"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."
The baby of that family, Michael Strahan, was almost part of that legacy, too. He'd just turned 18 when he arrived in his old Mannheim home for the holidays after his first semester at Texas Southern University in Houston, arrived with all of his dorm-room possessions in tow. Michael was homesick. He told his old man that he was done with his American school and its football team, and that he wanted to work for him in Germany.
Gene Strahan wasn't hearing any of that. His father, the custodian, left school after the second grade, and his mother left after the fifth, both to help support the family. Gene wanted Michael to get his full education, and to gamble on the athletic talent he'd worked so hard to refine as a child living in a foreign land.
Way back when, Gene himself had given some thought to becoming a professional athlete. He was a light heavyweight fighting out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and a good one, when he faced a heavyweight Marine named Ken Norton out of Camp Lejeune.
"He outweighed me by about 20 pounds," Gene said, "and it was all muscle. But I'd been around enough heavies to know they can't in-fight; they're looking for that long range. I knew the joker could hit, so I had to outmaneuver him. It was a little like the Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope. Norton was trying to knock me out, but I'd been around too long for that. He ran out of steam."
Gene won the decision; Norton returned the favor in their second and final fight. Strahan decided against chasing those glory days, enrolled in Prairie View A&M University and returned to the Army as an officer. He ultimately moved from Fort Bragg to Mannheim, where it was clear that Gene and Louise -- a skilled basketball player in her day -- had passed down their athletic genes to the kids.
Chris was the natural among the Strahans' four boys and two girls. "I was the captain and star of the football, baseball and track teams," he said. "When you came to Mannheim, I was the guy. But I never dreamed of being a professional football player. That was Michael's dream."
Gene nurtured that dream, too, waking young Michael at 5 a.m. and taking him on three- to five-mile runs through the Mannheim woods. Father and son would drop down and do push-ups in their living room, and go to the gym together to focus on drills that would improve the boy's explosiveness and strength. Michael even watched Jane Fonda exercise tapes to lose the baby fat that inspired his brothers and friends to mock his considerable rump. As the youngest Strahan grew into his teens, his became a grim drive toward NFL greatness.
"Michael sacrificed a lot of his youth to become what he became," Chris said. "I remember one Friday night, ready to go out with friends, and there was Michael in his room with a sad face. He said, 'I've got to go to the gym, and I don't want to go.' I felt sorry for him at that moment, but that's what he needed to do."