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Mike Stromberg: A champion of the NFL and Shelter Island

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Mike Stromberg on the deck of his Shelter Island home.
Mike Stromberg on the deck of his Shelter Island home.

The day Mike Stromberg started his first game as a professional football player, the anxiety made him throw up. It was 1968, he was a 22-year-old middle linebacker for the New York Jets, and there were 30,000 people in the stadium.

“Before that I had played in front of a few thousand people at most,” he recalled. “When I was in the tunnel, I said to myself, ‘Remember this moment, it may never happen again.’ I still have that moment.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1945, Mike grew up in East Flatbush, went to Samuel J. Tilden High School, and started playing football sophomore year. “This wasn’t Texas,” Mike said. “We grew up playing stickball. We didn’t have grass on the field, it was all rocks and glass.”

Even before Mike liked football, he loved art, so when he realized he might be a good enough player to get a scholarship, he set out to find a college that had a school of graphic design as well as a football team. At first he thought the University of Connecticut might be the place, but they suspended their football program after admitting him, so the summer before he was to go to college he switched to Temple, where he could play football, and attend Tyler, Temple’s art school.

“Temple was not big-time football, but I wanted a scholarship,” said Mike. “We had no money.”

At 230 pounds and 6-feet-tall, Mike discovered there were not many athletes in the Tyler School of Art. One of the courses in his major was a life drawing class and when he mentioned to the rest of the football team in the locker room one day that the class drew from live, nude models, his teammates were interested.

“A month later I’m in class, drawing a life model, and I hear all sorts of giggling,” he said.

His teammates had shown up uninvited for his class. They were disappointed to learn that conventional physical beauty was not a requirement for a life model.

Mike loved playing college football, and was grateful that it paid for his education, but he saw his future in graphic design, not football. He and a roommate were living off-campus in an apartment above a beauty parlor when Mike got a call from his Mom, telling him she had just seen his name on television. He was the first football player from Temple to go professional, let alone to be drafted. He joined the Jets organization in 1967 at a salary of about $12,000 a year, at a time when top players like Joe Namath made about $400,000.

Mike spent his first year with the Jets on the practice squad, the place for guys who were not good enough to make the 40-man roster. He practiced several days a week with the Jets at Shea Stadium, enjoying the green carpeting, the saunas and the steam rooms and then drove up to Connecticut to practice and play with the Waterbury Orbits, a minor league football team.

Mike was number 68, and in 1968, his second year with the Jets, he started at middle linebacker playing in just two regular season games before a knee injury that eventually ended his football career. The Jets went to the Super Bowl III that year, and Mike who was still on the team, went with them.

During the famous game that pitted the Jets, an underdog AFL team against the NFL’s Baltimore Colts, Mike was on the field, communicating by phone to Jets defensive coordinator Walt Michaels, who was in the box upstairs. The Jets were not favored to win the game, which is considered one of the most important football games in history.

“We all had a sense that we were going to win the game,” said Mike, who remembered watching film of the Colts prior to the game when one of his teammates, Pete Lammons said, “we have to stop watching films of the Baltimore Colts or we’re going to get overconfident.” The Jets won their only Super Bowl that year.

“It was not something that I was going to do as a career,” Mike said. “So when it happened it was wonderful, but when it was over it was over.”

At that time, football players got three months of the year off, so while he was with the Jets, Mike was also on the staff at New American Library, designing book covers. He was hired by the President of NAL, who was an avid Jets fan, and who introduced Mike to an editor named Carolyn Nielsen. In 1970 they married.

“When Carol and I decided to get married she said to me, ‘How about instead of buying an engagement ring, we buy a boat?’” said Mike. “A woman who would say something like that, I had to marry her.”

Mike and Carol lived in an apartment in Stuyvesant Town, a huge housing development on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and later moved to the Upper West Side. Their son Matt came along in 1980, and Mike continued his career as a graphic designer.

One rainy day, an article about the clam fritters at The Inn Between in Gourmet magazine, and an ad for a ranch house in need of TLC on Menantic Creek combined to bring the Strombergs to buy the Shelter Island house they live in now, in spite of the ’50’s era wallpaper in the master bathroom, which Mike described as, “poodles going to the hairdresser, and wearing top hats.”

In 1986, Mike and Carol renovated the house when they began living here full time.

Although he has been coming to Shelter Island since the ’70s, Mike still remembers it like it was. “It’s so small town, no stop lights,” Mike said. “I try to see it from a newcomer’s eyes. You can forget how beautiful it is.”

In the years since football, Mike has been a regular participant in fundraisers such as teammate Larry Grantham’s celebrity golf classic to benefit Freedom House, a center for men with substance abuse problems, and Joe Namath’s annual celebrity golf classic to benefit the March of Dimes.

On Shelter Island, Mike has been active in the local Red Cross, where he served on the board, and supports other local organizations, including serving as a volunteer cook at the annual Shelter Island Fall 5K.

Mike was also part of the class action concussion injury lawsuit against the NFL that was settled in 2015 in favor of the players. Symptoms of concussion-related damage include irritability, poor decision-making, and anger, but Mike said it’s not clear to him the extent to which he is affected.

“I’m 71 now, and you are going to lose some short-term memory, but the NFL definitely had culpability,” he said. “They could have informed players that they might have issues in later life.”

As for the future of football, Mike said there is no amount of equipment that can eliminate the injuries.

“I know a lot of guys who are in much worse shape than me, and I’ve had four surgeries,” he said. “But 99 percent of the guys you would ask, ‘Would you do it over,’ they would say ‘Yes, I would,’ because it was such an incredible experience.”

Although Mike has worked as a graphic designer for over 40 years and a football player for three, he thinks he is still defined as a football player, and often wonders what would have happened if he hadn’t played as a professional.

“Maybe I would have done something else, and I would have gotten a pension,” he said. “You follow your heart, and sometimes you don’t think sensibly. [On the other hand], I met Carol because of football, and she is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“It was the first time they won and the last time they won,” he said of his season with the Jets. “I got the ring, which not many people have.

“Are you interviewing me because I played for the Jets?”

Lightning Round — Mike Stromberg

Favorite place on Shelter Island?  The deck in back of my home on Menantic Creek.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island?  Manhattan at Christmastime.

Last time you were elated?  I caught a very large striped bass over the Memorial Day weekend. We filleted it and ate it.

What exasperates you?  Not catching fish.

Best day of the year on Shelter Island?  My first day on the golf course on Memorial Day

Favorite movie or book?  My favorite movie is “Raging Bull” and book is Men’s Lives, by Peter Matthiessen

Favorite food?  Linguini with crab sauce, made with crabs I caught myself off my dock.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family?  Ben Jones. Ben and I went to so many Jet games together that many of the coaches and players thought he had played for the original Jets (Titans). Ben never denied it.