobody does everything alone, everybody has people. One of the things I loved about your story is that you talk about the people who helped you along the way. You talk about the friends and the family members and different situations where people poured into you to help you get you where you are. Why is there this obsession with all of these young kids talking about they're self-made, they did it their own?

Well, I think that one thing that is, I don't know if it's taught or if it's just innate or if you learn it, is humility. And I think being humble about where you are and what you have and what your life is, but also understanding that there's no way you got there by yourself. There was someone along the way, you may have had a hard road to get there, you may have had to endure, a lot of people never had to endure, but you didn't do it by yourself. I am very aware that I didn't do this by myself. Yeah. Did I go train for football? Did I run around the field? Did I make plays? Yeah, but I had 10 other guys out there with me who were occupying other guys so that I was able to do that.

Away from football, I had coaches who encouraged me. I had business partners, my best friend, who encouraged me. I had Jay and Ian, these guys who every day throughout my life where I'm struggling or something going wrong, they're the ones who say, "Hey, pick it up, stop feeling sorry for yourself." I had my mom and my dad, two people who were the most influential people who believed in me when no one else did. You always have somebody who's helping you. I am not self-made. I am made in a piece of many people. When I say that, I mean the people that I know personally who helped me through my life. 

I'm made in a lot of ways from a lot of people that I don't even know, people that I admired. The way that they carry themselves, the way that they behaved, the way that I saw that they handled pressure, the way that they handled other people, people in my business that I look at and see how they operate and go, "That's the way people operate in this business." I am a part of them even though they may not know it. So none of us are self-made. We all have somebody who's helped us along the way. 

Earlier, you talked about going to a HBCU. As an athlete, you are a great HBCU success story. And now we're finally starting to see more players, some of the top players go to HBCUs. What do you think is going to take to make that shift?

We have Deion Sanders who went to Jackson State, Eddie George at Tennessee State. I think it's taking a lot of known players who've made their career in football or basketball or whatever it may be, to go back to these schools and attract the top talent because these kids want to see someone that they've admired or someone that they've seen on TV, who's had success. If you could have that person literally looking at you every day and coaching you and telling you the good, the bad and the ugly, and inspiring you, that's going to make it attractive.

I'm proof of that you don't have to go to a Big Ten school or an Ivy League school to be successful. We played on BET once in four years when I was at TSU, man. BET wasn't even known for football, but that was a highlight for me. And I still think back to that day like it was yesterday — just to know that you can be successful wherever you are. As long as you put in the work, these scouts will find you. 

We all talk about being prideful, about being Black and supporting being African-Americans, but when it really comes down to the nitty-gritty, a lot of the time we run from that responsibility. It's not that you're responsible to a school or HBCU, but if you have an opportunity to support an HBCU, do your best to support them. And that's all I ask for. For these kids, I understand the pressure of thinking you have to go to a larger program, but it's been proven that you don't have to in order to be successful in sports after.

I hope it continues because the schools benefit so much, especially getting that TV time.

Yeah, Deion Sanders at Jackson State is on ESPN. I'm like, "I don't have to go to ESPN 25, I can go to ESPN without all the numbers behind it." That's a major achievement.

Deion, he's turnt in the locker room. Sometimes I think he wants to put the jersey back on. 

Trust me, Deion will tell you he can put that jersey on. Deion would stub his toe and he'll be out. Deion is not running anybody down anymore.

Are you more famous from "GMA," or are you more famous from playing for the Giants?

Different types of fame. There's football fame, where you walk down the street and every man and young kid you see, "Hey, Michael, how about the Giants? Thank you for that Super Bowl." Then there is "GMA" famous, which is walking into a grocery store, going into a Mom & Pop even in the middle of nowhere and you walk into a place and they go, "Oh my God." That's the "GMA"famous. So I would probably say post-football famous, more than football famous. Football you got on the helmet, only so many people watch football, but with "GMA" and the game shows and when I was doing "Live!" with Kelly, that just kind of opened up a completely different world where it was more mainstream.

You could teach a class on a life after football.

