By HUBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2001
TAMPA -- Walking among Super Bowl athletes, you feel an overload of arrogance. A snorting wealth of self-serving egomania. Sensing far too much immaturity. Hearing repetitive stories of self-inflicted horror. Making it especially calming, fulfilling, yet amply entertaining to huddle with Michael Strahan.
An adult, realistic voice.
"I came to a conclusion that I will only play football for so long," said the 29-year-old Giants defensive end, "so I didn't want any strong possibilities that, when I retire, I might look back with regret and disgust."
Not many months ago, the gifted 275-pound stalker of quarterbacks was a frowning, disenchanted pro. His team wasn't doing well. In 1999, there evolved snarling division in the Big Blue locker room. Strahan, along with linebacker Jessie Armstead, spoke out. Assaulting the problems.
It could've backfired.
"We had done unexpectedly well in '97, but newspaper headlines by '98 said the New York Giants were falling apart," Strahan said, sitting among Super Bowl XXXV comrades. "With our players, there were 53 different minds, 53 different attitudes. That can't work."
Instead of orchestrating a disintegration, Giants coach Jim Fassel analyzed and attacked the problems. Peace and success were chased not just with a whistle and videotapes.
Strahan says defensive coordinator John Fox played a significant role in a philosophical, personalized reshaping of the team that is about to contest the Baltimore Ravens for pro football's most whopping prize.
"Coaches changed, players changed and a ballclub in search of maturity brought in wise, accomplished veterans like Lomas Brown and Glenn Parker," said Strahan, a bright and likable chap from Texas Southern with a charming gap in his teeth. "Players gave up being selfish, realizing it's not a one-man show.
"It was big when Coach Fassel relinquished his role as offensive coordinator, letting Sean Payton call plays, allowing him to be more of a full-team coach. We got to know Coach Fassel much better."
These are mostly millionaire jocks, some with movie-star fame, but there turned out to be a raging Giants need for old-time, bond-building assemblies away from the football factory.
Fassel, Fox and their coaching colony took their huskies bowling, golfing and even on a Hudson River boat trip. They twice watched the movie Gladiator with escalating fire and togetherness.
"Coach Fassel is a West Coast guy but not in the laid-back sense," Strahan said at the Wyndham Westshore, where the Giants are quartered. "There were some really unhappy players. I was one. I met with Coach Fassel and came to better understand him. Vice versa, too.
"I don't think it was necessarily me or Jessie speaking out. (General manager) Ernie (Accorsi) and coaches Fassel and Fox are smart people. They realized the necessity for changes. A need for a couple of solid veterans to enhance our team mentality. Lomas and Glenn really helped our team foundation.
"I put my raging attitude aside. We loved the boat tour, cruising past the Statue of Liberty, looking up at her and feeling a different kind of excitement. Golf was lots of fun, even though most of us aren't worth a damn at that sport. Bowling was a lot of laughs.
"It's so much more relaxed and purposeful with the Giants now. Sure, we still have a hierarchy among players, but everybody is open to joke-cracking. Rookies do it to old pros and it's okay. Coaches take their jabs. We all learned how to not be tight."
It seems so simple. Such a throwback. People change through generations, but not as much as some 2001 wizards might think. Strahan has extraordinary personal base, coming from the discipline and diversity of being an army major's son.
"My family lived 19 years in Germany," he said. "I was there nine, before going to Texas for school. I speak enough German to order food and drink, which gets me by. After leaving there, I went back every year to see my family. It's a solid background that some fellows don't have."
This season's defining Giants instant, after Fassel "guaranteed" his slumping 7-4 team would make the playoffs, was a game at Washington against Redskins who were expected to be a furious Super Bowl threat. It became a defensive fight, like XXXV could well be, coming to a climactic field-goal attempt by the 'Skins kicker of that weekend, 44-year-old Eddie Murray.
"Washington was an NFC East opponent that had been beating us too often," Strahan said. "They put 50 on us the year before. We needed that game really badly. It was 9-7, us leading. Murray lined up his kick. I said to myself, "Please don't let there be one more good one in that old leg.' He missed. We exploded. We've kept coming. Here we are in the Super Bowl."
About the Fassel guarantee, Strahan said, "Everybody in the world thought Jim had lost his mind. They figured the Giants, after losing back-to-back games, had gone crazy.
"It would be an ingenuous move. It even shocked us, the players, that our coach would stick his neck out so far. We all got caught up in a really positive spirit."
Assessing the pairing with Baltimore, the New York defensive leader said, "We're a quieter, more peaceful bunch, at least now. We're not of the Ravens mind-set. We don't have a lot of braggarts.
"About the game Sunday, some might say it'll be boring. Frankly, I like boring. I think it'll be suspenseful, a memorable drama. I know everybody loves offense but there is a beauty to seeing a wonderful, defense-dominated battle. To know if you see an early touchdown or even a field goal that it might be enough."