We Built This: Michael Strahan Wants To Show Black Kids They're Limitless

"I stopped waiting for people to change their perception about me. I had to change it for them."

Michael Strahan wears many hats. He’s one half of ABC’s “Strahan and Sara,” a Super Bowl champion and a Pro Football Hall of Famer, an entrepreneur, a producer, a former Army brat and a dad, just to name a few. 

It’s second nature for the world to unfairly put a label on black athletes. Strahan rejects that. Literally and metaphorically, you can’t put this 6-foot-5 Renaissance man in a box. His friends tried when they made fun of his weight as a kid. Then he got drafted into the NFL. Then, fellow businessmen and executives tried to tell him he was just a trophy pundit when he retired. Now he’s one of TV’s most infectious morning show hosts.  

“I stopped waiting for people to change their perception about me. I had to change it for them,” Strahan told HuffPost.

For “We Built This,” Strahan discusses his rise from athlete to host, activism in the NFL and being a representation of limitlessness for black kids. 

The name of this project is “We Built This.” What have you built?

I built four great kids with some help. That’s the first thing. On the other side of it, I think I, surprisingly in some ways, and I say surprisingly because I didn’t necessarily wake up and say this was a plan, but I’ve been able to build a broadcasting business from sports to news to entertainment television to hosting game shows to producing game shows.

Also, the production business, building that, Nickelodeon Kids Choice Sports Awards, amongst a lot of other things, “Joker’s Wild” with Snoop Dogg. From there, also management, managing Wiz Khalifa and Deion Sanders and Tony Gonzalez. So, just a little bit of jack-of-all-trades, and then creating businesses with Religion of Sports with Tom Brady and Gotham Chopra, to my clothing line, Collection by Michael Strahan and MSX, which is an athleisure brand, to luggage and everything.

It really amazes me when I look back and think what has been built. It’s so much stuff, but I feel like it’s still in its infancy even though it’s been successful. I love it. I think there’s just so much room to grow, and so much more to learn and so many people to meet. It’s exciting. I wake up every day excited.

You wear so many hats. What was little Strahan thinking? When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I was just the youngest of six. I was a little brother. I was BOB, Booty on Back. Big Ol’ Butt is what they called me. That made me work out. From that working out, it led me into fitness and football and all those things, but at that point, I just wanted to be successful. I just wanted to make my parents proud. I think that’s always my biggest goal is to make my parents proud. Now when you are a father, you want to make your parents proud and you don’t want to embarrass your kids.

So for me as a kid, truly, I just wanted to get to the point where I don’t have to live with my parents. That’s important. Hint hint to my kids when they get old enough. I also wanted to just do something to make them proud that they realize that I understood the sacrifices that they made and all the things that they went through that I could take care of them and give them something back.

How did you see yourself represented when you were a child?

I think the way I saw it, I always saw it, there were probably more limitations than there were opportunities. Growing up in the ’70s, you saw that there was a place but only where you were allowed to have a place. I think that’s what’s different now, that you’re able to create your own place and the possibilities are unlimited. I think that’s the great thing about being alive now is I don’t see the same limits that I saw growing up as a kid where the influence or the people you saw were only in certain roles. It was either you were in sports or in some kind of entertainment, and now you can just about do anything you want. If you’re smart and you’re aggressive and you’re willing to put in the work, you can make it work.

Your career exemplifies that limitlessness. When you look back, you’re regarded as one of the best defensive ends to play. You’re in the Hall of Fame. You have [a] Super Bowl ring. You know all of this. But as you reflect on your football career now at this specific time in your business career, what would you say your biggest lesson was?

Teamwork. Actually, sometimes I forget I even played football. It seems like so long ago because of all these other things that have happened. It seems like I have lived two or three different types of lives, but football taught me hard work, first of all. There’s nothing harder in my life that I think I’ll ever do than playing football because physically it’s more than that. Physically you are beat up. You are all those things, but the mental challenges are the ones you have to overcome, because when you’re so tired, you’re so beat up and you’re so sore, and you have to put on those pads and go out there and hit somebody, and you have to run when you think you can’t take another step, you have to breathe when you think you’re just going to pass out and drop, and that is what’s required of you to get your job done. I just know there’ll be nothing else to push me to the limit mentally and physically like football, which makes everything else that I do now seem easy. I hate to say easy, just like easy, but when I compare to what I used to do, man, I’ll take this every day of the week.

