This may come as a shock to New Yorkers, but Frank Gifford, beloved Hall of Famer and long time play-by-play star of ABC’s Monday Night Football, never particularly wanted to play for the Giants, and he really wasn’t all that excited about playing pro football.
For a while, he wanted to be an actor, and the rugged, good-looking kid from Bakersfield, CA, who had received some good press as a stand-out Heisman Trophy candidate in 1952 while he was at USC, made good money as a stunt double while a student.
Did you ever see James Garner in a dangerous scene? That might have been Gifford. The stunt work was perhaps the high point of his early acting career, he confesses, which also includes a TV pilot,Turnpike Cop, about which he says, “It’s hysterical.” As in bad. Very bad. He has a copy. And no, you can’t see it.
Instead, Gifford became perhaps the most beloved Giant ever, and a legend in the television business. His jersey number 16 has been retired, honoring a career that spanned 1952-60 and 1962-64. In that time, he played in eight Pro Bowls and was the league’s most valuable player in 1956, when the Giants crushed the Chicago Bears in the NFL title game. His 78 career touchdowns are still a Giants record.
And, oh yes, he played as a running back and a defensive back and later as a wide receiver.
It doesn’t take long to understand why late Giants owner Wellington Mara, New York sports fans, and eventually millions of Monday Night Football viewers have loved Frank Gifford.
There’s a kind of joyousness in his voice and now, at 82, a true appreciation that this son of rough-hewn California oil driller, who was not considered bright enough to get a scholarship at first to a big-name university (he transferred to USC from a junior college), has enjoyed a full life provided by pro sports and the networks that air them.
In short, with no disrespect to any other member of the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame, there can’t be a more grateful inductee. Talking about one particularly easy assignment, he says, softly, “I had the best job in the world.” But it’s clear he could be talking about his football and television careers.
On the Field, on TV, on Radio
Long before athletes and TV personalities became superstars, Gifford was well on his way to becoming a star in both fields. He became a fixture in New York, at about the time the NFL began getting popular nationwide and the Giants began getting good, culminating in that 1956 special season.
What a perfect storm. He soon had his own pregame TV show and, by 1959, a radio program that paid more than he made as a football player. He hired an acting coach, preparing for that Hollywood career that never happened.
A stint at CBS Sports followed his playing days, and then, of course, came Monday night, where, in 1971, Gifford joined Cosell and Don Meredith, making that new night of pro football a sensation by being funny, sarcastic, sometimes brutal, but above all honest. Back then, Monday-night games filled bars in neighborhoods around the country every week.
It was a far cry from the NFL Gifford joined in 1952, when, he recalls, Mara barely had enough money to field the team and the players sometimes seemed to outnumber the fans in the stands.
Not Yet a Famous Face
Back then, football stardom was still mostly anonymous, even in New York, but that began to change by the 1955 season, with the emergence of Gifford as an extraordinary athlete amid a growing roster of talented players. Still, he was not a household name. There’s a classic YouTube video of Gifford’s live appearance on the old CBS quiz show What’s My Line?, during which he stumped just about everybody on his identity; the panel was not blindfolded as was usually the case if a well-known person appeared.
When a flirtatious Arlene Francis, one of the panelists, finally figured out the handsome and boyishly shy Gifford might be this famous football-player fellow panelist Bennett Cerf had told her something about, she cooed, “Fullback? Halfback? Quarterback? You’ve got a lovely back! I don’t care what condition it’s in!” You couldn’t say the things you can now on TV, but her lustful sigh was at least TV-14.
Gifford recalls that entire day — albeit in a slightly spicier version of what Francis actually said on the air. “That made my career,” he said.
Earlier that day, he says, he had scored four touchdowns, then showered, and took the subway to the studio. “I remember that I couldn’t get in the studio,” Gifford laughs. “They didn’t know who I was. That would be like Eli Manning coming to the studio and them now knowing who he is. Back then, they kept us humble.”
In conversation today, he’s the same quick-witted, soft-hearted gent we’ve known since the late ’50s. In Cosell’s memoir, I Never Played the Game, the irascible one chided him for his inability to actually criticize a player. “You will never hear Frank Gifford say, ‘Boy, he blew that one, didn’t he, Howard?” Cosell said, somewhat truthfully but not with malice.
(Cosell also tweaked Gifford for his apparent inability to pronounce the name of Atlanta Falcons head coach Leeman Bennett, which, often came out of Gifford’s lips as “Leeman Beeman.” Cosell said that, whenever the Falcons were on MNF, the ABC production crew had bets on how long it would take Gifford to make the flub.)
A Wide-Ranging Commentator
Gifford was one of the first former star athletes who could be assigned to cover any sport, not just the one he excelled in as a player. At CBS, he helped cover golf tournaments. For ABC’s coverage of the Olympics over the years, he did play-by-play for skiing, basketball, and wrestling.
Like so many executives and talents in the sports business, Gifford gives much of the credit for his success and style to late ABC Sports giant Roone Arledge.
“He was a sheer genius and a great guy,” Gifford says. “Roone liked to take people right into the reality of the game. He didn’t want to concentrate on what the athlete did. He wanted to know who the athlete was. I never forgot that as I went on in broadcasting. People wanted to know what an athlete was thinking, what compelled them to become extraordinary in what they did. He changed many of the things we did.”
In the curious way things work out, a vicious hit just about ended Gifford’s career — but the time it took him to recuperate let him get better at his broadcasting work.
The Truth about the Hit
In 1960, Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik clobbered Gifford — who insists it was a clean hit, although some fans don’t agree. The Giants star stayed sprawled on the field. Fans were shocked, and Gifford was through. He didn’t return and announced his retirement following the season.
But, in time for the 1962 season, he decided to come back; in the meantime, his radio show and other TV work were improving his skills for his eventual afterlife.
Fans still assume from the way Gifford hit the ground that he suffered a concussion. But now, with controversy swirling in the NFL about head injuries, he is eager to clear up the story.
“It wasn’t my head,” he says. “I didn’t know about it for years because they didn’t X-ray my neck at the time and they didn’t have any CAT scans at the time, [but] I had a couple of fractured vertebrae in my neck. It wasn’t until years later, after football, that I started getting tingling in my arms. I’m just sick and tired of the story. Chuck was a good football player, and so was I. I hate this thing just following me around my whole career. Worst than that, for poor Chuck. Good God, every time they wrote about Chuck…
“That’s part of the problem today,” Gifford continues. “They can do a lot of things with their head. It doesn’t make their neck any stronger. I don’t see how you change the game from what it is. Two-hand touch or something like that?”
He wants fans to know it was a legitimate hit, not a cheap shot.
And, as always, he wants fans to know he still roots for his Giants, and usually accompanies Mara’s widow, Ann, to home games.
“The Giants fans are great,” he says. “They went through a lot. And I always go down on the field and say hello to the guys. But I’m careful about that. I remember, when I was playing, they used to bring these guys out who had played years before me, and I didn’t have a clue about who they were, and somebody would whisper, ‘He played back in the ’30s.’”
He doesn’t want that to happen to him. Somehow, though, it doesn’t seem likely that anybody familiar with the NFL would ever wonder who that geezer is.