He was at least as famous a broadcaster as he was a player. And in his later years, which he spent as a football statesman, his wife's public profile was probably higher than his was. But long before all of that, Frank Gifford was a New York Giant -- as much a New York Giant as anyone who has ever lived. Picture all of the Giants' history as one organic body, and it's fair to label Gifford its heart.
Gifford died Sunday at the age of 84, and the news stirred memories nationwide of him as part of Monday Night Football's all-time team. Gifford, Howard Cosell and Don Meredith were the faces of the televised pro football revolution. As part of that endeavor, Gifford played a major role in building the NFL into the dominating brand it is today.
But before that, Gifford belonged to New York and to the Giants in a way that mattered viscerally. Before he helped make the NFL cool, Gifford made the Giants cool.
The Giants of the 1950s were a perennial championship contender, sharing a stadium with the most dominant New York Yankees teams of all time and strutting around the Big Apple like the bona-fide sports celebrities they were. Gifford hung with Frank Sinatra and Mickey Mantle at Toots Shor's Restaurant. He appeared in movies with Tony Curtis, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. He had matinee idol looks and Hall of Fame talent. He was a star before the NFL really made stars. Among the children of the era who wore his No. 16 jersey was a young John Mara, who was born to the Giants' owners in the third year of Gifford's career.
"Frank Gifford was the ultimate Giant. He was the face of our franchise for so many years," Mara said Sunday. "More importantly, he was a treasured member of our family. My father loved him like a son and was proud to act as his presenter for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a favor Frank returned years later by presenting my father in Canton. For my siblings and me, Frank was like a revered older brother whom we looked up to and admired. We loved him and will miss him terribly."
What New York craves most is a winner, and Gifford's Giants teams did some winning. He was MVP of the league in 1956, when the Giants won their first NFL championship in 18 years. The Giants would play in five more championship games in the next eight years, including a famous loss in the game known as the greatest ever played, and Gifford would find himself in eight Pro Bowls -- some as a running back, some as a defensive back and the final one, in 1963, as a wide receiver.
Even now, more than 50 years after he retired, Gifford still ranks as the Giants' all-time leader in touchdowns. He holds a legitimate place among the best ever to wear the Giants' uniform. But his legacy went well beyond that, both during his career and for decades after. Gifford was class. Gifford was caliber. Gifford was cool.