Somewhere between chartering the first transcontinental railroad, establishing the US National Banking System, and paving the way for slavery’s end with the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln reportedly once said, “Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.”
It’s unclear if retired NFL superstar and beloved television personality Michael Strahan could have mustered the moxie required to hold the Union together with little more than a stovepipe hat and a chin curtain beard, but we’re pretty certain the 44-year-old Strahan has always packed more pow in a gridiron bull rush than our esteemed sixteenth President.
If the juxtaposition of Honest Abe and The All-Star Once Known as BOB (more on that in a moment) seems a touch outlandish, then you probably don’t know the two greatest, most irrefutable commonalities shared by these men: 1) they have large feet (size 14, to be exact), and 2) their postulations on happiness are virtually analogous, as evidenced by Strahan’s just released book, already a bestseller, Wake Up Happy: The Dream Big, Win Big Guide to Transforming Your Life.
In other words, happiness is a choice we make every time we open our eyes to the world.
It’s a fundamental axiom the Super Bowl champion and Pro Football Hall of Famer matriculated in his itinerant, globe-trotting youth as the youngest of six children born to an Army Major and a basketball coach. If Strahan, then quite literally a stranger in a strange land, a pudgy preadolescent with two left feet and a battered pigskin ever in has hands, gallivanting about European countries that also know a thing or two about blitzkriegs. (Strahan holds the NFL record for the most quarterback sacks in a single season: 22.5 epic stomps in 2001). Guided by his father, Gene, Strahan’s oft professed role model, the young man realized a simple truth: if he focused on his discomfort or the things that were not perfect in his life, then he had almost universally negative experiences in the day, but if he shifted his perspective to all that was good in his world, then he was suddenly walking on the sunnier side of the street.
In Wake Up Happy – its writing superhumanly scheduled between his daily gig with Kelly Ripa on the hit morning show, LIVE! with Kelly and Michael; regular on-air analyst and reporting duties at NFL Fox Sunday and Good Morning America; the launch of his own media production company and its first feature film, the Showtime documentary, Play It Forward, which conveys the richly emotional, inspiring tale of two brothers, famed football tight end Tony Gonzalez and his older sibling, Chris, a firefighter who suffered a staggering injury that kept him from pro ball; not to mention the design and development of “Collection by Michael Strahan,” a line of stylish, tailored men’s suits and accessories for JC Penney – Strahan shares how he’s developed the homespun wisdom of his father into 18 principles by which we might all discover our very own bliss. It’s not likely to be quoted as often as The Gettysburg Address, but Strahan’s book will almost definitely change the ways you see the world.
One of the book’s basic premises is that aspiration and perspective are key qualities to a happy life, right?
Yes! I think the best way to be better every day and to be happy every day is to challenge yourself every day – in big and small ways. I consciously do my best to wake up happy. That’s a choice. I aim to live a life of gratitude. That’s also a choice. No matter what I’m doing – working, chores around the house, hanging out with friends – I focus all of my energy on being happy while I’m doing it. As for what you should do, everybody is different, but the best way to better yourself is to challenge yourself to be better. How exactly? That’s up to you to decide.
The first “rule” in the book is especially simple and perfect: “Remain open to everything.” When did that piece of wisdom come to you?
My parents raised me to be open to anything and everything. They instilled in me my morals, but they also encouraged me to grow, learn, and experience all that life has to offer. Growing up on an Army base in Germany, I learned a lot about different cultures and different ways of life. Then, when I went to Houston for my senior year of high school, having grown up in another part of the world, I suddenly felt like a fish out of water. My parents sent me to live with my aunt and uncle so I could play football. My dad told me that I would get a scholarship to college for playing football, and so I didn’t ever really question him. He believed in me, so I believed in myself. I didn’t fit in at first in Texas, but I think that was actually a good thing because I had to learn to become confident in my own skin. Life is full of moments, how you react and how you let them affect you is up to you, but I choose to take things as they come and figure them out along the way.
