Frank Gifford’s versatility made him one of the greatest New York Giants players in franchise history.
Gifford played on both sides of the ball for Giants head coach Steve Owen from 1952 to 1953.
When new head coach Jim Lee Howell and offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi joined the fray in 1954, Gifford’s pro football career took off.
Gifford eventually earned eight Pro Bowl and six First-Team All-Pro selections from 1952 to 1964. He also earned NFL MVP honors and helped the Giants win the NFL Championship in 1956.
Gifford also became the center of controversy during the 1958 NFL Championship Game.
He made headlines after a vicious hit he took from Philadelphia Eagles pass rusher Chuck Bednarik two years later.
Gifford eventually entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame at the peak of his iconic sports broadcasting career in the summer of 1977.
This is Frank Gifford’s memorable and fascinating pro football journey.
Francis Newton “Frank” Gifford was born to parents Weldon and Lola Mae in Santa Monica, CA on August 16, 1930. Frank had two siblings: Winona and Waine.
According to Gifford’s 2008 book, The Glory Game: How the 1958 NFL Championship Game Changed Football Forever, he and his family lived a vagabond lifestyle during his formative years in the Golden State.
By Frank’s estimate, the Gifford family resided in 37 different towns while he was growing up. His mother kept tabs on every move they made. They had to relocate often due to the nature of his father Weldon’s career as a driller and tool pusher.
Frank and his family also lived in apartments, cars, and even a tiny house by the railroad tracks in San Joaquin Valley.
Things did not come easy for the Giffords during Frank’s youth. They sometimes ate dog food so they could survive.
Gifford also learned the value of hard work at an early age. He labored in the oil fields when he was a teenager, per his 2008 book.
Frank felt proud when he dropped a nickel in the church donation basket every Christmas season. Part of his earnings went a long way toward helping the less fortunate families where he lived.
Gifford told the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s official website in 2011 that he grew up following the Los Angeles Rams.
— eddiemo (@eddiemo34) August 30, 2020
Frank Gifford attended Kern County Union High School (now known as Bakersfield High School) in his home state of California.
Gifford suited up for Bakersfield Drillers head football coach Homer Beatty.
When Gifford entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH some three decades later, he gave credit to Beatty for laying the foundation for his legendary gridiron career.
Frank became the man of the Gifford household in his junior year in 1947. His younger brother Waine left school to work in the oil fields with their father that year. Frank stayed behind with his ailing mother Lola Mae in Bakersfield.
Gifford wrote in his 2008 book that he had to do chores such as cooking and shopping while his mother was sick. He did not consider them a burden at all. In fact, he enjoyed doing them.
Gifford majored in wood shop during his high school days. It never embarrassed him. He was proud to become the first member of his immediate family to earn a high school diploma.
While Frank Gifford overcame that first hurdle, he had another obstacle—his below-average grades in high school.
Gifford had aspirations of playing for a big-time college football program. Unfortunately, his grades did not attract many college football recruiters.
Frank Gifford took the JUCO route and eventually became part of a prestigious USC Trojans football program in the early 1950s. Consequently, he laid the foundation for a legendary 12-year career in the National Football League.
College Days with the USC Trojans
After Frank Gifford graduated from Kern County Union High School in 1948, he spent one year at Bakersfield Junior College.
During Gifford’s one-year stint with the Bakersfield Knights football team, he exceeded expectations and received Junior College All-American honors.
Gifford also improved his grades and drastically improved his chances of suiting up for a major college football program.
When Gifford first stepped on the campus grounds of the University of Southern California (USC) at the turn of the 1950s, he experienced a massive culture shock.
Gifford wrote in his 2008 book that he attended classes with sons and daughters of esteemed white-collar professionals such as lawyers and physicians.
Gifford wore number 16 from his college days until he retired from the NFL in 1964. He told ProFootballHOF.com in 2011 that the Trojans gave him the number because they initially recruited him as a quarterback.
Frank Gifford got a taste of the college football scene in 1949. He picked up the slack for an injured starting safety during the Trojans’ game against the Navy Midshipmen that year.
Gifford rose to the occasion and recorded two interceptions against Navy. He continued playing on the defensive side of the ball in his sophomore and junior seasons at USC.
When new Trojans head football coach Jess Hill took over the reins from Jeff Cravath, Gifford became USC’s starting tailback in 1951.
— History of College Football (@HistColFootball) August 16, 2022
Gifford responded with 841 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 195 carries in his final year with the Trojans. He also had 303 passing yards, two passing touchdowns, and two interceptions.
