The first time I can remember seeing anything about Frank Gifford was being awed by the picture of Chuck Bednarik standing over Gifford’s lifeless body after clotheslining him in 1960. (It was a legal hit, but brutal.)
Of course, I was only five years old when it happened and I only first saw the picture years later. But I never could understand, after examining that picture many times, how the hell Gifford ever got back up.
Most of all, I never understood how Gifford ended back on the field, re-joining the New York Giants two years later and earning Pro Bowl honors as a wide receiver.
It was that image that first came to mind when I heard Gifford died at the age of 84 over the weekend. For a guy who seemed to have it all (fame, fortune, good looks), he overcame a lot of adversity to survive.
It wasn’t just the Bednarik hit, either. He is probably most known to my generation at the longtime announcer on Monday Night Football, a television event that each week drew ungodly ratings and catapulted the NFL into the popular stratosphere.
He joined Howard Cosell and “Dandy” Don Meredith in the MNF booth in 1971 – where he stayed until 1998. He served a whopping 27 years in that role.
Gifford survived Cosell and Meredith.
But he was more of a survivor in that role than many may remember. He was the straight man to Cosell and Meredith, and was often mocked as the square in a booth of powerful personalities. Cosell was bombastic, of course, but he was also the first to integrate social and political issues into sports, something I sensed Gifford was never comfortable with.
Meredith was the clown, a counter-culture cowboy who sang, joked and made fun of anything that crossed his vision.
That included Gifford, yet he still survived. He outlasted Cosell. He outlasted Meredith. And he outlasted many other of his contemporaries.
Maybe when I look at that Bednarik photo, I should hold it in awe for a different reason: Gifford just didn’t survive after that. He thrived.