As the son of a man who supported nine children on a custodian's wage, Gene Strahan was going to raise his own family around the virtues of an honest day's work. He was ambitious enough to earn a college degree, strong enough to command an Army unit of the 82nd Airborne, and tough enough to beat a future heavyweight champ, Ken Norton, in a boxing ring before a crowd of delirious soldiers.
So yes, his six kids were going to play through the whistle. They would be grinders and achievers and, of greater consequence, they would be givers, too.
While his youngest, Michael, was building a New York Giants career that will land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, Gene Strahan, a retired major living near his base in Mannheim, Germany, was loading supplies onto 18-wheelers with his wife, Louise, and their three older sons and traveling to war-torn Yugoslavia to help strangers in dire need.
They would make these humanitarian drives of up to 18 hours through Germany, Austria and Hungary on the way to Serbia, enduring paperwork and security checks at the borders that matched the tension of the day.
"Nobody could believe we were making that many trips unless we were making a profit," said Michael's brother, Victor.
The Strahans were dealing only in the currency of human decency. With his transport company struggling in the 1990s, with his family forever running into the roadblock of what they believed to be racial profiling, Gene promised God he would help others if business improved. The 30 goodwill trips across Eastern Europe amounted to the manifestation of that pledge.
The family would gather old clothing, furniture, building materials, you name it, from American military bases to deliver to those suffering before and after the NATO bombings of Yugoslavia, and during a period where charges of genocide and other war crimes defined the reign of Slobodan Milosevic. Victor and his brothers Chris and Gene Jr. encountered border agents who would pull everything off the trucks, take what they wanted, and ask the Strahans to reload the leftovers.
Locals advised the family to bring cigarettes and coffee to the guards, but Gene Sr. refused. "I'm doing God's work," he'd say. "I'm not bribing anyone to do this."
One day at the Hungary-Serbia border, Serbian patrol guards unhappy with U.S. policy denied Victor and Chris entry into their country. The Strahans sat in their truck in freezing conditions for four days, turning the engine on and off in an attempt to stay warm without burning too much of the fuel sympathetic Serbian citizens had given them.
"This was during the Milosevic time, after the fall of Communism, and it was kind of like the mafia the way they ran the borders," Chris said. "Some of the people we eventually helped would say, 'We know the history of what black Americans went through, so why are you constantly coming back to help us?'
"The Serbian people thought Americans hated them after the NATO bombing, but this one man, my Yugoslavian brother, told me, 'Your family kept coming back and brought us hope. We had no hope before then.' One day we were in Serbia and an old lady stood up in church and said, 'We always prayed for an angel to help us, but we never thought God would send us black angels.' There are still areas where my family is remembered as the American black angels."