To nobody’s surprise, Frank Gifford earned All-American honors in 1951.
Behind Gifford’s leadership, USC won seven games in the 1951 NCAA season. It was the Trojans’ best showing since the 1947 NCAA campaign.
Gifford also met his girlfriend Maxine Ewart during his college days at USC. Frank, who had movie star good looks, and Maxine, the Rose Bowl Queen and Homecoming Queen, made quite a pair.
The couple eventually walked down the aisle on January 13, 1952. Maxine was already pregnant with their first child, Jeff, at the time.
Frank Gifford finished his college football career with 1,484 all-purpose yards and 11 touchdowns.
Gifford eventually became one of the most decorated halfbacks and flankers in the storied history of the New York Giants.
Pro Football Career
The New York Giants made Frank Gifford the 11th overall selection of the 1952 NFL Draft.
According to ESPN’s Mike Puma, the Giants gave Gifford a $250 signing bonus that covered the hospital bill for his first son Jeff’s birth in the summer of 1952.
Gifford admitted in his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech 25 years later that he was not sure if he could play in the National Football League after the Giants drafted him.
To make a long story short, he had no idea what he had gotten himself into.
Gifford did not watch the draft festivities on television. Instead, he and his new bride Maxine went skiing on Mount Baldy on draft day.
They were riding in their car in the San Bernardino area when they heard the announcer mention that the New York Giants had just taken Frank’s name off the draft board.
“What the hell? New York?” Gifford wrote in his 2008 book. “Are you out of your mind? I wasn’t even thinking about it.”
However, Maxine Gifford liked the idea of her husband in Giant’s red, white, and blue. She was intrigued by the idea of living in the Big Apple so they went for it.
The Gifford’s first few years in New York were a throwback to Frank’s family’s nomadic lifestyle in Southern California two decades earlier.
According to Frank’s 2008 book, he and Maxine lived in various New York hotels such as the Commander, Whitehall, and Excelsior in the early-to-mid 1950s.
The couple resided in the Excelsior with other Giants players such as Pro Bowl linebacker Sam Huff.
Gifford had his share of detractors and naysayers at the time. They thought he did not have what it took to excel at football’s highest levels.
However, Frank Gifford proved them all wrong. He eventually spent his entire 12-year pro football career with the Giants and became one of the best running backs and flankers in team history.
Gifford was one of the most versatile players of his era. He could play offense, defense, and special teams for Giants head coach Steve Owen.
Gifford was a triple-threat option on offense who could catch, pass, and run. Gifford also spent time playing defensive back, punt return specialist, and kick return specialist for the Giants.
Gifford defied the norm of players who specialized in just one position. His versatility helped him average almost 50 minutes per game during his first few years in the National Football League.
Gifford also helped New York become perennial title contenders. Prior to his arrival in the Big Apple in the summer of 1952, the Giants had missed the postseason four times in the past five years.
The Giants were a mediocre team that averaged just five wins per season in Steve Owen’s last two years as their head coach from 1952 to 1953.
When Jim Lee Howell took over the reins prior to the 1954 NFL season, the Giants were a tad better. They averaged seven wins per season in his first two years calling the shots for New York from 1954 to 1955.
Regrettably, the Giants extended their postseason drought to five years.
One of the key turning points in their franchise history was hiring Vince Lombardi as their offensive coordinator prior to the 1954 NFL season.
Lombardi, one of the greatest coaches in league history, went on to help the Green Bay Packers win three NFL championships and two Super Bowl titles from 1961 to 1967.
Gifford’s versatility impressed Lombardi, who made him New York’s starting halfback in 1954.
It was a welcome turn of events for Gifford, who was miserable despite earning Pro Bowl honors the previous year.
“In effect, my pro career began that season,” Gifford said (via ESPN).
Lombardi helped the Giants reach the NFL Championship Game twice from 1956 to 1958. The Giants won their fourth NFL title by manhandling the Chicago Bears in the 1956 NFL Championship Game, 47-7.
Frank Gifford had earned his first and only NFL Championship ring.
Gifford also punctuated his memorable year by winning MVP honors. At that point in his NFL career, he had earned the fourth of his seven consecutive Pro Bowl selections from 1953 to 1959. Gifford earned his eighth and final Pro Bowl nod in 1963.
Frank Gifford also earned six First-Team All-Pro selections from 1953 to 1959.
While Gifford was racking up various football-related accolades, he also laid the foundation for a legendary sports broadcasting career. He began hosting a sports program for a Bakersfield, CA television station in 1957.
