IN THE FALL of 1952, Frank Gifford reported for work in a National Football League firmly tethered to its rough-and-tumble, backwater past. Baseball players were the nation's sports celebrities, with boxers and jockeys close behind. The football played every Saturday on college campuses was far more popular than the version played a day later, and pro players were B-list athletes laboring in relative obscurity for workaday wages. Over the ensuing decade, that would change dramatically, and Gifford, who died on Sunday of natural causes at age 84, was instrumental in helping build the bridge from Nagurski to Namath that transformed the sport into a nation's leisure-time obsession. He also paved a highway from the locker room to the broadcast booth that hundreds of players have since followed.
Gifford was a Californian with Hollywood good looks and sublime athleticism in a 6'1", 197-pound body. At USC he was an All-America single wing tailback who also played kicker and in the defensive backfield before the Giants made him their first-round selection in the '52 draft, the 11th overall pick. Those Giants of the 1950s and early '60s enthralled New York, infringing on territory that had been the province of the Yankees. They had a deep roster of stars that included quarterbacks Charlie Conerly and Y.A. Tittle, running back--receiver Kyle Rote, linebacker Sam Huff and defensive linemen Rosey Grier and Andy Robustelli. But among all of them, Gifford was the star.
In A Fan's Notes, Frederick Exley's loosely autobiographical 1968 cult novel, the protagonist is an avid supporter of the Giants and of Gifford in particular. Exley writes, "Frank Gifford went on to realize a fame in New York that only a visionary would have dared hope for: he became unavoidable, part of the city's hard mentality.... No doubt he came to represent to me the realization of life's large promises."
This was in part because of Gifford's handsomeness and charm. (In my home in upstate New York, my mother would join my father in front of the television on Sundays, only in hopes of catching a glimpse of the helmetless Gifford, the only man, she would say jokingly, for whom she would leave my father.) But it was also because Gifford could play. In 1956, the Giants' first championship season in 18 years, Gifford was voted NFL MVP after leading the league with 51 pass receptions and 1,422 yards from scrimmage while finishing third with 5.2 yards per carry and fifth with 819 rushing yards. Five times in the next seven years the Giants would play in—and lose—the NFL title game.
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Gifford was named All-Pro four times and played in eight Pro Bowls. He temporarily retired after he was knocked unconscious by Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik in a late-November '60 game at Yankee Stadium. An iconic photo captured the aftermath of that violent hit, with Bednarik standing over the fallen Gifford. Gifford sat out the 1961 season but returned to play from 1962 through '64; he was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.
Shortly after retiring from football for good, Gifford went to work as an analyst for CBS, a role he had first performed in '61. During the 1967 "Ice Bowl" NFL championship game between the Cowboys and the Packers, Gifford was in the CBS broadcast booth with Ray Scott and Jack Buck, and at one point Gifford underscored the--15° cold by saying, "I'm going to take a bite of my coffee."
In 1971, ABC executive producer Roone Arledge, then the most powerful man in sports television, named Gifford to replace Keith Jackson as the play-by-play announcer for the second season of Monday Night Football in a booth that included the bombastic Howard Cosell and the cornpone former quarterback Don Meredith. With Gifford as traffic cop, MNF became a cultural phenomenon. For more than a quarter century Gifford was among ABC's most prominent faces. He was the play-by-play voice (alongside Bill Russell) on the broadcast of the notorious 1972 Olympic basketball gold medal game. In '75 he interviewed a bloody Evel Knievel after the latter crashed and broke his pelvis, vertebrae and hand after jumping over 13 buses at London's Wembley Stadium on a motorcycle. Few athletes have built a more diverse body of broadcast work.
And even as Gifford's television career waned—he left MNF in 1997—his name lived on in folksy household tales told every weekday morning by his third wife, the former Kathie Lee Epstein, whom Gifford married in 1986 and who cohosted Live! With Regis [Philbin] and Kathie Lee from 1985 to 2000. His enduring presence was fitting and deserved, a pioneer's last act.
Gifford built a bridge from Nagurski to Namath that transformed a sport, then paved a highway from the locker room to the broadcast booth.
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