Sunday, 9 August 2015


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...where the line from Michael Richie's film Smile, about Exhausted Rooster Syndrome, was brought up many times. The estimable Mike Rosen, former editor of Sport magazine, was along to write for him, like a third wheel on a honeymoon. We called him Frank's Brain. I thought that was cruel, but years later I recall my mother telling me about Kathie Lee's bragging about their sex life at some golf tournament ABC was covering; I believe that weekend might have been 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). 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 because 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. Joe Morrison, to an extent, followed that pattern too. Rote, like Gifford and Charlie Conerly (who became a Marlboro man), did a lot of advertising and then media, of course when New York's Mad Men discovered the NFL in the late 50s they turned to the local team for glamour. And Rote's son Kyle, Jr. became a pro soccer star in the early NASL.

On the downside, it was the professionalism of Gifford's approach when he presented NFL on C4 in 1986 that eventually inflicted the Vicious Boys on us, perhaps the first, and a very prescient, if completely unsuccessful attempt to turn the sport into comedy, if not 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. He also had one memorable flub, when presenting the Wide World Of Sports Athlete of the Year award. It was going to Ben Johnson, and Gifford had been warned to be gentle, as Ben was exceeding shy and was a stutterer. So of course Giff presented the award to 'Bill Johnson' (Bill was a US skier) and Ben got flustered.

But I was always struck by 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 asked, '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.


Ruzz said...

I remember FG very warmly as the commentator on Four when I first started watching the NFL. I was bewildered when he was replaced - apparently for being too dry and uninspiring: I thought he was excellent. Of course I knew nothing then of his storied history.

Any chance of your giving us your thoughts on the current Geno Smith debacle? It seems ripe for your analysis: the rich disfunctional history of the Jets; the weirdness that is training camp; and it would be great to get your thoughts on the kind of hierarchies that are exposed by the whole grievance that seems to have given rise to the punch in the first place. Given the pressure on young players, the powerful sense of entitlement, the violence inherent in the game - is it surprising that we don't get more of these incidents?

Michael Carlson said...

Go to and listen to the current show, aka The Great Bandini. Nailed it
with a jackhammer