Remembering Frank Gifford brings back a lot of memories. I worked with him at ABC Sports, including once doing the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final with punter Dave Jennings as his 'expert' colour. Jennings messed up his standup three or four times and then when he finally got it right, Giff messed up his, so we had to tape again. That was a hoot. I was with him for many years at Kitzbuehl, once along with Kathie Lee soon after their marriage...he was one tired announcer! The estimable Mike Rosen, former editor of Sport magazine, was along to write for him, like a third wheel on a honeymoon. I recall my mother telling me about Kathie Lee bragging about their sex life at some golf tournament ABC was covering; I believe that was the Friday a couple of my colleagues and I celebrated our promotions by destroying Caramba before returning to an empty office.
Gifford was a big part of the most iconic NFL game ever; he was the fallen warrior in the most iconic NFL photo ever, and the only sports star I know of to be the focus of one of the great American novels of the 20th century (Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes) and he was everything Exley worshipped, and more, and less.
He was probably a better player than people remember now, though of course his career suffered because of underuse early, under Steve Owen (corrected as soon as Jim Lee Howell became head coach and hired Vince Lombardi to run the offense) and because of the way carries were shared in those days and Lombardi didn't pass all that much to backs. He's still remembered primarily as the victim of Chuck Bednarik's tackle, and maybe for not getting a crucial first down in that 1958 championship game--he always insisted he'd made it but wasn't given the spot.
It struck me that his career followed closely Kyle Rote's (that's Rote, number 44, in the Bednarik picture). Rote was an even bigger college star, at SMU, as a tailback. He became a running back, then switched after injury to flanker, just as Gifford did. Rote, like Gifford and Charlie Conerly (who became a Marolboro man, did a lot of advertising when New York's Mad Men discovered the NFL in the late 50s (and his son Kyle, Jr. became a pro soccer star in the early NASL). Joe Morrison, to an extent, followed that pattern too.
On the downside, it was the professionalism of his approach when he presented NFL on C4 in 1986 that eventually inflicted the Vicious Boys on us, perhaps the first, and a very prescient, attempt to turn the sport into reality TV. He introduced British crews to the idea of wearing shorts and sneakers out of vision, with a jacket and tie above. He was a longtime ABC Sports host, and oh yeah, he was the referee between Howard Cosell & Dandy Don Meredith on MNF when it was the best NFL on TV. But he was basically a professional, subdued announcer--like his Giant's teammate Pat Summeral, but without as good a voice.
I remember an interview with him, I think it was in Esquire but it might have been Sport. He was asked about regrets. Gifford said 'you know, I was a quarterback in college. The Giants had Charlie Conerly, so they moved me to halfback.' The interviewer said, 'oh, so you wanted to play quarterback?' and Gifford replied, 'no, you don't understand. You see, I was a quarterback.'
That bittersweet regret, from a man who seemed to have everything, has stayed with me ever since. RIP Giff.