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Kelly Ripa, Michael Strahan

Mark Davis/Getty Images

Michael Strahan never imagined he would become the face of morning TV.

But, after a 14-year career playing for the New York Giants in the NFL, he found himself on camera regularly, hosting DIY Network's Backyard Stadiums and co-hosting the Fox NFL Sunday pregame show with Terry Bradshaw, Jimmy Johnson, Howie Long and Curt Menefee. "I never knew I could accomplish so much," the 44-year-old says in retrospect. "But my parents never act surprised. They look at me as if there's no limit. That helped me feel like there's no limit."

On Oct. 1, 2010, Strahan co-hosted Live! With Regis and Kelly with Kelly Ripa for the first time. Regis Philbin retired a year later, and Strahan—who made over 20 guest appearances in a two-year span—was hired to replace him. Then, in 2014, Strahan became a regular contributor on ABC's Good Morning America, making him even more popular on ABC. "When I first got the call a few years ago, I was like, 'I don't know about that,'" he says in People's Oct. 3 issue (on newsstands Friday). "But I realized, 'Am I not doing it because I'm afraid to try or because I can't do it?' It was because I was afraid to try. So then when I finally said, 'OK, I'll give it a shot,' I found that I loved it. I found that I could do it."

"Robin Roberts told me, 'Remember, I started out in sports, too.' We get this thing in our head where we feel like we're only supposed to do one thing and that's all we can do," Strahan says. "And I had to prove to myself that that's not the case."

In the spring of 2016, Ripa's worst fears were realized when news broke that Strahan would be leaving Live! to join Good Morning America full-time. Ripa had been kept in the dark, and a source told E! News she was "livid" over not being consulted.

In protest, Ripa decided to skip the next morning's show, which sent producers scrambling to find a replacement. When she returned to work the following week, the onscreen tension between Ripa and Strahan was apparent. So, Strahan left Live! early at executives' request. "I wasn't surprised by her reaction at all, but I can't control somebody else's actions," Strahan confesses. "I was there four years, and it's about more than just being in front of the camera."

Regarding the fallout from his exit, the former NFL player confesses, "The most disappointing thing to me was that I was painted as the bad guy, because I value the way I carry myself. I don't want people to see me as 'Oh, he just ran out, just left them there.' That's just not true."

Even now, Strahan isn't sure what to make of his relationship with Ripa. "At one point I think we were friends. I don't know what happened at the end," he says. "I learned a lot from her, though." Toward the end, he says, they "didn't really communicate" as much as they once had. "I kinda looked at it like, 'It was what it was,'" he explains. "I come from a business where you have to collaborate. The show was going well? We're all winning. That's all that matters to me."

Of course, Strahan understands he has zero control over how the public perceives him. "On air, all I could do was control myself. In football, New York is the toughest place to play," he admits. "One day you're the greatest player they've ever seen, then the next game you're the worst."

Playing football prepared Strahan for the scrutiny that comes with being in the spotlight. That skill set came in handy after he left Live! several months ago. "I said, 'Hey, it doesn't matter what their opinion is. All I know is I'm doing my best, and I'm giving it everything I have,'" he tells People. "I've been in stadiums with 80,000 people calling me all different kinds of things."

Michael Strahan, People

People

Ripa, meanwhile, shared her side of the story in People's May 23 cover story. Regarding the decision to release Strahan from his contract in the spring, rather than the fall, the Live! mainstay said it was the best solution for all parties. Had she been involved in her co-host's transition from the beginning, Ripa would have said, "'Guys, we need to start looking because we have summer hiatus. We have vacation time. We need to find people. If we're going to have this list narrowed down at least to a manageable size by the fall, we need to start now.'"

Over time, all parties agreed Strahan's exit had been botched. "There's a part of me that can say, 'OK, I understand. This may have been an oversight.' And again, after 26 years, at this point we are like a family," Ripa said. "And sometimes when you are so comfortable with somebody, you may not give them the same consideration as somebody you're not as comfortable with—a certain formality falls away. I think that all people are deserving of fair treatment in the work place. People deserve respect. People should be treated equally and with dignity."

Waiting to tell Ripa about Strahan's new job at the last minute was a colossal mistake—but, of course, hindsight is 20/20. "I think that requires a certain amount of empathy on a level. When you're dealing with big business, it's easy to forget that you're dealing with people and that people have feelings," Ripa told People. "It's easy to just look at it like a business unit, a unit, a unit."

Live! was rebranded, but Ripa does not yet have a permanent co-host.

"We have to now find another great person, which is fun but challenging," Ripa, 45, admitted. "Our show is one based on chemistry and camaraderie and trust. All those things don't just happen; it doesn't fall out of the sky. It takes a lot of work, and it takes a group discussion."