Frank Gifford, who died Sunday of natural causes a week before his 85th birthday, did as much as anyone to transform professional football into today’s passionate pastime.
You’d have never guessed that the cool, dignified, gifted, photogenic Gifford came from the most humble beginnings imaginable.
Born during the Great Depression in 1930, Gifford’s father, a wildcatter, moved the family 47 times as he searched for work. Sometimes they moved twice in a single day. Sometimes they just slept in the family car.
They eventually settled in Bakersfield, California. “He made it over a very long and difficult road,” high school teammate and long-time friend Bob Karpe told the Bakersfield Californian on Sunday. “When I first knew him, he lived out in kind of an old, small house a ways out on Edison Highway. Not where you’d think Frank Gifford would be living. And, of course, after he grew up, he never did again.”
Gifford always gave credit to his high school football coach, Homer Beatty, for changing his life. Beatty saw something in the young man who couldn’t even pass his shop class. Something clicked. Beatty convinced young Frank that he could live a better life.
After leading the Drillers to the 1947 Central Section championship, Gifford had pulled his grades up enough to graduate. He was then admitted to Bakersfield College. “He was a typical Bakersfield guy,” former coach Carl Bowser told the Californian. “A Levi’s, t-shirt, type of guy. Until he got into the NFL. He was a really good guy.”
Bowser was just a water boy when Gifford played, but Gifford often gave him rides home after practice, towing Bowser’s bike behind his car.
Gifford was able to transfer to Southern Cal, where he became a three-year starter. A triple-threat, single-wing tailback, he made All-American in 1951.
In 1952, the Giants made him their first-round draft pick. Under Coach Steve Owen, Gifford spent his first two years playing defensive back and spelling running back Kyle Rote. But in 1954, his fortunes changed.
Jim Lee Howell replaced Owen as coach, and Vince Lombardi became his offensive coach (they hadn’t yet invented “coordinators.”) Lombardi immediately made use of Gifford’s multiple talents. Installed at left halfback, Gifford became a dangerous force on the Giants sweep, and a threat with the halfback pass.
Both plays would become famous when Lombardi became head coach of the Packers, and utilized Paul Hornung in the Frank Gifford role. The Packers sweep would become the most famous play in football, but it took Gifford’s unique skills to make it work in the first place.
The Giants would win the NFL championship in 1956, trouncing the Bears, 47-7, in the Championship Game. Gifford was the league’s MVP that year, rushing for 819 yards (5.2 per carry) and catching 51 passes for another 603 yards.
The Giants would appear in five more championship games during Gifford’s career, and their popularity soared. The 1958 game, called The Greatest Game Ever Played, elevated the NFL to a new level of popularity. A national television audience watched, mesmerized, as the Giants and Colts played the first overtime title game.
Gifford came up just short on a third down play with three minutes left. The Colts took over, and Johnny Unitas gave the world its first look at the two minute drill. The Colts drove from their own 14 yard line to the Giants 13, and Steve Myhra kicked the tying field goal with seven seconds left. The Colts would win, 23-17, in sudden death.
Just as suddenly, the Yankees no longer owned New York. As Gifford recalled in “The Whole Ten Yards,” his 1994 book, “In a city where Mickey Mantle was a god and the memory of Joe DiMaggio even more sacred, there was an awareness of another sport, another player, another team. I was the player, and the Giants were the team. Heady stuff, and I loved it!”
An incredible hit by Chuck Bednarik knocked Gifford out of a 1960 game, and he missed the entire 1961 season. But he returned as a flanker in 1962, and had three more solid seasons. He even made his eighth Pro Bowl in 1963. He slid effortlessly into broadcasting full-time upon his retirement in 1964. In 1971, Roone Arledge named him the play-by-play announcer for Monday Night Football. He was the perfect buffer between the acerbic Howard Cosell and the irreverent Don Meredith. For the rest of the decade, Monday Night Football was much more than must-see TV. It was an event.
Gifford would remain connected with MNF until 1998. During that time he was enshrined in the pro football Hall of Fame, and had his jersey retired by the Giants. And he remained the face of the Giants franchise, a true Giant among Giants.
But he never forgot his roots. Former Giants quarterback David Carr recalled a time when Gifford showed up in the Giants locker room asking, “Where’s the boy from Bakersfield?”
“I had a chance to talk with him for a little while,” Carr told the Californian. “It was a really cool moment.”