He was the most glamorous player on one of the most glamorous teams we have ever had in New York City, the football Giants of the 1950s and 1960s. But Frank Gifford, who died Sunday at the age of 84, was so much more than that, one of the great, lasting stars sports has ever produced in this country, going from his Giant teams and his football Sundays at the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium to the most famous “Monday Night Football” team of them all.
“Frank was the guy other guys wanted to be,” his old teammate, Pat Summerall, who became a huge television star himself, told me one night.
Gifford was famous, really, from the time he was a tailback at USC in the early 1950s. It started there for him. Then he was the No. 1 draft choice of the Giants and the MVP of their championship team in 1956, running for more than 800 yards in 12 games that year, catching passes for 600 more yards, scoring nine touchdowns, on his way to the Hall of Fame. He was a halfback in those days, No. 16 of the Giants, taking the ball from Chuckin’ Charlie Conerly.
But then he got knocked down and out one Sunday by Chuck Bednarik of the Eagles, Bednarik hitting Frank Gifford so hard he knocked him into retirement. Gifford was in the hospital for 10 days and away from football and away from the Giants for a year. When he came back, he came back as a wide receiver. Of course he was Comeback Player of the Year, just because that is the way things had always gone for him. But when he did come back the way he did, we found out one more thing about Frank Gifford, a hardscrabble kid out of Santa Monica who became one of the storied names in sports:
We found out how tough he was, too.
He retired from the Giants in 1964, started doing television work in the city for CBS. And then in 1971, Frank Gifford was the play-by-play man in the second year of “Monday Night Football,” replacing Keith Jackson. He was part of another glamorous and legendary team now, in the same booth with Howard Cosell and Dandy Don Meredith. The rest was merely broadcast history.
There would be other partners for Gifford over the years, in the amazingly long run he had on Monday nights between 1971 and 1997; he would eventually switch to being an analyst. But it was the first team that would be remembered, because Gifford and Cosell and Meredith were as much a rock group as anything sports television had ever seen, and would ever see.
“It was,” Frank told me one time in Florida, “as if all three of us got hit by lightning.”
Cosell made the most noise. Meredith had the most fun. But it was Gifford, more than willing to play the straight man, so much grace in him even when occasionally mocked by Cosell, who made sure the train stayed on the tracks, every Monday night. So he was the kind of pro there that he had been on those football Sundays with the Giants. You know why he was one of the great play-by-play men? Because he worked around Cosell and around the wit and folksy wisdom of Meredith, and made the whole thing work.
“Even though he was a huge celebrity, he never showed that to any of us who worked with him,” my friend Rob Cowen, who worked with Gifford on “Monday Night Football,” said Sunday. “He was always a man of great kindness, and generosity.”
He was originally recruited by USC to be a quarterback, and once told the writer Bob Greene that he always thought of himself as a quarterback. But he will be remembered best in football for what he did as a running back on a beloved team that owned New York — and that included owning late, big-city nights — in a way no other team ever did. He even played some defense when asked.
And though there was a seven-year gap between the end of his playing career and Roone Arledge hiring him for “Monday Night Football,” it seems in memory as if he simply went from being one kind of star to another. Think about this: From the time he played at USC until he left “Monday Night Football,” Gifford had nearly 50 years on the stage. How many athletes in this country can say they ever had a run quite like that?
“I wouldn’t trade my memories for anyone’s,” he said.
There was heartbreak along the way, when his son Kyle was badly injured in an automobile accident. There were two divorces. There was tabloid scandal after he had married another television star, Kathie Lee Gifford. And one by one, he watched as those old Giants, teammates out of such a wonderful time, Conerly and Kyle Rote, Andy Robustelli and Dick Lynch and finally Summerall, passed away.
So now does Frank Gifford, the day after a new class of players is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The guy other guys wanted to be once. Who gave us all those Sunday afternoons and Monday nights. Who was, more than anything, No. 16 of the New York Giants.
“He was my hero as a kid,” Giants owner John Mara said. “The ultimate Giant.”