Gifford and his family relocated to the Concourse Plaza hotel in the Bronx prior to the 1958 NFL season—Lombardi’s last with the Giants.
Gifford and the other Giants players considered Concourse Plaza an oversized dormitory.
They did their own laundry, played cards, and organized postgame cocktail parties as the 1950s wound down. Gifford recalled famous personalities such as writer Ernest Hemingway, actor David Niven, and actor/singer Gordon McRae attending those parties.
When the baseball and football seasons coincided in the fall, New York Yankees players Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Mickey Mantle became regulars at those celebrity get-togethers.
“New York celebrities wanting to hang at our place?” Gifford wrote in his 2008 book.”It was something I could never get over. It’s something I still can’t get over.”
Although Gifford and his Giants teammates lived it up at the Concourse Plaza, they did not live a lavish lifestyle.
In fact, Gifford remembered that some of his fellow Giants were unable to afford the expensive Manhattan nightlife of the late 1950s.
Hence, the Giants players took their families to Macombs Dam Park or the original Yankee Stadium after practice to play catch with their kids while their wives watched them from a distance.
As for Giants defensive coordinator Tom Landry, he transformed his hotel room into a makeshift film lab in 1958.
Giants linebacker Sam Huff swore he learned more about the gridiron from Landry in that room than he had in his high school and college years combined.
The Giffords already had three children when Frank entered his seventh pro football season: Jeff, Victoria, and Kyle. They named their youngest son after Frank’s Giants teammate, Kyle Rote.
At the time, Frank Gifford was earning approximately $25,000 per season, per his 2008 book.
Gifford’s Giants became part of “The Greatest Game Ever Played”—the 1958 NFL Championship Game against the Baltimore Colts.
Gifford was at the center of controversy during the waning moments of that game.
Gifford tried to get the first down on 3rd and 4 from the Giants’ 40-yard line with just two minutes left in the game.
Unfortunately, Colts defensive lineman Gino Marchetti fractured Gifford’s leg after he tackled him.
Although an injured Gifford insisted he got the first down, the officials thought otherwise. New York’s ensuing punt allowed Baltimore to score a field goal.
Alan Amache’s one-yard plunge into the endzone gave the Colts the controversial 23-17 overtime victory.
“If Gifford makes that first down, no one would have heard of the ’58 Colts,” New York linebacker Sam Huff quipped (via ESPN).
Frank Gifford sustained one of the most serious football-related injuries just two seasons later on November 20, 1960.
Giants backup quarterback George Shaw passed the ball to Gifford at Philly’s 30-yard line with just over two minutes left in the game.
After Gifford caught the ball, he tried to run out of bounds to stop the clock.
Regrettably, Gifford never saw Eagles outside linebacker Chuck “Concrete Charlie” Bednarik on his blind side.
Bednarik clotheslined and slammed Gifford onto the Yankee Stadium gridiron. Bednarik completely leveled the Giant’s halfback.
The hit was so vicious that Gifford lay on the football field unconscious with Bednarik snarling at him.
Gifford’s teammates Pat Summerall and Sam Huff even thought he was dead, per HISTORY.com’s Sam Robinson.
“I feel sorry for the guy,” Bednarik, who claimed it was the hardest tackle in his career, said. “But at the same time, I feel justified. It was a good, perfect tackle.”
Gifford agreed with Bednarik’s assessment in the aftermath of the latter’s death in the spring of 2015.
“Was it a clean hit? Absolutely. No question,” Gifford told the New York Daily News‘ Gary Myers. “The way I fell and popped my back, it was on the ungrassy part of the field, and as I recall, it was semi-frozen.”
Team physicians had to carry Gifford off the field on a stretcher. The Eagles prevailed over the Giants, 17-10.
First-year NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle did not slap Bednarik with a fine for his hit on Gifford. Bednarik mentioned in the game’s aftermath that he tried to visit Gifford at St. Elizabeth’s hospital but administrators did not allow him inside.
An emergency responder in the operating room told Gifford that his injuries were consistent with being run over by a car. Gifford told her a ferocious linebacker blindsided him during a game.
Gifford spent 10 days recovering at the hospital. He announced his first retirement from the National Football League in the fall of 1960.
Gifford took the field again in the 1962 NFL season after a one-year hiatus from pro football. He played mainly as a flanker (or “wide receiver” in contemporary football lingo) for the next three seasons.
Gifford told the New York Daily News in 2015 that he did not skip the 1961 NFL season because of the vicious injury he sustained after the Bednarik tackle.
