There’s no real point in remembering Frank Gifford as anything but a very good football player whose talent wasn’t merely quantifiable, although the career numbers were impressive enough. There was an intangible feel to the things he did on a football field. Sometimes he ran with a kind of slippery grace, sometimes with a deceptive languidness, almost like a dancer—always looking for a sliver of light, then cutting upfield to gain six yards, or sixteen, like a slow-motion-white-guy Barry Sanders.
Gifford’s career featured no miraculous 80-yard scampers from his running-back days or one-handed catches from his later years as a receiver. His expertise was measured, for the most part, in his ability to produce, play in and play out, at a high enough level to ensure that his team would always be one of the best in the league.
That’s what we should remember today, with his death at 84: the years when he owned his town, both on the field and off it. In the afternoons, he plied the Yankee Stadium turf with enough distinction to earn an MVP trophy, a championship ring, eight Pro Bowl selections and a first-ballot Hall of Fame induction.
In the evenings? He and his buddy Charley Conerly would regularly cut a stylish swath through the high-profile clubs of midtown Manhattan, usually ending up at Toots Shor’s, the palace of New York nightlife, to mingle with the likes of Hemingway, or DiMaggio, or a mobster, or a Supreme Court Justice. In the mid to late fifties, when professional football was trying to make the big leap from one-step-above-pro-wrestling status to High Athletic Entertainment worthy of Madison Avenue consideration, Gifford was more than willing to step into the spotlight wherever it inevitably found him. He lent his bold-faced name to the society columns at a time when the city had nearly a dozen newspapers. All of this is what we should be remembering today: the echo of his glistening image from a half-century ago.
What would be the point of dwelling on what happened after he left the playing field, no longer Frank Gifford the Great but Frank Gifford the Mortal, Frank Gifford the Lesser, the name receding ingloriously into football history? What would be the point? The burdens carried by a good man victimized by the fleeting flash of the star-making machinery are hardly news.
Make no mistake: he wasn’t any less noble in his post-playing years for his inability to be Gifford the Great. In the two years we spent together writing a book in 2007-08, I came to know a man at peace with who he was, and with what he’d accomplished in a well-lived lifetime. He was proudest, I think, that, throughout his life, he’d always done the work that was asked of him.
Yes, he was still ever looking for an elusive last sip of the heroic ambrosia, the distinct high of being immortal. Who wouldn’t? But that fame-feel was not to be relived. The aura of the star athlete is made of artifice, not of substance: whenever he looks back to try and recapture the glow, there’s seldom anything to grab onto.
Frank Gifford was son of an itinerant oil-field driller in Southern California. By his own reckoning, he lived in 37 different Western towns as he grew up. Beaten-down Bakersfield, California, was the principal home base; in another town, a childhood Christmas morning featured a basket of food left by the local church on the doorstep. Such were the family straits.
When his football talent landed him at USC, his looks and his skills began to write a new script. On a Trojan road trip to New York, to play Army at Yankee Stadium, his glamorous and worldly girlfriend knew which ropes to show her wide-eyed companion. They stayed at the Waldorf. The night before the game, they saw Guys and Dolls on Broadway, and, on Maxine’s advice, he made his first stop at Toots’s watering hole. They were married a month later.
When he was drafted to play for a team with New York in its name, it seemed ordained. The couple moved into the grand Concourse Plaza Hotel, up the hill from the Stadium: “The business and social center of the Bronx,” Conerly’s wife, Perian, told me, with fond remembrance. A dozen of the Giants and their families lived in the hotel (the staff would store each family’s silverware in the offseason), in an era when the Bronx was innocent enough for Perian and Charley to open their suite after games so that fans could drink bourbons with the men they idolized, before Gifford and Conerly hit the subway downtown for a night on the circuit: P. J. Clarke’s, 21, Mike Manuche’s, and Toots’s place.
Gifford earned the celebrity with his feats on the field, even if the stats weren’t overwhelming. He had that rare ability—a star’s ability—to make the difference on any given Sunday, with a clutch reception or a key first down. In 1956, his third year, he led the team in rushing and receiving, and when the Giants won the title, 47-7, over the Bears, he’d officially arrived. The endorsements rolled in. The Giants rolled on.
The 1958 championship game against the Colts was a sloppy but thrilling overtime affair that allowed West Coast viewers, Midwest viewers, living-room late-comers all over the country, to turn on their sets and stumble upon a football game that should have been over. “The Greatest Game Ever Played” it wasn’t, but it was a tipping point. The nation took notice. Frank fumbled the ball away twice in that game, which led to a Giants loss. History has forgotten the turnovers. Frank never did.
Gifford’s final act as an athlete was a triumphant one. In a game against the Eagles on a cold afternoon at the Stadium in 1960, a hit from a rowdy linebacker named Chuck Bednarik knocked him off his feet. Slipping on the frozen turf, his head slammed into the ground. He was carried off the field unconscious; teammates feared he was dead. He missed the entire next year—and then, in best Hollywood style, rose from the ashes, returned to the team as a wide receiver, and made the Pro Bowl again.
After his retirement, Gifford segued into local television, and then, still handsome and still possessed of a measure of fame, into the national spotlight as the play-by-play man on Monday Night Football, where he had the misfortune to sit between two larger-than-life characters, the imperiously oleaginous Howard Cosell and the cowboy cartoon Don Meredith. Gifford was never very good at play-by-play; out of his uniform, away from Toots’s, he had little charisma. In later years on MNF, as a color man, he was pretty black and white.
And then, the bottoming out: his tryst with a flight attendant in a midtown hotel in 1997 went public when the woman sold tape of the event to a tabloid. The last vestige of glory fell away; gods don’t get duped. Kathie Lee, his third wife, whom he had married in 1986, ripped him a new one on national TV. That she stood by him and ultimately forgave him did little to erase the stain. When ABC finally yanked him from the MNF booth at the end of the season, relegating him to pregame stuff, the end of his broadcast career was near. As Meredith used to sing when a game got out of hand, “Turn out the lights—the party’s over.”
Some years ago, at a dinner party where Gifford and his wife were seated at the same table as my wife and I, the woman to my right asked me, “What does Kathie Lee Gifford’s husband do?”
By then, after a few lunches with the man through the years, I knew him well enough that I could have answered, “He’s a dad. Used to be a god. Thinks a lot about when he used to be a god. Kind of wishes he still were. But sort of relieved not to be now. The mantel never fit him very well. We just wanted it to. Until we didn’t. Mostly, he’s just a guy.”
I didn’t say that. I said, “He used to be a hell of a football player.”