He Was A Star On And Off The Field, Not To Mention In The Booth On MNF

By Jason Keidel
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When pro football became an essential sport, Frank Gifford was an essential member. Twice.

Most of us would settle for one iconic career, but Gifford was the face of two iconic franchises, the NFL and Monday Night Football.

And what a face it was. Before there was a need for the term “hater” many of us marveled at how handsome Gifford was, long after his halcyon years running the ball for the Giants. He was the first media member with movie star contours, his crossover appeal undeniable, bringing hordes of men and women to the screen.

Gallery: Remembering Frank Gifford

Gifford reared two generations of football fans. First as a player in the 1950s, when the Giants were still iconic, and then for those of us who learned the game via Monday Night Football, when he was part of that most holy NFL trinity, in the booth, flanked by Don Meredith and Howard Cosell.

Unless you were alive and lucid, it’s hard to explain how monolithic Monday Night Football really was. If you’re in you’re 40s, you probably had to beg your parents to let you watch halftime, when they showed the first — and only — highlights from the prior day’s games. Before SportsCenter and George Michael’s Sports Machine, Monday Night Football was the Alpha and Omega of the NFL.

If you missed it, then you toiled until Len Dawson browsed over those contests on Thursday’s “Inside the NFL,” assuming you had the extra quid to carry HBO. The game, both on the field and in the booth, was essential television, a corporeal magnet of jocular jocks. While Cosell may have been the loudest voice and Meredith the class clown, Gifford was the spiritual median, always toeing the bouncing line in a turbulent room.

But despite his movie star cheekbones, Ronald Reagan hairline, and Hall of Fame credentials, he never carried himself with the expected hubris of someone so admired. Gifford was the impossible hybrid of absurdly handsome and obscenely humble. Not to mention his talents weren’t limited to the NFL, as he spread his charms along a wide buffet of sports, from tennis to Wide World of Sports to the Olympics.

On Monday morning, Boomer Esiason mused profoundly over his first phone call from Gifford. When it was announced that Esiason would join the sacred MNF booth, Gifford reached out to the neophyte announcer, rather than the reverse. Admittedly nervous and even trembling, his heart throbbing while he gripped the phone, Boomer was floored by how gracious Gifford was, a pro until his last vowel behind the mike.

On the field, Gifford won a world title with the Giants in 1956, also winning the league’s MVP. And if not for Vince Lombardi, he could have won several more. The Football Giants lost twice to the Packers behemoth in the NFL championship game. But despite fewer games per season and a career truncated by a lethal forearm from Chuck Bednarik — he kept playing but was never the same — Gifford still leads the Giants in total touchdowns, with 78.

If he weren’t big and bad enough, he’s also in the College Football Hall of Fame, from his days playing for USC. Gifford blessed every room and every medium he entered. Pat Summerall may have had the greatest broadcasting career of any former player, but Gifford was the first to carry a transcendent athletic career into another.

Dan Dierdorf told ESPN a quintessential Gifford story on Monday morning. Gifford once quipped that if Bednarik had hit him any harder he may have killed him. It speaks to his dignity, his disarming, self-effacing ethos from whistle to gun. In an industry stuffed with sycophants, haters and backstabbers, you’d be hard-pressed to find one insider or outsider with one foul word about Frank Gifford.

Frank Gifford died of natural causes. Fitting. He was naturally brilliant, ebullient, and beautiful.

Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel