Sunday, August 9, 2015

Frank Gifford, 1930-2015


On November 20, 1960, a lot of people thought Frank Gifford had died. It would have been a shocking end for New York's first true football superstar.

As it turned out, he had quite a bit of life left in him.

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Francis Newton Gifford -- sounding more like the name of a U.S. Senator than that of a sports legend -- was born on August 16, 1930 in Santa Monica, California, outside Los Angeles, and grew up in Bakersfield, an oil town about 100 miles away, in a rural part of the State that would have tremendous growth after 1970.

He starred in football at Bakersfield High School, but didn't have the grades to get into his first choice of school, the University of Southern California. So he went to Bakersfield Junior College, and got the necessary grades to get into USC.

Frank began the tradition of great USC tailbacks, followed by football legends Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Anthony Davis, Charles White, Marcus Allen and Reggie Bush. He was an All-American in 1951, and, despite not having blond hair, was nicknamed the Golden Boy.

He arrived in the National Football League just as the transition was being made from single-platoon football -- players playing both offense and defense -- to two-platoon football. Only in his 1st 2 seasons, 1952 and '53, did he play on both sides of the ball, as a halfback and a cornerback. In 1954, with a new head coach, Jim Lee Howell, he began to be used exclusively at left halfback, behind quarterback Charley Conerly.

In 1955, he made the Pro Bowl for the 1st time. In 1956, the Giants had an epic season. First, they moved out of the crumbling Polo Grounds and into the old Yankee Stadium. There, everything improved: The playing conditions, the morale, the offense, the defense, the fan reactions.

The chant of "Dee-FENSE!" was first heard at an NFL game, as men like Sam Huff, Andy Robustelli and Emlen Tunnell -- all future members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- followed the lead of defensive coach (they weren't yet called "coordinators") Tom Landry (yes, that Tom Landry) and became the 1st great NFL defense-only unit. Though the nickname didn't come along until the 1980s, this was the original Big Blue Wrecking Crew.

For the 1st time in football history, defense was cool. And, with New York City being the media center of the nation, the rest of America noticed the defense, and noticed the Giants, who hadn't won an NFL title since 1938, nor been in an NFL Championship Game since 1944.

But it's scoring that truly gets the headlines, and Vince Lombardi -- yes, that Vince Lombardi -- coached the Giant offense. With Conerly, Gifford, and fellow running backs Mel Triplett and Alex Webster in the backfield, and Gifford and Kyle Rote catching passes, and Hall of Fame tackle Roosevelt Brown among the blockers, the Giants were just about unstoppable.

Frank rushed for 819 yards, and and caught 51 passes for another 603 yards. Overall, his 1,422 yards from scrimmage led the NFL -- and that's in a 12-game season. (At the same rate, he would have had 1,895 yards over a 16-game season.) He scored 9 touchdowns, including 3 against the Washington Redskins on December 2. The Giants hung 38 points on the San Francisco 49ers, 38 on the Pittsburgh Steelers, 28 on the Redskins, and 27 on the Chicago Cardinals (but lost, allowing 35). The Giants went 8-3-1, and won the NFL's Eastern Division. UPI named Frank the NFL's Most Valuable Player.

In the days before the AFL-NFL merger, the hosting duties for the NFL Championship Game rotated between the Eastern and Western Champions. As this was an even-numbered year, the Eastern Champions hosted. On December 30, 1956, the Giants took the field at a frigid Yankee Stadium, and faced the Chicago Bears in front of 56,836 hardy souls and a national television audience on NBC.

It was the peak day for both that offense and that defense. The Bears, despite being used to cold weather, were totally put on ice. The Giants jumped out to a 20-0 lead before the Bears could get on the board, with touchdowns by Triplett and Webster and a pair of field goals by Ben Agajanian. Rick Casares scored for the Bears, with quarterback George Blanda kicking the extra point.

But it was all G-Men after that. Webster scored another touchdown, and the Giants blocked a punt, which Henry Moore recovered in the end zone. It was 34-7 when the teams headed into the locker room.

The Bears should've stayed inside. In the 3rd quarter, Conerly threw a touchdown pass to Rote. In the 4th, he threw one to Gifford to put on the exclamation point. Giants 47, Bears 7. It was a devastating display.

This is Agajanian's ring from the title season. This is what a ring from "Super Bowl Minus-X" looks like. Gifford, of course, got one, too.
Those are a pair of Lower Manhattan skyscrapers on one side, but this was long before the World Trade Center was anything more than an idea. They're a pair of early 1930s buildings: The Bank of Manhattan Trust Building (40 Wall Street, now named the Trump Building) and the Cities Service Building (now named for its address, 70 Pine Street).

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That wasn't the peak of Frank Gifford's fame, but it did turn out to be the peak of his NFL achievement. The Giants got back into the NFL Championship Game in 1958, but it turned out to be a classic that didn't go their way, as the Baltimore Colts shocked a national TV and Yankee Stadium audience by sending the game to overtime, where Johnny Unitas and his Colt teammates put on a show that is still talked about as "the Greatest Game Ever Played." The Colts won, 23-17, and the NFL became a true TV phenomenon -- mainly because it was in New York.

The Colts beat the Giants in the next year's title game as well, but that was in Baltimore, and wasn't as good a game, so it's not as hyped. (Why Baltimore was in the Western Division, I don't know.)

But the New York media machine continued to hype up the Giants, every bit as much as it had their baseball counterparts (who'd moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season), and the Yankees, and would later do to the Mets, the Jets, the Knicks, the Rangers and the Islanders -- and, of course, the Giants again.

New York previously had great football players like Benny Friedman, Ken Strong, Mel Hein and Tuffy Leemans, but Gifford was the 1st of the TV era. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, you couldn't watch a night's TV without watching Gifford do a commercial for Vitalis hairspray (as opposed to Brylcreem, a.k.a. "that greasy kid stuff"), Lucky Strike cigarettes, Florida orange juice, or some other product. He became a frequent panelist on CBS' game show What's My Line? New Yorkers might not have used the capital letters, but, every bit as much as he was at USC, he was a golden boy.

It almost didn't last. On November 20, 1960, Yankee Stadium was the scene of another historical moment, and Gifford was there -- but he didn't remember it. Indeed, he was lucky to have survived it.

The Giants were playing the Eagles, their arch-rivals since the Eagles' founding in 1933. The winner was probably going to win the Division and host the Championship Game, as the Giants had in 3 of the last 4 years. (If this section looks familiar, it's because I copied-and-pasted, and adapted, it from my piece on Gifford's antagonist in March.)

The Giants led 10-0 at the half, but blew it. In the 4th quarter, the Eagles' Jimmy Carr picked up a fumble and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown, making it 17-10 Eagles.

With the clock running out, George Shaw, filling in for the injured Conerly, threw a pass toward Gifford at midfield. Gifford caught the pass, but Chuck Bednarik, the Eagle linebacker appropriately known as Concrete Charley, 
arrived at the same time, and he flattened Gifford, who fumbled. The Eagles recovered.

On the film, this doesn't look like an especially injurious hit. I've seen much worse. What made this the most famous hit in NFL history -- aside from the fact that it was in New York, and involved a New York team, and was seen by a national TV audience -- was how Chuck reacted.

The film shows him reacting to the fumble by jumping around and clapping his hands. Then he pumped his fist, and issued what became his catchphrase: "This fucking game is over!" (In other words, no, his exact words did not include "effin'.") For all intents and purposes, the game was, indeed, over. The final score was 17-10 Eagles.

But it was the photograph that proved damaging -- not to Gifford's body, but to Bednarik's reputation. Or maybe it enhanced his reputation. It showed Bednarik standing over Gifford, pumping his fist. Gifford is lying on the ground, motionless, as Rote (Number 44) looks on. 

Bednarik spent the last 54 years of his life explaining that he didn't realize Gifford was motionless on the ground in front of him, that he was celebrating the Eagles wrapping up a big win, not the fact that he'd knocked Gifford out. He said he didn't even know he'd knocked Gifford out.

Legend has it that Gifford was knocked out because, despite wearing a helmet, he hit his head on the frozen grass. This couldn't be true: According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, it was 49 degrees at gametime -- not a particularly notable temperature for mid-November New York, and hardly cold enough to freeze the field.