Instead, Gifford did sports broadcasts for WCBS in 1961. He told Myers the monotony of playing football while doing two daily sports broadcasts left him exhausted.
Gifford racked up 1,882 yards and 17 touchdowns on 110 receptions from 1962 to 1964.
He proved to his detractors that he was far from finished. The 32-year-old Gifford earned NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors in 1962. He also earned his eighth Pro Bowl nod one season later.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) August 17, 2022
The Giants averaged eight wins per season from 1962 to 1964. They lost to the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears in consecutive NFL Championship Game appearances in 1962 and 1963.
Frank Gifford retired from the National Football League for good following the 1964 NFL season.
Gifford had 3,609 rushing yards, 34 rushing touchdowns, 5,434 receiving yards, 43 receiving touchdowns, 823 passing yards, and 14 passing touchdowns in his legendary 12-year pro football career.
Gifford considered Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown the greatest football player of all time.
He also singled out Steve Young, John Elway, and Dan Marino as the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
Frank Gifford married his second wife, Astrid Lindley, in 1978. They eventually parted ways eight years later.
Gifford crossed paths with Kathie Lee Johnson during a taping of Good Morning America in 1982. They got married four years later. Their union produced a son, Cody, and a daughter, Cassidy.
After Frank Gifford retired from the National Football League after the 1964 NFL campaign, he became a full-time sports broadcaster.
Gifford joined the CBS Sports broadcasting team in 1965. He covered several sports including NFL football, college football, golf, and college basketball.
Sadly, Vince Lombardi, the man who changed the trajectory of Frank Gifford’s pro football career, passed away due to colon cancer in the fall of 1970. He was 57 years old.
When Gifford earned his gold jacket and bust in Canton, OH in 1977, he gave credit to Lombardi for making a profound difference in his Hall of Fame career.
“He meant a great deal to my life,” Gifford said. “In fact, (he) turned my football life around for me, and it was one of the great privileges of any player could have to play and know and perhaps even more than play for him to know a man of Vince Lombardi’s caliber.”
Gifford became the play-by-play man on ABC’s Monday Night Football in its second season in 1971. He succeeded Keith Jackson in the role and joined Howard Cosell and Don Meredith in the broadcasting booth.
Gifford continued doing play-by-play until 1986 when Al Michaels took over. The former became an analyst over the next 10 years.
Gifford’s excellence in television sports broadcasting earned him an Emmy Award as an Outstanding Sports Personality in 1977.
He earned his second Emmy Award—a Lifetime Achievement Award—20 years later.
Gifford’s other television-related accolades include the 1995 Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award and the Disney Legend award. He entered the National Sports Media Association (NSMA) Sports Hall of Fame posthumously in 2017.
Frank Gifford became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 1977. New York Giants owner Wellington Mara was his presenter.
Part of Gifford’s enshrinement speech reads:
“When you go out on the football field and you are playing the game as best as you can, you don’t look around and say, ‘Is that man black or is that man white?’ You just care that it gets done and it gets done in the right way.”
Gifford is also a member of the USC Athletic Hall of Fame, College Football Hall of Fame, NFL 1950s All-Decade Team, and the New York Giants Ring of Honor. The Giants retired his number 16 jersey in the fall of 2000.
Gifford’s fling with flight stewardess Suzen Johnson in a Manhattan hotel room made headlines in 1997. His wife, Kathie Lee, eventually forgave him.
Gifford and Chuck Bednarik cleared the air on the famous hit in 1960 during their retirement years.
Gifford told the New York Daily News in 2015 that he had a few beers with Bednarik during one reunion with their fellow Hall of Famers.
“A lot of stuff was blown way out of proportion,” Gifford told Myers. “I feel sorry for him. He took a lot of blame.”
Gifford appeared in several movies and television programs dating back to his playing days with the New York Giants.
Gifford’s filmography includes All-American, Up Periscope, Jerry Maguire, Three Days of Rain, Captain Kangaroo, Hazel, The Reporter, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Adventures of Pete & Pete, and Spin City.
Gifford was an avid reader his entire life. He preferred reading mysteries, per ProFootballHOF.com. His favorite movie was Gone with the Wind while his favorite food was barbecue steak.
Deeply grateful to all 4 ur outpouring of grace. We r steadfast in our faith & finding comfort in knowing where Frank is. Phillippians 4:13.
— Kathie Lee Gifford (@KathieLGifford) August 9, 2015
Sadly, Frank Gifford passed away due to natural causes in Greenwich, CT on August 9, 2015. He was just one week short of his 85th birthday.