By Ernie Palladino
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The truly great ones continue to leave us one by one, taking away one living link after another to the old days.
On Sunday, it was Frank Gifford taking his leave at age 84, passing quietly at his home in Connecticut from natural causes. And so erodes yet another connection to what truly was the Giants’ Golden Era. With the likes of Andy Robustelli, Charlie Conerly, Kyle Rote, Rosie Brown, Dick Lynch, Em Tunnell, Jim Katcavage, and Mel Triplett gone before him, only a few like Sam Huff and Rosey Grier and Dick Modzelewski remain to bear direct witness to the Giants of the Jim Lee Howell mid-’50s and Allie Sherman ’60s that played for six NFL championships and won it all in 1956.
Losing Gifford makes this whole life-and-death process a bit tougher to take, though. In Gifford, the Giants and football lost not only a former star, but its greatest spokesman. Giff had it all — movie star looks, a smooth manner, great camera presence, and guts.
Remember, it was the triple-threat halfback Gifford who lay motionless in that iconic photo as Eagle Chuck Bednarik pumped his fist after the defender’s pile-driving tackle on a completion. Gifford retired following that one. But after taking the ’61 season to recount his marbles, he decided he still had the requisite number to come back in ’62 — as a flanker.
He was all class. Though some at Yankee Stadium wanted to crucify Bednarik for what they perceived as a cheap shot, Gifford never held it against him. In fact, he went on record as calling it a clean hit. And he accepted the fact that, despite leading the Giants five straight years in receptions and his current No. 3 ranking on the Giants’ all-time list for all-purpose yardage, much of his latter celebrity would be connected to that singular hit.
He even went so far as to warn his girlfriend and future wife, TV host Kathie Lee Gifford, that she would hear Bednarik’s name whispered a lot as they appeared in various establishments about town.
Not that he was all-forgiving of everything. He thought he had a first down with three minutes left in regulation in the 1958 championship game against the Colts. Until his last breath, he claimed the referee mis-spotted the ball. The Giants punted, allowing Johnny Unitas the chance to send “The Greatest Game Ever Played” into overtime with an historic drive.
The Colts, of course, won that game in overtime as Alan Ameche plowed over the middle.
To the late Giants owner Wellington Mara, he was a son.
To millions of TV viewers, he was a tremendous, versatile analyst of any sport. As Don Meredith provided mirth, he provided measured reason in their two-fisted counter to Howard Cosell’s bombast in the early days of Monday Night Football.
One reporter — this one — will never forget his generosity of time and praise over one particular book. After spending more than an hour reminiscing for “Lombardi and Landry,” he was asked to provide a blurb for the back cover of the book. Such requests are pretty standard stuff, and most subjects oblige with no further contact.
That wasn’t Gifford, however. One day, out of the blue, the phone rang.
“Hi,” the young lady on the other end said. “Could you please hold for Frank Gifford?”
What followed was a seven-word acknowledgment that he had sent off his testimonial to the publisher, and a five-minute celebration of the book. He had stayed up all night reading an advanced copy. “Couldn’t put it down,” he said. “You had that whole era down to a T.”
The emotional high from that single phone call lasted a week.
The gratitude for such kindness has lasted a lifetime.
Then again, that’s what good ambassadors do.
Gifford was one of the best.