"He was a superstar the first time he stepped on the field," Victor said. "A kid ran around the opposite end with the ball, Michael ran him down, and then Michael started crying. He wasn't hurt or scared, and when the coach asked him what was wrong he said, 'Nothing. I'm not crying.' I think they were just tears of shock."
Years later in Germany, Michael was known for his home run prowess in baseball and for winning a championship with Victor in the military's Dependent Youth Activities basketball league. Ramstein Air Base had defeated Mannheim in a regular-season game the Strahans attended as fans, and its players had talked enough trash afterward to inspire Michael and Victor to join the vanquished team.
Revenge would be had in the heated rematch, and there was no doubt who was Mannheim's steamroller. "I was injured," said Victor, who had won it the year before with Chris, "and Michael just carried us to that title."
But after Gene retired from the Army, he decided Michael wouldn't realize his ambitions by staying in Mannheim and attending the local Christian academy. The father couldn't afford the $5,000 tuition that would've placed Michael in a Department of Defense school large enough to field a football team, so he sent his son to the Houston area to attend Westbury High School for his senior season and to live with one of Gene's brothers, Art, a former Texas Southern defensive end who had played nine games for the Houston Oilers and Atlanta Falcons in the '60s.
Michael knew little about American high school football, and less about American culture. "It was almost like moving to Mars," Victor said.
"When I picked Michael up at the airport and drove him in," Art said, "he saw a 'Drugs' sign at a store and thought people went in there and bought what drug dealers sell on the street. He didn't see signs like that in Germany."
At 6-foot-5, Michael could see eye to eye with his imposing uncle when the two went head to head in Art's front yard. "I roughed him up so bad," Art said, "sometimes I drew blood. But I knew he had to get mentally and physically tougher to play in the NFL."
He had to get through college first. Michael improved enough in his season at Westbury to attract one scholarship offer -- Cisco College, a two-year school in Texas. Art got in touch with Texas Southern coach Walter Highsmith and sold him on taking Michael in.
It was the wisest football investment Texas Southern ever made. Gene talked his son into making the return trip from Germany to Houston in the middle of his freshman year, and there was no turning back from that. Over future holiday breaks, when other students cleared out, Strahan remained on campus and biked up hills and ran the stadium steps. He sacked the other team's quarterback 19 times in his final college season, good enough for the New York Giants to make him the 40th pick of the 1993 draft.
Cowering in his Times Square hotel room in the days after that draft, Strahan was afraid of the big city, afraid to follow Lawrence Taylor, and afraid to fail his father. But the football player was determined to channel his fear of failure into something special.
The military ethos Gene had drilled into his son, said Art Strahan, "was 100 percent of Michael's success. With he and his dad, when you see one you see the other. Michael never wanted to displease his father."