I wake up, I’m not sore. Nobody’s blaming me for winning or losing nothing. I can wake up and have a smile on my face, and I go to work with gratitude because I understand the other side of it is extremely tough. And teamwork. It’s not all about you. You don’t win it by yourself. You don’t have success in business or success in TV or anything by yourself. There are a lot of people behind the scenes who prop you up to make you look great. You have to acknowledge that, because when you think it’s all about you and you’re a genius and you’re the smartest, downfall probably doesn’t come too far behind those thoughts.

Within the past couple of years, we’ve seen Colin Kaepernick and so many other players kneel in protest of police brutality in America. What is your take on the intersection of activism in football and the current protests going on today?

I think activism extends beyond football. It extends beyond sports. You’ve always had the activists who’ve been actors. You’ve always had the activists who’ve been athletes who always had those things. I think now with the news cycle and the way that things are put out there now, you get a lot more, I guess, publicity out of it.

Now you have a bigger voice, a stronger voice from it. I think what Colin’s doing is he sacrificed his career for people who he doesn’t know. He saw something he thought was an injustice and he decided, “Hey, this is my way of protesting.” I don’t think he knew it was going to catch on like it did, but he started a conversation that needed to happen. The whole idea of it was hijacked to make it seem as if he didn’t love his country because of the flag and all these things. That’s not the case. I think if you followed this from the beginning, you understand that he did it because he wants to bring awareness to social injustice that’s happening to minorities.

You’ve got to say it’s really amazing for him to do that now because, in this day and age, what is everybody worried about? Everybody’s worried about image. Everybody’s worried about money. Everybody’s worrying about being liked. He said, “I don’t care about those things.” That’s why I don’t think you have the activism that you had back in the day because now a guy’s thinking, “Ooh, I may lose a lot of money. I may lose endorsements. People may not like me. That’s how I eat. That’s how I evolve my life and live my life.”

For him, he took a chance for other people, and I think there’s something admirable about that if people understand why he did it and what the real message is behind it. My dad was in the military. We’re in a country that all these soldiers, they fought and they continue to fight for us to have the freedoms, one of them being the freedom of speech. So, I just think what he did started a conversation that we should’ve been having a long, long time ago.

I want to talk about your transition after football because you, like we said, have this endless list of professions and businesses under your belt. A lot of people believe or predict that once, especially in football, once a person retires, then they go on to become sportscasters.

You go out to pasture.

Yeah, yeah, exactly, or for the bigger names, they go on to become sportscasters and that’s it. But you expanded beyond that. Was that a goal of yours? How did that happen?

Well, I think it was something I was hoping could happen, but I didn’t necessarily think it was going to happen, especially in the way it has happened now, but when you’re done playing football, everyone thinks, oh, if you can talk and you know the game and you have a personality, then it’s natural, you talk about football. That’s what you do. But you stay in your lane because a lot of times people only want you to stay in your lane. They don’t want you to get out of a lane or go into something that they feel like you had enough of the good fairy sprinkles on you in that sport, stick over there. Don’t come over here and do something outside of it.

You have to talk yourself out of that thinking, as well, because when I retired, I was comfortable doing football. I was very comfortable doing football, but I had to tell myself, “You know what? People may see you as just a football player, but you know you’re more than that, and you’ve got to take chances.”

So for me, it was a matter of just taking chances, putting myself out there, not being afraid to fail because on the other side of failure is success, and doing things enough to become comfortable in what I’m doing right now. I think that a lot of times you box yourself in because of other people’s opinions of what a former athlete should do. I just pushed through those things. I had some great advice that said: If you see yourself as a former athlete, then everybody else is going to see you as that. You’ve got to get yourself out of that mindset.

Once I did that and was willing to put in the work to do other things, then great stuff started to happen, but nothing’s easy. I think a lot of guys who are in my position, former athletes, may see it and go, “Oh, yeah, you know, Michael’s doing that. I can do that,” or people will say, “Well, Michael’s doing that. I can do that.” Your talent or your personality or the fact that somebody likes you will help you get into the room, no doubt, but you’ve got to have the talent to stay there and you’ve got to show them that you’re willing to put in the work to stay there. If you do that, then, yes, you can have this career, but you just can’t put limits on yourself.