“Football was everything (in my youth),” you write in the book. “There was no Plan B.” It sounds so simple, devoting all of ourselves to fulfilling The Big Dream, but we’re often told we should have a back-up plan – almost as if we should expect to fail at what we really want.
If you have a Plan B, then you’re already doubting yourself. If you really believe in something, there simply is not another option. I’m not sure where I would be if football hadn’t worked out, but I feel that I would have been just as successful in whatever I was doing as I was at football. I truly believe that things always work out the way they are meant to. If you have a plan, it doesn't just happen without hard work and dedication. You have to be willing to go further than everyone else. That kind of hard work given to Plan A is much smarter, I think, than trying to figure out a Plan B.
Plan B is probably not very important to someone who seems to have an infinite number of Plan A’s. In addition to the hosting gigs, the Showtime film, and the book, you also launched your own line of men’s suits at JC Penney in September. Why was that important to you?
I’ve always been into fashion and have wanted to start my own clothing line — that would reflect my style and offer more sleek and contemporary options for the guys that like to dress up a bit. I wanted to make it affordable too.
How closely were you involved in the collection’s design?
I worked closely with the teams throughout the entire production process. I was involved with and influenced the designs and assisted with color and fabric choices. I wanted to offer a clothing line that had true quality, that was fresh and current, and that was affordably priced. Every man should be able to look good in a suit.
You’ve stated that there are three fundamental qualities required to live a happy life: mental discipline, positive thinking, and a sense of play. What does that look like in your life?
It’s important to grow up and mature, but I will always be a kid at heart. No matter what you’re doing, it should be fun. If you’re not having fun, then what’s the point? You have to find a sense of play in everything that you do, so I surround myself with fun people. My team at work is vibrant and upbeat and it creates a positive environment. It makes work not feel like work because I’m genuinely enjoying myself. The reality is that there are a lot of awful things happening in the world. We all know that. But on the flip side, there are also a lot of great, wonderful, amazing things happening. It’s important to be aware of the troubles, but I choose to focus my energy on the good. I think it’s very easy to let our surroundings become toxic and negative, but it’s up to us to adjust that. That choice is nobody’s fault, but our own. You create your own joy and nothing and nobody can rob you of that — unless you let them. So I’ll make it even simpler than three rules. (Laughs) I’ll make it one: Keep your joy.
The book’s Prologue includes a quote from Will Rogers about the power of knowing, loving, and believing in what we’re doing. But what if we don’t know, love, and believe in what we’re doing?
You have to find what makes you happy. You have to. And then do that. It’s quite simple. Fear is complicated; it’s good and bad. Fear is bad when we let it dictate our lives and prevent us from reaching our fullest potential, but it’s great when it pushes us to overcome and achieve. You have to take risks in life, educated risks, but risks none-the-less. Prepare as if every day is the best day of your life and be open to what comes your way. You know the saying, “You get what you give?” Well, I also think it means that what energy you put out into the universe is the energy you attract. If you’re negative all the time, you’re going to attract negative situations. If you’re thinking positively – if you are hopeful and you are happy – you will attract the good.
What’s more nerve-wracking: coming back for one final season of pro ball with hopes of earning a championship ring, as you did in 2007, or repeatedly auditioning for Regis Philbin’s chair next to Kelly Ripa on LIVE!?
Oh, auditioning for LIVE! was way more nerve-wracking than heading into my final season of football because I didn’t know at the time it would actually be my final season. Every football player wants to win the Super Bowl, but not everybody does. I had been playing the game for so long, performing on the field was second nature for me. It’s not that it was easy; but every single part of me knew every single thing I could do and that I needed to do in that game. Auditioning for LIVE! was way less familiar to me, so it was more challenging and more nerve-wracking.
What’s the primary challenge in being a good morning show host?
The biggest challenge in becoming a good co-host, I think, is learning how to listen. You have to listen to what your guest is saying and let the conversation happen organically instead of forcing it into the different directions you want in order to cover all of your points. I’ve learned so much from Kelly Ripa. She is so good at what she does. I’ve learned something from everybody that I’ve worked with. Actually, I’ve learned something from everybody I’ve ever spent time with. I am constantly learning and growing. I love that.
