Gifford, Frank Newton

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GIFFORD, Frank Newton

(b. 16 August 1930 in Santa Monica, California), famed as a multipurpose running back for the New York Giants as well as a broadcaster for football games and other sports; member of both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Gifford is often portrayed as a "golden boy" who starred at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, California, and soared on to become a great player in the National Football League (NFL). This is a fable; Gifford was no pampered southern California golden boy. As one of three children of frequently unemployed Weldon Wayne and Lola Mae Hawkins, he had a hard life. His father struggled to support the family throughout the Great Depression, working on oil rigs when he could. During this time, they moved through forty-seven towns—some-times two in a day—living in their automobile or in parks before finding affordable housing.

By the time he reached Bakersfield High School, in Bakersfield, California, Gifford's grades were poor, and he may have been a disciplinary problem. But even as a transfer student, he made the football team as a quarterback. He credited his high school football coach with straightening him out during his junior year by showing him how he could escape the life his father had lived. Thereafter, he took his schoolwork seriously in hopes of earning an athletic scholarship to USC. When his grades were still not good enough for USC, he attended Bakersfield Junior College from 1948 to 1949 and earned the grades he needed. Meanwhile, he was honored as a Junior College All-American in football, and his good grades enabled him to receive his scholarship to USC.

In the first game of 1949, versus the United States Naval Academy, USC lost one of its starting safeties to injury and Gifford replaced him. Gifford intercepted two passes in the game, and thus one of the greatest careers in college football was begun. In 1951 a new coach, Jess Hill, made Gifford a running back, becoming the prototype for the modern tailback. On options, he completed thirty-two passes for 303 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for 841 yards and seven touchdowns. That year, Gifford was named college All-American.

On 13 January 1952 Gifford married his girlfriend, Maxine Avis Ewart, and the New York Giants drafted him in the first round, eleventh overall. Gifford wanted to focus on playing only one position, but NFL teams had only thirty players at the time, and some had to play "both ways" (offense and defense). Gifford's versatility meant that he played defensive back and offensive back, and he returned punts, but when Vince Lombardi became defensive coach in 1954, he made Gifford a full-time running back.

Gifford said that his real professional football career began then. He became an All Pro at halfback; he would be selected seven times for the Pro Bowl not only as a halfback but as a flanker and a defensive back. By the time he retired from football, he had passed for fourteen touchdowns, run for 3,609 yards and thirty-four touchdowns, received 367 passes for 5,434 yards and forty-three touchdowns, and returned an interception for a touchdown. He still holds the New York Giants team records for average yards per carry (4.3) and total touchdowns. In 1956 the United Press International named him NFL Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the Year.

On 28 December 1958 Gifford played in the NFL championship game against the Baltimore Colts. The game was to become legendary, often called the "Greatest Game Ever Played," because it electrified a large television audience and helped make football into a popular television sport. Though Gifford had a difficult day, fumbling twice in the first quarter, he went on to rush for a touchdown, eventually to carry the Giants to within inches of victory. However, a disputed play, in which officials may have mis-spotted the ball just short of a first down, created a fourth down on which the Giants punted. The Colts then tied the game and won it in overtime.

In 1959 Gifford was named MVP in the Pro Bowl, but he would soon fall on hard times. On 20 November 1960, in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Gifford caught a pass and stepped to turn up field when Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik stopped him cold with a ferocious hit. Gifford was hospitalized with a severe concussion for ten days, and he missed the rest of the season. Because his severe injury seemed to make a return to playing football impossible, Gifford announced his retirement.

Yet he returned to the Giants for the 1961 season, becoming a flanker. His exceptional versatility was shown to advantage in this role as sometime runner, sometime receiver, and sometime passer, and he returned to the Pro Bowl. By the time he had retired in 1964, he had been working as a television broadcaster for six years. In 1962 he had become a sports reporter for WCBS-TV in New York. In 1965 he joined CBS full time, covering not only football, but golf and basketball as well.

He was a broadcaster for the first Monday night NFL game to be broadcast on television, in 1966 on CBS. In 1971 he was hired by ABC to join Howard Cosell and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith in the broadcast booth for the second year of ABC's Monday Night Football. He was to be the play-by-play man while Meredith provided analysis and Cosell provided color commentary. The show was a great success, and Gifford's broadcasting career boomed; he remained with the show in various positions until 1998. ABC included him in its Olympic Games coverage for the Summer Games of 1972, 1976, and 1984, and the Winter Games of 1976, 1980, 1984, and 1988, during which Gifford earned praise for his work covering skiing events.

In 1976 Gifford was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. In 1977 he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he also won an Emmy Award for his sports broadcasting. He formed an enduring relationship with the Special Olympics and won a Christopher Award in 1984 for his work on the 1983 International Special Olympics. He also became heavily involved in the March of Dimes and the National Society for Multiple Sclerosis, of which he was a member of the board of directors from 1973 to 1978.

While Gifford's career transitions went smoothly, his personal life did not fare as well. His first marriage, during which he had three children, ended in divorce, and his second marriage to Astrid Narss in 1978, ended in divorce as well, in 1986. On 18 October 1986, he married for the third time, to Kathie Lee Johnson, whom he had met in 1984 and who was a rising television star, becoming the cohost of Live with Regis and Kathie Lee. It seemed a marriage made in heaven, between the upright sports hero and an American sweetheart, and together they had two children. But in 1997 a grocery store tabloid, the Globe, paid $75,000 to a Gifford acquaintance to seduce him in a hotel, tarnishing his reputation and jeopardizing his marriage. Gifford retired in 1998 and decided to focus on his personal life. His marriage survived and Gifford continued to be a valued worker for charities, particularly two he and his wife founded together in honor of their children, Cody's House and Cassidy's Place.

In Gifford on Courage (1976), by Gifford and Charles Mangel, Gifford examines the lives of athletes to explain the nature of courage in sports. In Gifford: The Whole Ten Yards (1993; also published as The Whole Ten Yards), written with Harry Waters, Gifford tells about his years playing football, his years as a sports broadcaster, and his marriage to television star Kathie Lee Gifford. William N. Wallace's Frank Gifford (1969) predates Gifford's success on ABC's Monday Night Football but covers his playing career. Jerry Izenberg, New York Giants: Seventy-five Years (1999), and Victoria J. Parillo, The New York Giants: 75 Years of Football Memories (1999), profile Gifford in the context of his career with the Giants.

Kirk H. Beetz