Yeah, but that definitely had to be challenging, especially ...

Oh, yeah. A lot of nos.

Yeah, especially being a black man. They specifically want to see you in a box.

In a box.

And now, you’ve gone on and you’ve become one of the most infectious hosts. How challenging was that for you to erase this façade or this mask that they wanted to put on you?

Well, you know you go in these meetings, right? When I retired, you go into these meetings that everybody’s like, “Oh, yeah, we’ve got to meet with you about this project.” You’re going there with the right intentions, “We’re going to meet about this project, yeah, I’m going to go in here and sell this thing,” and then you get in there and it’s pretty much a vanity meeting where they want to take pictures with you and, “Did you bring your Super Bowl ring?” That’s the first thing out of their mouth.

That stuff used to happen and I would go, “OK, I’m just in this room because they just wanted to have a picture for their wall or for their kid.” I get that in some ways, but it was frustrating, very frustrating. You are boxed in. I think as a black man, you are given certain limits, I think. I just didn’t care. I don’t care what your limits are. I don’t care what you’re putting on me. I know what I’m going to do, and I’m just not going to stop.

My dad was a major in the Army, retired paratrooper, all these other things, but growing up, my dad never said “if.” I tell people all the time that when I talk to my kids, I never tell my kids “if.” I always tell my kids “when.” So, in my mind, I’m growing up in Germany and my dad said, “Oh, you’re going to go to school and you’re going to get a football scholarship. OK. Well, when you go into the pros, OK, and when you do this and when you do that, OK.” Always think in the when.

So for me, it may not happen on my time, but it’s going to happen if I really want it to happen. I think that’s why I’ve been able to carve out all these little niche careers because I always think “when.” If it’s something I’m passionate about and I want to happen, then I just stick with it and eventually it’s going to happen, but there are challenges along the way. You just can’t give up. You’ve got to realize there are challenges. No one’s going to give you anything. I stopped waiting for people to change their perception about me. I had to change it for them. That’s when I think my career turned around.

What is your mission? 

I think my mission is to show the whole generation that’s growing up who never knew and will never know that I played any sport at all. And it’s kind of one of those analogies that I think Lou Gehrig, who one guy, Wally Pipp or something, didn’t want to play baseball that day, so Lou Gehrig went in and took his place. And then Lou Gehrig set the record for the most consecutive games ever played in baseball. Guy never got his job back because “I need a day off.”

My mission is to show people that you can, and especially kids out there, you can be whatever you want to be if you’re willing to put in the work and make the right decisions, and you cannot let someone put you in a box and make you what they want you to be. We all are individuals. We all have a mind of our own. We all have ambitions, and it’s never too late to attack those ambitions and try to make them happen.

You can do it if you’re black, if you’re any type of minority. You have the ability, but at the same time, we have to work together. When somebody makes it, don’t look and think, “Oh, well they made it. How’d they do it?” You know what? There’s one of a million jobs. There’s room for everybody. Put in the work. Reach out. Communicate with the person who you admire.

Who are the black history makers who inspire you today?

Man, there’s so many. One of my favorites ― became a good friend and somebody, I think, I watch his work ethic and everything that he’s built from the ground up, his success and the way he gives back to people with just nice gestures ― is Tyler Perry, of course. Who doesn’t love Oprah? Everybody loves Oprah.

I look at guys like Denzel Washington, who’s built this career and now just every word he says and when he really speaks about something, he really makes you think about things. He just doesn’t waste words. He uses words in an eloquent way that makes you want to elevate yourself.

I look at hardworking people, as well. I look at Kevin Hart. I look at Dwayne Johnson. I look at Kevin bringing his boys along, the plastic cup boys. I look at all those things about guys who’ve made it or people who’ve made it, and they’re trying to elevate their culture and their friends, and I love that about everybody that I named. There are so many more that I’m sure I’ve missed out on.

 

Photo shoot produced by Christy Havranek. Audio production by Nick Offenberg and Sara Patterson.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Strahan won two Super Bowl championships. It has been updated to reflect that he’s won one.

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