The Courier-Mail

Giant on and off the football field


FROM the football field to the broadcast booth, Frank Gifford was a winner – an NFL championsh­ip in 1956 with the New York Giants, an Emmy award in 1976-77 as television’s “outstandin­g sports personalit­y,” and induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.

Gifford was as well known for serving as a buffer between fellow announcers Don Meredith and Howard Cosell on Monday Night Football as he was for his versatilit­y as a player.

“Frank Gifford was an icon of the game, both as a Hall of Fame player for the Giants and Hall of Fame broadcaste­r for CBS and ABC,” NFL Commission­er Roger Goodell said.

“Frank’s talent and charisma on the field and on the air were important elements in the growth and popularity of the modern NFL.”

In a statement released by his wife Kathie Lee Gifford, host of NBC’s Today, said: “We rejoice in the extraordin­ary life he was privileged to live and we feel grateful and blessed to have been loved by such an amazing human being.”

A running back, defensive back, wide receiver and special teams player in his career, Gifford was the NFL’s MVP in 1956. He went to the Pro Bowl at three positions and was the centrepiec­e of a Giants offence that went to five NFL title games in the 1950s and ’60s.

Beginning in 1971, he worked for ABC’s Monday Night Football, at first as a play-by-play announcer and then as an analyst.

Later in life he stayed in the spotlight through his marriage to Kathie Lee in 1986, who famously called him a “human love machine” and “lamb-chop” to her millions of viewers. The couple had two children.

“He was a great friend to everyone in the league, a special adviser to NFL commission­ers and served NFL fans with enormous distinctio­n for so many decades,” Goodell added.

Gifford hosted Wide World of Sports, covered several Olympics – his call of Franz Klammer’s downhill gold medal run in 1976 is considered a broadcasti­ng masterpiec­e – and announced 588 consecutiv­e NFL games for ABC, not even taking time off after the death of his mother shortly before a broadcast in 1986.

While he worked with others, including Dan Dierdorf, Al Michaels, Joe Namath and OJ Simpson, Gifford was most known for the eight years he served as a calming influence between the folksy Meredith and acerbic Cosell.

In its early years the show was a cultural touchstone, with cities throwing parades for the visiting announcers, and celebritie­s such as John Lennon and Ronald Reagan making appearance­s.

“I hate to use the words ‘American institutio­n’, but there’s no other way to put it, really,” Gifford said in 1993. “There’s nothing else like it.”

A straight-shooter who came off as earnest and sincere, Gifford was popular with viewers, though some accused him of being a stooge for the league.

Gifford was the son of an itinerant oil worker. Growing up in Depression-era California, he estimated he moved 47 times before entering high school, occasional­ly sleeping in parks or the family car and eating dog food.

He received a full-tuition scholarshi­p from the University of Southern California and was selected by the Giants with the 11th overall pick of the 1952 draft.

Gifford experience­d the highs and lows as a player. He had his best year in 1956, rushing for 819 yards, picking up 603 yards receiving and scoring nine touchdowns in 12 games. The Giants routed the Bears 47-7 at Yankee Stadium, where Gifford shared a locker with Mickey Mantle.

“Frank Gifford was the ultimate Giant,” co-owner John Mara said. “He was the face of our franchise for so many years.”

In 1960, Gifford was flattened by a crushing hit by Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik, which likely shortened his career. Bednarik was pictured standing over the unconsciou­s Gifford, pumping his fist in a celebratio­n which was thought by many to be over the top. Gifford was in the hospital for 10 days and sidelined until 1962.

Gifford’s 5434 yards receiving were a Giants record for 39 years, until Amani Toomer surpassed him in 2003. His jersey number, 16, was retired by the team in 2000.

When he wasn’t on the field, Gifford tried to put his movie-star good looks to use in Hollywood, appearing in about a dozen films, most notably the 1959 submarine movie Up Periscope.

He is survived by Kathie Lee and their children, as well as three children from a previous marriage.

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