Jon Runyan was wary.
What if this turned out to be just another feint, a trick to get Runyan to lower his heavily taped forearms, thinking the battle was over? Then Michael Strahan would flash that gap-toothed sneer and spin past him, one more time.
"Retirement doesn't mean anything. All you've got to do is sign back up and you can play again . . . As of now, he's done. Anything can change; people get hurt. Money persuades people. We'll see," Runyan said yesterday, dripping sweat as he leaned against a shaded NovaCare wall.
Runyan, who turns 35 in November, had just learned of his most familiar antagonist's decision to retire at 36, after 15 seasons that finally produced a Super Bowl ring in February. Strahan's decision seemed all too reasonable yesterday, as the Eagles baked in the mid-90s South Philly sun during the "organized team activities" that continue through Thursday.
Funny coincidence: As part of these "activities," the Eagles practice running their offense for 1 day against a scout team defense mimicking each of their NFC East opponents. The Giants were yesterday's opponent. While reporters were getting text messaged on the sideline about Strahan retiring, Jerome McDougle was wearing a "92" singlet over his practice jersey, representing Strahan.
"We're working on Strahan, and he won't even be there," McDougle said afterward. "He's going out on top, which is always a good thing. You know, so many times, guys wait until they can't walk or they can't move their arms before they feel like it's time to go. This is one of the guys who went out on his own will, and he went out on top."
All those years ago, early in the 2000 offseason, Runyan became the first big free-agent signing of the Andy Reid era, partly because Reid thought he needed to keep his new franchise quarterback safe from Strahan, who would go on to set the NFL record with 22 1/2 sacks in 2001.
Strahan won some early skirmishes, made the big right tackle look slow and mechanical. In the many paeans to the Giants' future Hall of Famer penned today, you will read that he sacked Donovan McNabb 12 1/2 times, more than any other quarterback, and that Strahan's 21 1/2 sacks against the Eagles are his highest total against any team. But overall, as McNabb enthusiastically asserted yesterday, Runyan held his own against the man who led active players in sacks, with 141 1/2, when he finally decided to hang it up.
"When it all started, not a lot of people knew much about Jon Runyan," McNabb said. "With that whole rivalry, they're the best of friends now. Jon has gotten the better of him a bunch of times. I think that's something people overlook. They look at Strahan and [sack numbers], but we've had great games vs. those guys. Jon has [proved] himself one of the top offensive linemen in the game. He needs to be recognized as it."
Strahan didn't always line up over Runyan, and he sacked McNabb the most because the other NFC East teams changed quarterbacks way more often - as much as Strahan might have relished two shots a season against, say, Quincy Carter for the last 8 years, he didn't get that many.
"Now I gotta spend more time studying other people," Runyan said, when invited to get maudlin about the end of the matchup. "Technically, it makes my job harder."
Runyan and Strahan became friends, as has been chronicled many times, as Pro Bowl attendees several years ago. Runyan said he saw Strahan a few weeks back, when they reminisced about their rivalry for NFL Films.
"Same old stuff," Runyan said.
"Going out on top, if you could write a book, that's the way you'd want to end it . . . I'd put him up there with Reggie White. I only played against Reggie once. He's right up there with him," Runyan said. "He'll tell you he's not the fastest guy in the world, but he's very smart. He knows how to play the game. If you make a mistake, he's going to take advantage of it. He's very good at that, being patient, waiting for his time to come."
Their personalities are different. During the NFL Films session, Runyan realized he tended to remember his worst moments against Strahan, but those also were the moments Strahan seemed to remember - not the times when Runyan got the better of the matchup and the Giants lost.
"We pretty much remember the same plays," Runyan said. "He runs around for 60 plays and gets one sack, he had a good day. I give up one sack, I had a bad day. One play - there's a lot more that goes into the game than that."
Nonetheless, Runyan felt they had to become friends, as part of the shared bond between NFL trench warriors who faced off so many times.
"You have to have the ability to turn it on and turn it off, on and off the field," he said. "You can't live like that - you can't live as a crazy man running around hitting people all the time. That's what makes it fun; you can sit down and talk to a guy like that, because you respect each other professionally, you just go about your business."
Runyan recalled a play last season when then-Eagles fullback Thomas Tapeh blasted Strahan, and Runyan reflexively picked Strahan up off the turf, only to realize McNabb still hadn't thrown the ball.
"We had a good laugh about that," Runyan said. "If he had run around and gotten a sack after that, I wouldn't have lived that one down."
One reason yesterday's discussion made Runyan uneasy is that he knows the clock ticks for him, as well. When Steve McNair retired in April, Runyan became the last active former Houston Oiler - he was a fourth-round rookie in the Oilers' last season of 1996.
How did that feel, someone wondered.
"Haven't made the team yet," Runyan said. And he laughed. *