Because you apparently have more hours in a day than the rest of us, you’ve also moved into film and television production. Showtime just premiered Play It Forward, the remarkable documentary you produced about the NFL’s Tony Gonzalez and his brother. How did that film come to be?
I have known Tony since he was a rookie. He’s an incredible athlete and an even more incredible human. I loved being a part of Play it Forward because it’s not really a story about football; it’s a story about family and sacrifice, things we can all relate to in some capacity. The relationship that Tony and his brother have is a relationship we all have, hopefully, with someone in our lives. The sacrifices and the challenges they go through are things we all have to face at some point. I find that so inspiring. It was so satisfying to watch the finished film with Tony and his family and to see their reactions to something that will be around forever and tells their story. I hope everyone is as moved by their story as I am.
In your legendary NFL career, you are the sack master, probably the greatest defensive end in the history of the game. Have there been times in your Hollywood career where your football skills have paid off?
Playing in the NFL for 15 years helped me develop a lot of skills I employ today. I learned a lot about having a serious work ethic, self-discipline, time management, and having fun. These are skills that have not only carried into my television career, but my personal life as well. I've never wanted to sack anyone in the entertainment industry. (Laughs) I left that on the football field.
When you were a teenager, like so many other young men of the era, you had a, uh, “special” relationship with Jane Fonda and her aerobic exercise videos. On the tape, she’d ask you to “make it burn” with 20 leg lifts, but you’d do 50 instead. What’s that all about?
Why would I do 50 leg lifts when she only asked for 20? I was really determined to lose my childhood nickname, “BOB” — which stood for “Booty On Back.” You can achieve anything you set your mind to. It was so amazing when Jane was a guest on LIVE! and we actually worked out together. I told her all about how I worked out to her tapes, which she loved, but she was also very surprised that a Super Bowl champion used her tapes to get fit and ready for the NFL. I’m not kidding; she truly changed my life!
You’ve been known to spontaneously burst into song, and then you set the Lip Sync Battle bar on Spike TV impossibly high for other performers earlier this year. Is there any chance we’ll get to hear more of your singing any time soon?
Probably not – unless you wander into the right karaoke bar at the right time. I am a master of karaoke. I’m a genuine crowd-pleaser, so sometimes it’s a little classic hip-hop, sometimes its Top 40, sometimes it’s the whole singer-songwriter vibe. I do it all!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My dad always said to me, “When. . .not if.” When I get a scholarship to college. When I get drafted in the NFL. When I win a Super Bowl. When I get into the Hall of Fame. When I get LIVE. It was never “if.” He always believed in me, and that never allowed for any doubt. I always believed in myself — because I knew he believed in me.
So is there anything you can’t do?
I can’t think of something I can’t do. . .(Long pause) I’m kidding! (Laughs) Of course there are things I can’t do! But I focus on the things I can do and I try to do them as best as I can.
Michael Strahan’s Recipe for Joy (additional ingredients)
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. “It teaches love, community, triumph, and tragedy – things we all need to learn.”
The Matrix. “If you believe you are 'The One,’ then you can be.”
Michael Jackson’s Thriller. “It’s just perfection – and it completely changed the world’s of music and music video. He made everything into art.”
South Africa. “Beautiful people. Beautiful country. All things there are natural. The plant life, the animals, everything untouched, in its natural environment – how it was intended to be.”
Chicken Cordon Bleu. “Every weekend, I’d have dinner with my parents and that was my favorite dish – maybe because we always had such a great time together.”
Tequila and Ting (a Caribbean soft drink made with Jamaican grapefruit juice). “Delicious, sweet, and subtle.”
A Nice Watch. “To complement a great-looking suit, or even on casual days, a nice watch is the finishing touch on the masterpiece you’re going to be that day.”
A Work of Art. “There are some great works of art in the world, but if I’m going to name a work of art that’s life-changing, I’d have to say, ‘Me!’ (Laughs) My parents are better than Picasso!”