Gifford was taken to the Giants' locker room -- which, at the old Stadium, was also the Yankees' locker room. As befitting the biggest star on the team, Gifford's locker was also Mickey Mantle's. Also taken to the locker room for first aid was a security guard who had a heart attack. Frank's first wife, Maxine, didn't know this, and when she went down to the locker room to see Frank, she heard someone say, "He's dead" -- meaning the security guard. When the guard was wheeled out on a stretcher, with his face covered by a sheet, reporters saw this, and thought it was Gifford. The rumor began to spread that Bednarik had killed him. And when the photo was seen in newspapers across the country the next day, Bednarik looked like a monster, celebrating his "kill."

It got worse. Bednarik went to see Gifford in the hospital the next day, and was told Gifford couldn't receive visitors. But a new rumor circulated, that Bednarik wouldn't see Gifford. It wasn't that he wouldn't, it was that he couldn't.

Gifford always said he never held it against Bednarik. Bednarik said he was tired of people remembering him mainly for one thing. "It was always, 'Oh, you're the guy! You're the guy! You're the guy that got Frank Gifford!' Yeah, I'm the guy that 'got' Frank Gifford."


He was also tired of Howard Cosell, on Monday Night Football, seeing a hard hit, and turning to Gifford and saying, "Just like Chuck Bednarik blindsided you at Yankee Stadium, Giffaroo!"

"Blindsided, my fanny! It was a clean hit," Bednarik always said. And it was: Like the infamous Denis Potvin hit on Ulf Nilsson in 1979, or Scott Stevens leveling Eric Lindros in 2000, no penalty was called on it. (And, yes, this profane man would say, "fanny," not "ass." In America, "fanny" means rear end. In Britain, it means the other side, of a woman.)


Chuck died this past March 21. If he hadn't, we might now be talking about how Gifford finally felt the effects of that clobbering, nearly 55 years later

Frank missed the rest of the 1960 season, and retired at age 30. The Giants reached the 1961 NFL Championship Game anyway, but Frank wouldn't have been able to help much, as they got slaughtered by the Green Bay Packers. He missed playing, and returned in 1962, switching to flanker (wide receiver) for safety reasons. He won NFL Comeback Player of the Year, and got the Giants back into the Championship Game, again at Yankee Stadium. But the Packers won again. In 1963, they got to another, this time losing to the Bears.

In 1964, it all came crashing down. The Giants did not look like the team that had reached 6 of the last 8 NFL Championship Games. Like the Yankees would do the following spring, their players all seemed to get old, or hurt, or both, at once. Gifford retired. having rushed for 3,609 yards -- that may not look like much compared to modern numbers, but it was a strong 4.3 per carry. He caught 367 passes for 5,434 yards -- in that era, those were considered enormous numbers. He scored 77 touchdowns in his 12 seasons -- 12-game seasons until 1960, 14-game seasons thereafter.

He was named to 8 Pro Bowls, the NFL's 1950s All-Decade Team, and the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. In a pair of belated honors, the Giants retired his Number 16, and inducted him into their Ring of Honor when MetLife Stadium opened.

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Frank went into broadcasting. As CBS had the NFL exclusively at that point, he called some of their games, including Super Bowl I early in 1967 and the NFL Championship Game, the "Ice Bowl" in Green Bay, at the end of the year. In 1971, he was brought to ABC to do Monday Night Football. where he worked with some of the biggest names in sportscasting, including fellow NFL legends Don Meredith, Alex Karras, Fran Tarkenton, O.J. Simpson, Joe Namath, Dan Dierdorf, Lynn Swann and Joe Theismann -- and, of course, non-athletes Keith Jackson (in the 1st season only), Howard Cosell and Al Michaels.

ABC put him on other broadcasts as well, including on the Olympic Games from 1972 (including play-by-play of the basketball Gold Medal game where the U.S. got robbed, to the benefit of the Soviet team) to 1992. These assignments also included The Battle of the Network Stars and their anthology series ABC Wide World of Sports.

His WWOS assignments included several of Evel Knievel's motorcycle jumps, leading to a friendship between the erstwhile Golden Boy and the King of the Daredevils. In 1975, Knievel attempted to jump over 13 buses at the old Wembley Stadium in London. He did it, but couldn't stick the landing, and fell off, with the cycle's front wheel rolling over his arm. With a live mike, Gifford could clearly be heard saying, "Oh, my God," something that people weren't supposed to say on TV in those days. Although that was the worst-looking part of Knievel's crash, he had worse injuries, including a broken pelvis. Gifford abandoned his post, and ran to him. He and another man helped Knievel up, and carried him into the locker room on their shoulders.

