EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Tiki Barber left because the fun was missing. Michael Strahan came back because he missed the fun. It's at the core

of how they met the same motivational challenge in vastly opposite ways, and it goes a long way to explaining why one will spend this week

answering a slew of repetitive questions in Arizona while Barber answers just this gnawing one at home:

Do you wish you had stayed?

"If you're not here, you almost have to convince yourself that it doesn't bother you," Strahan was saying after practice last week. "And if he says it doesn't bother him, I'll take him for his word that it doesn't. But if I were at home, it would bother the heck out of me. I'm telling you, we'd be in a hostage situation right now."

Strahan laughed that easy, gap-toothed smile of his. His career goes all the way back to the waning days of Lawrence Taylor, all the way back to Phil Simms. He was on that 2000 Giants team that rode Jim Fassel's infamous bus to the Super Bowl, crushed Minnesota, 41-0, in the NFC Championship Game before getting crushed itself by Baltimore, 34-7, in the Super Bowl.

That was a soap-opera season, Fassel issuing his challenge to get on the bus in midseason. But most of the 15 seasons Strahan has played in a Giants uniform have resembled a reality show, the coach at odds with players

or management, players at odds with each other or management, six major newspapers chronicling it all.

It's why Barber left, announcing his impending retirement early last season. Tiki was critical of Tom Coughlin's coaching, was critical of his young quarterback, Eli Manning, had a readily offered opinion about much that was New York Giants.

But Strahan has been as much of a lightning rod, if not more. He has feuded with teammates. He has feuded with coaches. He has feuded with the media, especially when bitter divorce proceedings 2 years ago made a circus

of his personal life - like when his wife sold some of his personal items at a garage sale.

The divorce was costly, and might have led to his latest feud - an ill-advised, 36-day holdout last summer for a renegotiated contract. The Giants, who have younger talented defensive ends like Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck, didn't blink. Mulling retirement, Strahan instead decided to return to a team many thought to be too old and too flawed.

Those thoughts seemed validated in the first 2 weeks of the season when the Giants surrendered 80 points and fell to 0-2. Named captain 2 days after

returning to the team and just

a few days from the season

opener, the 36-year-old Strahan seemed to be a reason, not a

solution.

That's not how he saw it, though. "I really came back to have fun," he said. "I really

came back to be around the guys . . . Winning definitely makes football a lot better and thank God we're here, where we are. But I never looked at it as we're 0-2 and man, that beach looks good.

"I mean, the beach looks good all the time, winning or not."

Strahan's nine-sack season mirrors 2000, when he had 9 1/2. But given what he has provided beyond that, this might be his best season. His staunch support of Coughlin, and his effect on the Giants' younger players helped this team ride through its bumpy start and uneven middle. When confusion reigned early over Steve Spagnuolo's new defensive scheme, Strahan and Antonio Pierce organized coachless meetings to work out miscommunications and misgivings with the coaching staff.

"I don't know how old he is, maybe 45 or 46, but the guy can still definitely play, and I am not even just talking about what he does on the field," said Tuck, New York's third-year defensive end. "The experience that he shows in the locker room and

being able to run things off of him has definitely benefited all of us, especially me."

Strahan's final task might be his most daunting: to get his young teammates to focus on the task at hand this week, not the silliness that surrounds it. It's not a time for parties, he has told them, not a time to be entertaining friends they haven't seen on the long road to get here, or even the ones they have.

Feeding the media machine with soap-opera stuff can sap you, too, he has told them, sap the fun that he came back for - the fun that Tiki Barber could

no longer find.

"You know because of my relationship with the media," he quipped, "this season has really been the most fun I have ever had." *

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