Strahan back after rocky year

ALBANY, N.Y. -- They shared space on the New York tabloid covers, two tough guys with tempers paying a price with the most public of humiliations. Michael Strahan found his failing marriage fodder for enterprising photographers and gossip hounds, an invasion of family matters that besieged a football star the way it usually does a Hollywood leading man.

So yes, it made the New York Giants star study Russell Crowe walking out of a Manhattan police precinct this summer, the paparazzi shooting furiously, the television lights burning bright. The scene downright mesmerized him. Strahan admired the actor, even if he didn't admire Crowe's telephone toss at a hotel clerk's head, which landed Crowe in that situation.

In a time of trouble and turmoil, Strahan found a source of inspiration in the strangest of moments.

"One thing I can say about Russell Crowe is that when he walked out of that jail house, that sucker had his head up," Strahan said. "He was taking responsibility. He was acting like a man about it. You don't walk around with your head down. I don't want to see some guy walking [out] with a jacket over his head."

Whatever damage Strahan has done to his reputation, whatever uncertainty surrounds him returning from a 2004 season-ending pectoral tear, Strahan has come into New York Giants training camp with his jaw jutted out, his disposition defiant. Though this button-down organization may wish the Giants' image belonged instead to the iron fist of Tom Coughlin and the golden arm and aw-shucks persona of Eli Manning, Strahan is still the highest-profile Giant.

Strahan has always been his own man here, always been dominant at defensive end and determined to never be labeled one of the "Yes men" the NFL tries to spit out on Sundays. In past years, Strahan has had a nasty contract clash with management, which included the Giants' other star, Tiki Barber, calling Strahan out as essentially greedy, creating a locker room gulf. Ultimately, Strahan got his contract, but things never seemed the same between him and the organization.

And then last year, a nasty saga waged when Coughlin used Strahan to send a message to the rest of the team that no one would be immune from the coach's rigid rules. Coughlin fined Strahan for failing to arrive at a team meeting early enough. Strahan, and other members of the team, resented Coughlin's cold, distant coaching style.

Now Strahan swears there's common ground with Coughlin, insisting, if even unconvincingly, "I get along great with him. It's not standoffish. It's not confrontational. It's not uncomfortable. We're on the same page, and that's on the page of winning."

Nevertheless, Strahan has always played his best football when he's convinced himself that all the forces are working against him. Remember, he was never a high school football star. He spent several years growing up on American military bases in Europe, and played his college ball at Texas Southern, where there were no fancy scholarship offers awaiting him. Thirteen seasons ago, he was a second-round pick of the Giants, back when Lawrence Taylor still wore the uniform.

Somehow, this feels like the camp in which he's starting over again, and nobody knows what they're going to get out of Strahan. At 33 years old, this is the cold truth of the NFL. Strahan has always felt it's been a little colder for him and has used that as motivation, convincing his mind and body he's still a long-shot kid.

"Every year I show up here and always the same questions," Strahan grumbled. "I've been here with some great players, some good players and I've seen some guys who weren't so good who got so much leeway. For me, if I don't get a sack a game, or if I only get one sack in a game [there's something wrong].

"People are waiting to see that slippage, because once they see that slippage, then I'll be going through the reverse situation of [Terrell Owens]. They'll be asking me to take less."

Strahan is still an immovable force in the Giants' locker room, still the most powerful presence. Barber is the most popular. Jeremy Shockey is the most enigmatic. Strahan is simply the most compelling character, the Giant with the longest-running star.

Strahan was asked if it ever felt like there was a greater appreciation for his Giants career elsewhere in the NFL than close to home.

"Sometimes, yeah," he said. "My greatest respect comes around other players in the league, or how many times the head coach comes up and finds me on the field after a game. That's the biggest honor. The offensive linemen say [on the field], 'In our meetings, all we did was worry about you.' That's the biggest compliment."

He's making a good case for Canton, Ohio, even if some of the sportswriters will have to grudgingly give him his due on voting day. The Giants are rebuilding with Manning, and there are no assurances they'll be a contender again while Strahan is still able to dominate games by chasing down quarterbacks and ball carriers. The Giants made some moves over the winter, including adding free-agent receiver Plaxico Burress and offensive lineman Kareem McKenzie to help make Manning a winning quarterback sooner than later.

Still, the Giants have emphasized defense for the past decade, and mostly that means they've emphasized Michael Strahan. There will be no jacket pulled over his head, no hiding. Strahan is coming out of the most tumultuous time of his professional and personal life, and running straight at a quarterback near you.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His best-selling book can be purchased at Amazon.com at this link: The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty.