They played together in a nine-hole scramble at the Eagle Falls Golf Course Saturday, representing the NFL in a charity golf tournament called the Pro Sports Team Challenge. It was a pairing made in fantastic-finish heaven – John Elway, the legendary passer who walked away at the pinnacle of his profession, and Michael Strahan, the sublime sack artist who was about to do the same.
Whatever retirement notes Elway and Strahan might have compared over the weekend in the Southern California desert, they may be the only two NFL players of their era who were truly qualified to be part of the conversation. Yes, Jerome Bettis is another future Hall of Famer who went out on top, stepping away in storybook fashion after the Pittsburgh Steelers won Super Bowl XL in Detroit. But Bettis didn't make a major impact on that game in his hometown, whereas Elway (the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIII) and Strahan (the man who keyed the relentless harassment of Tom Brady) played starring roles in their teams' respective triumphs.
Elway and Strahan each spent the days leading up to his final game with a resolutely loose demeanor, a determination that the moment should be seized upon and savored because it might well be a last hurrah. But when the games ended, so did the similarities in mood.
While covering Super Bowl XXXIII for Sports Illustrated, I had the best view imaginable after Elway's epic performance against the Atlanta Falcons and Dan Reeves, his estranged former coach (who, as fate would have it, was the New York Giants' coach when Strahan was drafted in 1993). Three hours after the game, the victorious quarterback and I stood on the balcony outside his Ft. Lauderdale hotel room peering at the jubilant Broncos fans below while getting doused by the South Florida rain.
Talk about a healthy release: At one point Elway let out a jubilant yell that, while not technically part of the English language, said everything. And, for the record, I was aware then, as I am now, that it was a moment which will be very, very hard to displace from my Top Five Professional Experiences list.
Nine years later in Arizona, I didn't get that kind of amazing access to Strahan, but we did meet up at a Scottsdale bar a few nights before Super Bowl XLII, and we talked about how excited he was at a second chance in 15 years to win the NFL's biggest game. Though the 18-0 Patriots were heavy favorites, he was as confident and unfettered as anyone I've seen in that context.
But once Strahan accomplished the deed and celebrated amid confetti on the University of Phoenix stadium grass, he seemed strangely subdued – detached, almost. When I saw him in the locker room and asked how he felt, his reply was, "(Expletive), sore."
A pack of reporters arrived as Strahan emerged from the shower, and he asked them to wait until he had dressed. Normally one of the NFL's best and most engaging interview subjects, Strahan answered about 10 minutes' worth of very upbeat questions, at one point saying of his teammates, "They just play football, and they play for each other. It's the most fun I've ever had."
But his fatigued facial expression clashed with his words, and soon Strahan became visibly annoyed. Instead of answering the next question, he scrolled through his BlackBerry and said, "72 text messages – un(expletive)believable." He cut off the next question and said, "Guys, come on. I've got to go." It was odd. Yes, Strahan was one of the last guys left in the locker room, but that was hardly a new role. He seemed perplexed that, at one of the world's most hyped sporting events, so many reporters would persist in trying to quote him, the ultra-quotable star of one of the most notable upsets in NFL history.
As Strahan walked through the tunnel toward the Giants' team bus, a few reporters followed, and he kept right on complaining about the fact that he'd been detained in the first place. And at that moment I flashed back to Elway's emergence from the Broncos' otherwise abandoned locker room at Pro Player Stadium.
Save a few maintenance workers, the joint was totally empty as Elway strolled through the end zone. In a scene I would later write about for SI after he announced his retirement, John and his wife Janet made a point of taking what seemed at the time like a very slow victory lap around the field.
The bottom line was this: Elway seemed to want to stay in that moment forever, while Strahan couldn't wait to get out.
I'm not sure what significance, if any, to attach to any of this. Perhaps it's a statement about the relative mindsets of someone who is asked to be a cerebral field general for a living vs. that of a man charged with physically overpowering opponents and smacking them to the ground. Maybe it's that reporters have simply gotten that much more annoying over the past nine years – or simply that I have.
Realistically, I don't think the divergent reactions displayed by the two departing stars mean much of anything. Chances are, the two were all smiles as they hung out on the golf course last weekend, and there's no reason for them to be anything but happy whenever they look back on their glorious careers and their pitch-perfect exits.
Well, unless they show up for the next charity event and Dan Reeves is in their threesome. Then Elway may be the grumpy one.
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"Thank you for your article on Lorenzo Neal. Despite being a Chiefs fan living in Denver (identity crisis!) I have always really respected him. I'm hoping the Chiefs make a play for him – he can join Donnie Edwards in the AFC West carousel. All in all, I think the fullback position is greatly underrated. My favorite example of that is Tony Richardson. He had spectacular seasons making holes for the Chiefs, and Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson reaped the yardage. Then he goes to Minnesota, and LJ's numbers go down. And look who broke all sorts of records last year? Adrian Peterson, following a fullback named Tony Richardson. I know it's not as simple as I'm making it, and I don't want to take anything from Peterson's game, or pretend the Chiefs' offensive line didn't contribute to LJ's rise and fall of yardage. But now that Richardson is with the Jets, I'll be curious how Thomas Jones does. If he has some crazy blow out season, I'll be sold on Richardson. If it's not his play, than he might just be the best good luck charm for a running back to have … Anyhow, once again, thank you for highlighting one of those 'unsung' heroes. Fullbacks would probably never make it to the Pro Bowl if they were all treated (as Yahoo!'s sports pages do, ahem … ) as running backs. Thank God we give them their own category so we can vote greats like Neal and Richardson in."
You're very right about the underappreciated value of a great fullback. And based on what is about to go down in Trippin', I could use one about now.
"And you call yourself a sports analysts? Many teams still heavily use fullbacks, take the Raiders for instance. (The) Raiders were a run heavy team, with Justin Griffith and Oren O'Neal making major holes for the run game. Just because they aren't in the limelight, doesn't mean the position is being thrown out of the playbook. Here's my suggestion, actually research these idea's you have before putting them into the database. On a side note, the media needs to stop bashing the Raiders, tell your brethren to think before they speak/write."
Santa Cruz, Calif.
Actually, I call myself a sports analyst. Were I accurately to refer to myself as a "sports analysts," there would have to be more than one of me. As for your criticism itself, I'm not particularly confident that you actually read the column. I merely said that Norv Turner prefers H-backs over fullbacks, and that as a result Neal was on the field far less in '07 than in past years. Finally, given that the Raiders have the league's worst record over the past five seasons, I think a case could be made that my brethren and I are, in fact, thinking before speaking/writing.
"Your useless! … Go Cowboys!"
You're priceless. Go Johnny go go …
"So … you don't like Pacman? Um, who cares? Next time, don't forget to write about the parallel between Pacman Jones and Marvin Harrison, who apparently owns a gun and car that were implicated in a shooting, but doesn't seem to get the 'guilty until proven innocent' treatment that Pacman does. Yes, we all get it. Pacman has had numerous transgressions in his personal life. I think that's why his contract is incentive-laden. Call me crazy, I know. You state the obvious and then whine about it like some N.Y Giants fan. Too bad, because anyone with an ounce of common sense would see that the Cowboys are going to get at least one good year out of Pacman, and that's one year too many for the rest of the league. Ha ha!"
So if a guy helps the Cowboys win, he should be immune from criticism? Yes, we all get it.
"Its very sad the way everyone has picked on Pacman Jones. Last I heard, he hasn't been convicted of any of the charges that have been leveled against him. Not a single one! Yet he has been forced out of the NFL without any sort of due process. I thought in America we were innocent until proven guilty? Yet Pacman has been punished over and over again. And as for him calling himself a 'target,' well let me see. He's young, he's rich and most importantly he's black. And black people, even those who are neither young or rich can attest to being targeted for one reason or another. Whether it's by the police, haters or some scandalous chick looking to make a buck."
The Bronx, N.Y.
Hold on while I break out the violins and start printing that new T-shirt: "Pacman – Never Convicted, Never His Fault." Isn't it incredible how many young, rich African-Americans in the NFL (and society in general) manage to avoid constant legal run-ins despite being targeted? For the record, I never wrote that Pacman should be forced out of the NFL. I simply said I was skeptical that he will turn his life around. I'd love to be pleasantly surprised by his ability to do so.
"I enjoyed your article regarding 'Pacman' Jones and your lack of confidence in his ability to turn his life around. As far as I'm concerned, athletes and celebrities are given way too many second chances. Adam (isn't calling someone Pacman ridiculous?) was arrested six freakin' times. When I was in the Marines, if I was arrested that many times I would have been kicked out with a dishonorable discharge and probably served several years in the brig. However, here we reward this loser with a 'second' chance and millions of dollars. What a great way to set an example for the inner-city kids who idolize his behavior. These kids do not understand that an average person cannot act like this and get away with it, so they will mock his behavior and treat it as something cool. Let's get the NFL, and other sports, to get past the greed and weed these losers out and give them the life they truly deserve."
I'd like to reply, but I'm laughing too hard from thinking about Pacman making it rain at the Officer's Club to type.
"I think your comment about Tank Johnson was way off base. He wasn't out shooting anyone and had permits for every gun that he owns. You clowns in the media just happened to forget to mention that. Instead of bashing Adam Jones you should be trying to write positive things to encourage the guy. How about writing about a guy like Lenard Little, who killed someone drunk driving and then got another DUI. How about Jeremy Stevens, who just signed a contract, but has been accused of raping a young lady? I'm sorry that I defend the freedom of a person like you. Who feels the need to try and drag or keep a person down?"
SSgt Darrell W. Gunter/USMC
" 'Pacman Jones might finally be ready to turn his life and career around, but I'm just not sold at this moment.' Who cares if you are sold? Who are you?"
Uh, the guy who wrote a column that you apparently read and responded to?
"Michael, never heard of you. Are you somebody?"
If by somebody you mean "the guy to whom I'm writing," then yes.
"I read you article on Pacman Jones. Being a Cowboys fan I would be worried. With all the clubs (strip clubs at that) in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. I say give him less than three months and he will be in trouble with the law. With me saying that I am sure he will blame me for being after him. Go Cowboys!"
Mark from Denver isn't going to like this …
"I wish you would hold back your political comments about regime change in America when writing sports columns. I really do not care much about your opinions when it comes to sports. I certainly do not care, nor want to know what you think politically. Your personal opinion of President Bush has nothing to do with what you are being paid to write about. I too wish to see a regime change in our country. (I am a Bush fan, and find your statement insulting). The regime I would like to see changed would prohibit ingorant useless sports writers to spout opinions and make them get real jobs like the rest of us."
You're one of the 28-percenters? Outstanding. For what it's worth, I believe that everything is political, and there are times when I will execute my free-speech rights accordingly. If you're looking for a safe haven, try reading one of the many apolitical (and less entertaining) sports columnists at your disposal.
"Never let your politics show in your work. You tipped your hand answering a question from a soldier by stating that you hoped for a change here so they could come home. Not only did you probably insult the soldier, but many others as well, including my family members that chose to be there so soft people like you can badmouth whomever you want without any balance at all. Be a professional and keep your opinions to yourself and report facts … the reality is , your a sportswriter, which implies that you're incapable of actually doing anything constructive and nobody really cares what you think, if you do at all. If you had any credibility, it's long gone by now … replaced by contempt by many without a doubt. I won't be reading any more of your so called talent-less 'work' and will encourage others to do the same. You're a pathetic little worm that will get what's coming soon enough … Enjoy November and the smack down you Liberals are about to get."
I will definitely enjoy November. Until then, I'm going to try really hard not to cry when someone calls me a pathetic little worm.
"Due you think that sum peaple email you with intenchonal misspelings and grammer mistakes just to get you to print they're email?"
"Why do they pay you to write? At least you're stuck on Yahoo! My 10 year-old nephew has a more educated opinion on football, and I think he's slow. Anyway, way to get a paycheck for being full of (expletive)."
You did not just clown on your own nephew in an attempt to insult a columnist for the world's No. 1 sports website, Uncle John? Did you?
"Nice shot at Limbaugh – You looser! Good thing you make your living in sports because I am sure you could not in the real world."
Looser? That's tight.
"If Rush was still employed by ESPN and was not in a drug or overeating-induced coma, he'd correctly question your patriotism for even raising the subject, Mike. Then with his towering intellect, he might reason that (Nick) Kaczur and Kazakhstan kinda sound alike and that since Kazakhstan is probably full of Muslims one might infer an Iranian connection in this whole deal. Rush might also point out that California's impending overturning of the gay marriage ban may have been a factor, causing Kaczur to fear a possible trade to San Francisco in case his performance deteriorated."
I want to make one thing clear: Trippin' is, in fact, a safe haven for anyone who wants to goof on Rush Limbaugh.
"The 'Lyric-Altered Song Dedication of The Week' is always one of the first things I read in your blogs, however I wonder … do you make these 'songs' yourself?"
Yes. But imagine if I didn't. What would the person behind the scenes be called – a "ghost-rewriter"?