You know, I do like help these young kids, young chaps, I call them kids but they're young adults, but I like helping these guys, man. I want these guys to be successful and I want them to understand that, the more that I do what I do and the more guys who develop things outside of just sports, the better in this for all of us. There's the room for all of us. 

My only ask for these young guys is that to become great at what your primary job is. Don't lose sight of what your primary job is, and if you're an athlete right now, your primary job is to be a great athlete. While you are being a great athlete in your primary, you can work on your secondary businesses or your secondary jobs or go and intern somewhere, learn. Being an athlete will get you into a room, but being qualified and smart and understanding about what you're in the room for will keep you there. So don't have your name just get you in the room so that the guy who invited you in can take a picture and go home and show his boys and his kids to say he took a picture with you. Go in the room and show that you belong there and you should stay in that room. And that's how you build a career after sports.

As an athlete, you learn a lot on the field, you learn a lot from watching film, you constantly condition and train, you're building and you're working on yourself. As a journalist, how do you train? How do you get better, how do you actually work on your craft?

A lot of reading and you have to do the one thing that I hate, watch yourself. And I hate it. In football, we have a thing called self-scouting, where you watch and the coaches go back and they'll watch the last three or four or five games that you played to make sure that they're not repeating themselves, that they're not getting stale so that you know what your weaknesses are, you know what your strengths are, and that's what you have to do in television as well. I need to know what my strengths are, what my weaknesses are, what I need to work on and work on the weaknesses. Don't always work on your strengths because you know you can do that.

And I think also what's been important for me is to have honest people around you. That's the thing, have people say like, "Hey, man, you screwed that up." Or, "Why didn't you ask this? Why didn't you think about that?" You need to have people around you who push you and make you realize that you're not perfect. And for me, that's how I continue to try to get better, just watch myself, trust the people around me and wake up every day happy, man.

I bet the energy in a newsroom is way different with this administration versus the last administration. I bet even the whole flow of the day is just different. Have you learned anything about yourself over the past four years?

Yeah, that I know more about politics than I ever thought I would ever know. I know more about politics and what's going on in the government and policy than I've ever known in my life and I attribute that to "GMA" because you have to be well-rounded to be on that show, you need to know a lot about a lot of things. And I'm sitting right next to George Stephanopoulos, so it's like, I got a great resource there. I got Robin [Roberts] sitting there as a resource, so why not use them and ask them questions because they've been at this a lot longer than I have, and I'm not shy to do that. I've learned a lot about myself in terms of just how much I can take in and how much I can expand on what I know. You think you know a lot until you do a job like this and you realize that your world can be really narrow. It has really opened up my eyes to a lot bigger platform.

At a show as big as "GMA," you're going to have to cover some of the crazy things with the news that we might not always want to cover, but you have to because everybody watches and it's so big. Me being a writer, I remember maybe like the second year into the Trump's presidency, I was like, "Yo, eff this. I'm not writing about that no more." The jokes are gone, the energy is not there, I'm just going to pivot and slide in a different direction. At "GMA," you have to show everything and give good energy and something for us to look forward to early in the morning.

Well, it's tough though. It's tough because with politics you're not going to make everybody happy. You're going to have one side that doesn't like this about your program and one side that doesn't like that about your program, and one is going to be happy, one is not going to be, but I think all you can do is tell the truth and let people decide for themselves. And I think that's what we do at "GMA," we just tell the truth of what's right in front of us. And you can't get away from it, and I think the news cycle has changed a lot over the course of this presidency because now, we used to dedicate so much time to politics because there was always a quote, always something that made you go, "That's unbelievable." And now it's settled down, kind of like what it used to be, where politics gets a smaller chunk and then we go on to what's happening around the country and the world. I think it definitely, the vibe has changed. I'm not saying it's an easier news cycle, but it's a lot more emotionally manageable news cycle.

Please tell everyone where they can see the show and the series.

"Good Morning America," 7 to 9 a.m. every day on ABC. "$100,000 Pyramid," we just had our finale. And "More Than An Athlete" on ESPN+.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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