Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Gifford: The Blue Knight Passes From the Scene

Sixty years are not that long ago in the life of a sport, really, but the amount of surviving film from that era in professional football is nothing like what it would become in even a decade later. And so, for a long time, whenever I tried to get a sense of what Frank Gifford meant to the New York Giants, for an era when I either hadn't been born yet or was too young to follow sports, I had to rely mostly on statistics and a few photos that froze him in action.

Then, more than a decade ago, in a Sports Illustrated cover story on memorable portraits from the magazine, I saw the one accompanying this post, taken by John G. Zimmerman in August 1959. It was so different from my indelible memories of Gifford from the early 1970s, when his yellow jacket matched those of his Monday Night Football colleagues Howard Cosell and Don Meredith.

No, in the photo you see now, Gifford was 29, at the height of his playing career, not just quietly confident but remarkably dashing. You half expected him to doff that cape and don armor instead. 

The Giants had plenty of stars in the dozen years of his career—Sam Huff, Andy Robustelli, Y.A. Tittle, Charlie Conerly, Roosevelt Grier, Alex Webster, Pat Summerall, and Kyle Rote—but really, only one Big Blue player was their Sir Lancelot, first among equals of the Knights of the Round Table, the one unafraid of any challenge.

That photo has been much on my mind since the news broke over the weekend of Gifford’s death at age 84. It would have bothered me if Gifford had died of a brain injury, a remnant of repeated concussions from his playing days, a pattern that has become all too familiar. Now, I am glad that nothing will interfere with my image of him as the most fearless and faithful Blue Knight.

Gifford became a football immortal as perhaps the key element during the longest stretch of sustained excellence in Giants’ history. Year after year, from the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, he led his teammates on an obsessive quest—the NFL championship—and they actually achieved it in 1956, due in no small part to Gifford’s MVP season and to the man who mined his potential: Vince Lombardi.

As head coach in Green Bay, Lombardi developed a kind of father-son relationship with the running back nicknamed “Golden Boy,” Paul Hornung. But the template for that relationship (minus, on the wild Hornung’s part, its prodigal-son overtones) was formed a few years before, in New York, with another back as versatile as he was charismatic: Gifford.

In his early 40s and a largely unknown quantity to the professional ranks when he came to the Giants as an assistant coach dealing with the offense, Lombardi made the critical decision to focus his half of the squad on Gifford, who had been used primarily as a defensive back the year before the coach’s arrival.

But, recognizing that Big Blue’s first-round draft choice in 1952 could also run, block, catch passes and throw from the option formation, Lombardi figured out how to capitalize on his multiple gifts. The team lost nine of 12 games just before Lombardi came but never had a losing season in his five years as assistant—and Gifford was named to the Pro Bowl each of those years. He would achieve that last honor eight times throughout his career, not just as a defensive back and halfback but as a wide receiver, the position he took up after being sidelined for a year by a ferocious hit from Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik.

Early on, Gifford came to embody hopes and ideals so intensely that he became a point of identification among Giant fans. That bonding was given its most memorable utterance by Frederick Exley, a fellow USC alum, in his fictionalized memoir, A Fan’s Notes:

Where I could not, with syntax, give shape to my fantasies, Gifford could, with his superb timing, his great hands, his uncanny faking, give shape to his. It was something more than this: I cheered for him with such inordinate enthusiasm, my yearning became so involved with his desire to escape life’s bleak anonymity, that after a time he became my alter ego, that part of me which had its being in the competitive world of men; I came, as incredible as it seems to me now, to believe that I was, in some magical way, an actual instrument of his success.

His was “the face of our franchise for many years,” said current Giant co-owner John Mara upon hearing news of the death of the Hall of Famer. It was also a face that, in the Fifties and Sixties, helped him supplement his salary with commercial endorsements for the likes of Vitalis, men’s clothing, Florida orange juice, and other products…a face that could make What’s My Line panelist Arlene Francis gush…and a face that could turn Cosell green with envy.

“Humble Howard” might have scorned his broadcast booth partner for being in the vanguard of the “jockocracy” starting to make inroads into sportscasting. But Gifford had paid his dues even before appearing on camera for ABC, for he started his broadcast career at CBS Radio, where his voice, not his face, was his primary asset.

It’s hard to resist the conclusion that the polysyllabic sports pundit, groaning under the weight of his ridiculous toupee, was incensed at Gifford for being less follicularly challenged than he. So he struck back, churlishly, in his memoir, I Never Played the Game, deriding Gifford for never suffering the consequences of mistakes made on the air.

Some might feel that Gifford’s response, nearly a decade later, in his own autobiography, The Whole Ten Yards (Cosell “looked like Ichabod Crane and spoke with a nasal Brooklyn accent”) might have been testy. On the other hand, I regard the statement as remarkably pacifistic, given the mounting provocations and egotism that Gifford endured at his hands for more than a decade. It’s a sign of Gifford’s grace that he visited Cosell two weeks before the blustering broadcaster’s death.

None of this is to imply that Gifford was perfect. In the broadcast booth, he could mix up or forget names (even the Dallas Cowboys’ Tom Landry, whom he knew well as an assistant coach with the Giants). And, like Sir Lancelot, the Blue Knight had a roving eye that caused needless grief to those in his orbit. He was exposed, publicly and humiliatingly, by the tabloids for cheating on his wife, Kathie Lee Gifford, in the 1990s. As early as the 1970s, he may have carried on an affair with the wife of another famous man—Johnny Carson, according to the tell-all memoir of the talk-show host’s former lawyer, Henry Bushkin.

But, if Americans can forgive politicians for far more frequent and egregious unfaithfulness, then why not Gifford? His sins, in fact, look pretty mild compared with today’s athletes, a greedy, egotistic, philandering, substance-abusing, wife-beating bunch if there ever was one.

A last gaze at that photo, where Gifford returns our gaze. Come to think of it, that’s not a cape he’s wearing, but a mantle of destiny. Gifford looks ready for anything, even a role in one of the most astonishing dramas in the last century of sports, when football overtook baseball as the national athletic obsession.

Gifford would be there for the 1958 game regarded as the contest that put football on the national map—the “sudden death” championship between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts—as well as Monday Night Football, when the atmosphere—new stadiums with Astroturf, cheerleaders, the zingers tossed between Cosell and Meredith—often eclipsed what was happening on the field.

Thrown for a loss, Gifford might be, by a Bednarik tackle, a Cosell public insult, or a tabloid photo, but he never stayed thrown. Above all, the Blue Knight was resolute and enduring.

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