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Versatile Gifford excelled on both sides of the ball

Gifford was star in backfield, booth
By Mike Puma
Special to

"Frank was always the star to me. My respect for what he had been through and what he brought with him to New York City and how he performed. Hey, he's a legend," says Joe Namath on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

He had legs made for a football field, a face made for television and a nice-guy persona. It all translated into spectacular careers in two different arenas -- football and broadcasting -- for Frank Gifford.

Frank Gifford
Frank Gifford (16) made the Pro Bowl in seven of his 12 seasons.
As a Hall-of-Fame player and Monday Night Football announcer, the spotlight shined on Gifford for almost a half-century. After starring at Southern Cal, he was the offensive centerpiece of New York Giants teams of the 1950s and early 1960s, which advanced to five NFL title games with the triple-threat back.

Gifford made the Pro Bowl -- at defensive back, running back and flanker -- in seven of his 12 NFL seasons. His last three campaigns came after a one-year retirement that followed a brutal hit by Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik in 1960. Gifford amassed 9,753 combined yards and his 78 touchdowns is still a Giants record. He also threw for 14 touchdowns as a master of the option pass from his halfback spot.

In 1971, he joined Howard Cosell and Don Meredith to form one of television's most colorful broadcast teams. The straight man of the group, Gifford stayed 27 seasons in the Monday Night Football booth and worked more than 600 consecutive games through various changes in partners.

In 1986, Gifford married his third wife, Kathie Lee Johnson, at a time she was rising to stardom herself, as co-host of Live With Regis & Kathie Lee. In 1997, an extramarital fling Gifford had with a former flight attendant became a national story with pictures of the romp captured by the Globe.

The youngest of Weldon and Lola Mae Gifford's three children, Frank was born on Aug. 16, 1930 in Santa Monica, Calif. His father was a traveling oil roughneck who struggled during the Depression. By the time Frank entered high school in Bakersfield, Calif., he had lived in 47 towns. The family occasionally slept in parks or in their car while Weldon searched for accommodations.

Gifford's first taste of football was on the beach with his older brother Waine. In high school, Frank made the varsity as a 5-foot-7, 120-pound quarterback. Not a good student, he began taking academics seriously as a junior after his coach told him he had a chance to earn a college athletic scholarship.

Still, it wasn't enough. He didn't have the grades required to get into USC, where he had his heart set on playing. But after spending a semester at Bakersfield Junior College and earning JC All-American honors, he met the necessary academic requirements to earn a scholarship from USC.

In 1949, when a starting safety was injured in the season opener against Navy, Gifford stepped in and intercepted two passes. Although he wanted to play on offense -- he was recruited as a quarterback -- he remained primarily a defensive back in his sophomore and junior seasons.

After USC hired a new coach, Jess Hill, Gifford was switched to tailback as a senior in 1951 and became the focal point of the offense. He rushed for 841 yards and seven touchdowns and completed 32-of-61 passes for 303 yards and two scores.

When Gifford's college sweetheart, Maxine Ewart, USC's homecoming queen, became pregnant, they married, on Jan. 13, 1952. The first of their three children, Jeff, was born in June. Drafted in the first round by the Giants, Gifford received a $250 signing bonus that covered the hospital bill for the child's birth.

"I remember I hated the thought of being drafted by the Giants," said Gifford. "But as it happened, it couldn't have worked out better."

Gifford, who grew to 6-feet-1 and 197 pounds, wanted to play only one position, but the Giants used him at running back, defensive back and on special teams. Despite going to the Pro Bowl in 1952 and 1953 as a defensive back, Gifford was unhappy and considered quitting.

But like at USC, the arrival of two new coaches helped Gifford rediscover his passion for the game. Jim Lee Howell replaced Steve Owen in 1954 and the team hired an offensive assistant named Vince Lombardi, who made Gifford the starting halfback because of his versatility.

"In effect, my pro career began that season," Gifford said. He rushed for 366 yards and a 5.6 average before tearing ligaments in his knee. Still, he earned another Pro Bowl berth, becoming the first player to go from defense to offense in the Pro Bowl in consecutive years.

Gifford was named United Press' MVP in 1956 when he led the Giants to the Eastern Conference title with an 8-3-1 record. Finishing fifth in the NFL in rushing with 819 yards, on 159 carries (5.2 average), he ran for five touchdowns. His 51 catches were third in the league and accounted for 603 yards and four touchdowns. Then in the NFL championship game, Gifford helped the Giants to a 47-7 rout of the Chicago Bears.

Gifford's broadcasting career began the next year when he hosted a sports show for a TV station in Bakersfield.

In 1958, Gifford was involved in a controversial play in the championship game. With the Giants leading 17-14 with two minutes remaining in regulation, Gifford carried on third-and-four from his own 40. Baltimore's Gino Marchetti broke his leg on the play and in the confusion the Giants say they got a bad spot from the officials. The ball was placed just before the first-down marker though Gifford insisted he got the necessary yardage. The Giants punted and Johnny Unitas led the Colts to the tying field goal. Then Baltimore won 23-17 in the NFL's first overtime game.

"If Gifford makes that first down, no one would have heard of the '58 Colts," Giants linebacker Sam Huff said.

On Nov. 20, 1960, Gifford suffered a more serious misfortune. After catching a pass, he fumbled when he was blindsided by Bednarik, who knocked Gifford unconscious with the vicious hit. There's a famous photo of Bednarik celebrating over the prone Giant, who would spend 10 days in the hospital with a concussion.

Three months later, Gifford announced his retirement, but it lasted only one season. He returned in 1962 at a new position -- flanker -- and caught 39 passes for 796 yards and seven touchdowns. That year, Gifford began doing nightly sports reports for WCBS-TV in New York.

After the 1964 campaign, he called it quits from football for good. He had run for 3,609 yards. He caught 367 passes and his 5,434 receiving yards were a Giants record for 39 years - until Amani Toomer passed him in 2003.

Frank Gifford
Frank Gifford (right), pictured with Joe Namath and Roone Arledge, spent 27 seasons on Monday Night Football.
Then he channeled all of his energy into his second career -- broadcasting. CBS hired him in 1965 to cover pro football, college basketball and golf. Six years later, he replaced Keith Jackson as the play-by-play announcer on Monday Night Football, which ABC had created the year before.

Gifford teamed with Cosell, his longtime sparring partner who sarcastically referred to him as "Faultless Frank," for 13 seasons and Meredith for 11. For Gifford's first 15 years he was the play-by-play man; when Al Michaels replaced him in that role in 1986, Gifford became an analyst. After being forced out of the broadcast booth following the 1997 season, he spent a year as MNF's pregame host.

In 1978, he married fitness trainer Astrid Lindley. They divorced in 1986. Four years earlier, Gifford had met Kathie Lee Johnson on the set of Good Morning America. Married on Oct. 18, 1986, they have a son Cody and a daughter Cassidy.

In 1997, the Globe ran photos and stories of Gifford with Suzen Johnson. The tabloid reportedly paid the former flight attendant $75,000 to entice Gifford into a hotel room equipped with a hidden video camera.

Though his image took a hit, Gifford endures as a symbol of dignity, strength and professionalism. "People have always looked for things in me that they'd like to see in themselves," he said. "I've experienced a lifetime of it."

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