When they preach “Once a Giant, Always a Giant,” they are talking about Frank Gifford as much as anyone in their storied history.
He was their golden boy out of USC, but so much more than just another pretty face wooed by Hollywood.
He was the Giants’ first made-for-television superstar in the grainy, black-and-white glory days of the 1950s, every bit the heartthrob Joe Namath would be in the 1960s, an everlasting symbol of New York Football Giants championship pride.
“Frank Gifford was the ultimate Giant,” John Mara said.
He will be forever remembered as the Giants’ Favorite Son.
“I met him in training camp as a small child, and immediately idolized him,” a deeply saddened Mara told The Post. “I wanted to be like him. I wanted to wear No. 16 all the time. He was my hero as a kid. He just remained a revered figure for me for my entire lifetime.
“Watching him run out onto the field at Yankee Stadium in that blue jersey was just something that exhilarated many people in my generation. He was the face of our franchise in those years where we really rose to prominence.”
Gifford died Sunday at his Connecticut home at the age of 84, his family said in a statement.
“You could argue that he was the most important player in franchise history, given the time that he played for us and the growth in our popularity during that era,” the Giants’ co-owner said.
“He was the most popular player on the team, and somebody that everybody looked up to, and he was the star, and he was the toast of the town in that era.”
If you were a Yankees fan in that era, you wanted to be like Mickey Mantle. If you were a Giants fan, you wanted to be like Frank Gifford.
“He was the guy that all kids in my generation wanted to grow up and be like,” Mara said.
“I think my father was like a father to him,” Mara said. “They just had a deep personal connection. He was our most popular player, but he also was just a decent person, and carried himself with such class and dignity.
“You dream about having guys like that represent your franchise, and that’s why my father was always so proud of him, and treated him like a son.”
John’s father, Wellington, presented Gifford at his 1977 Hall of Fame enshrinement, and Gifford presented Wellington Mara in Canton 20 years later.
“As we looked out over the audience at Canton, Ohio, and looked into the faces of all those people, Wellington turned to me in his address as my presenter and introduced me as a man that any father would be proud to have as a son,” Gifford once said.
“If it were not for Frank Gifford, Rosey Brown, Andy Robustelli, Sam Huff and the many Giants who honor me by their presence today, there would not be a Wellington Mara going into a Hall of Fame,” Wellington Mara said on his overdue day in the sun.
Gifford that day: “What I remember most is his reference to me as a member of the Mara family, as the son a father would want to have. I don’t know about that, Well, I’d just like to say to you … you are the father every son would be blessed to have, the brother any man could want, and certainly the best friend anyone could ever have.”
Wellington Mara had scouted and drafted Gifford as a running back and defensive back.
“I’m proud to say that the Giants were the only team I ever played for,” Gifford once said.
Gifford helped lead the Giants to their first NFL championship in 18 years in the famous Sneakers Game rout of the Bears in 1956. He won NFL MVP honors that season. Two seasons later, he played in The Greatest Game Ever Played, the 23-17 overtime loss to the Colts.
“He always swore that he made the first down which would have ended the game late in the fourth quarter,” Mara said, and chuckled.
Gifford never stopped beating himself up for fumbling twice in the game.
“That was something that haunted him forever,” Mara said, “but he more than made up for that throughout a great career.”
He was a natural running the ball or catching it. He became a celebrity pitchman for Vitalis and Jantzen sportswear.
“We went from being pretty much an unknown insignificant franchise to being the toast of the town and having all of our games sold out and having a waiting list for season tickets and a lot of that was attributable to the success that he had and just the way he conducted himself,” Mara said.
Mara never heard Gifford talk about the frightening 1960 hit by Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik left him unconscious on his back at Yankee Stadium. Gifford blamed his concussion on the frozen ground, and never held a grudge against Bednarik, even though he was forced to sit out the 1961 season before earning Comeback Player of the Year at a new position — flanker.
“He didn’t have a mean-spirited bone in his body … he really was just an unforgettable person,” Mara said.
He had one unforgettable discretion — a tabloid affair that jeopardized his marriage to Kathy Lee Gifford, but the Giants family stayed true blue to him. He was the cool, calm, collected one in the often-riotous Monday Night Football television booth alongside Howard Cosell and Don Meredith.
One MetLife Stadium suite will be more empty than it should be this season. Gifford would sit in it with Mara’s mother, Ann, who passed away six months ago.
“They would ride to all the games together,” Mara said.
He got the terrible news in a Sunday morning telephone call.
“It really hit me like a thunderbolt,” Mara said. “I thought he was in pretty good health, and we were looking forward to seeing him once our games started.”