In 1995, the Pro Football Hall of Fame gave him the Pete Rozelle Award, their award for media personalities. This made him the 1st man honored by a sport with election to its Hall of Fame for both playing and broadcasting. He has since been joined by Kansas City Chiefs quarterback and broadcaster Len Dawson.

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Frank was married to Maxine Ewart, and they had 3 children: Sons Jeff and Kyle, and daughter Victoria. Victoria married Michael Kennedy, son of Bobby. Through his children from his 1st marriage, he has 5 grandchildren.

In 1984, there were a pair of substitute hosts on ABC's Good Morning America. One was Frank. The other was Kathie Lee Johnson, also recently divorced. At the time, she was known as a singer, Tom Kennedy's lady sidekick on the game show Name That Tune, and pitchwoman for Carnival Cruise Lines. Despite their 23-year age difference -- exactly 23 years, as they share the birthday of August 16 -- they hit it off, and were married on October 18, 1986. He continued on Monday Night Football, and she was paired with Regis Philbin on Live!, which went from a New York-only broadcast to a national one in 1988. They had a son, Cody, and a daughter, Cassidy.

(Left to right: Frank, Kathie Lee, Cody, Cassidy.)

Kathie Lee shared many details of their private life on the air, making Regis uncomfortable at times. (It also didn't help that Regis is a Notre Dame graduate, and they have a bit of a rivalry with Frank's alma mater, USC.) On a few occasions, Kathie Lee would refer to her husband as "The Human Love Machine."

If you're in your 60s, and your wife is much younger and gorgeous, and tells a live nationwide audience that you are a love machine, you might tend to believe it. In 1997, Frank was caught cheating, and it was a terrible embarrassment for Kathie Lee.

They stayed together. When Barbara Walters interviewed them on ABC's 20/20, sometime after the public revelation of Frank's infidelity, Kathie Lee said, "Sometimes, when you can't forgive your husband, you have to forgive the father of your children." (I suspect that this is why she rarely mentions her 1st husband.)

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Because of the scandal, Frank was eased off of Monday Night Football after the 1997 season, doing pregame shows only in 1998, and was then "allowed to retire." After that, he was mostly out of the public eye, although he still wrote books about his football experience and did interviews for them.

Kathie Lee left Live! in 2001, succeeded by Kelly Ripa. Regis' replacement was, appropriately enough, another Giants Hall-of-Famer, who had his own embarrassing marital scandal: Michael Strahan.

In 2008, Kathie Lee moved over to NBC, where she co-hosts the 4th hour of Today with Hoda Kotb. Cody, now 25, followed his father in playing football at USC, and stayed in Los Angeles, as a screenwriter. Cassidy, who just turned 23, is also in Hollywood, as an actress. Neither is yet married or a parent.

This morning, Frank was found nonresponsive at the family home in New Haven, Connecticut. He was a week short of his 85th birthday.

More than Eli Manning, more than even Lawrence Taylor, he is the New York Giants' greatest legend -- perhaps not the franchise's all-time greatest all-around player, but its greatest legend.

With Frank's death, there are now 7 surviving members of the 1956 World Champion New York Giants: Linebackers Sam Huff and Harland Svare, defensive tackles Dick Modzelewski and Rosey Grier (probably better known as a Los Angeles Ram), defensive back Henry Moore, tight end Bob Schnelker, and placekicker Ben Agajanian.

Agajanian was 1 of only 3 players to play in the NFL, the All-America Football Conference, and the 1960 version of the American Football League. (There were also AFLs in 1926, 1936-37 and 1940-41.) The other was Hardy Brown, best known as a devastating linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, and one of the earliest-known sufferers of football-related brain injury. Agajanian, however, topped Brown, because he played for Los Angeles franchises in all 3 cities: The AAFC's Dons, the NFL's Rams, and, playing in L.A. for 1 season before moving to San Diego, the AFL's Chargers.

From the NFL's 1950s All-Decade Team, there are now 6 surviving players, following the recent deaths of Gifford, Bednarik, and Detroit Lions guard Dick Stanfel: Huff, running backs Lenny Moore of the Baltimore Colts and Hugh McElhenny of the San Francisco 49ers, receiver Raymond Berry of the Colts, and linebacker Joe Schmidt and safety Yale Lary of the Detroit Lions.

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