Frank Gifford, Gridiron Star Turned 'Monday Night Football' Sportscaster, Dies at 84

Frank Gifford - H 2015
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The former New York Giants standout, the husband of Kathie Lee Gifford, did play-by-play on the ABC games from 1971 until 1998. He teamed most famously with Howard Cosell and 'Dandy' Don Meredith.

Frank Gifford, a dashing halfback and flanker with the NFL’s New York Giants who parlayed his stint in the Big Apple limelight into a successful Monday Night Football broadcasting career, has died. He was 84.

Gifford died Sunday of natural causes at his home in Greenwich, Conn. He is survived by his third wife, former Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee host Kathie Lee Gifford, who now serves as a co-host on the fourth hour of NBC’s Today show. 

"It is with the deepest sadness that we announce the sudden passing of our beloved husband, father and friend, Frank Gifford," his family said.

"We rejoice in the extraordinary life he was privileged to live, and we feel grateful and blessed to have been loved by such an amazing human being," the statement continued. "We ask that our privacy be respected at this difficult time and we thank you for your prayers."

A college star at USC and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Gifford worked on ABC’s Monday Night Football broadcasts from 1971 until 1998, serving as the steady play-by-play/straight man while sharing the booth with partners that included Howard Cosell and “Dandy” Don Meredith.

When ABC started the Monday night franchise in 1970, it was Keith Jackson doing the play-by-play opposite Meredith, a former Dallas Cowboys quarterback, and Cosell, a bombastic, egotistical former lawyer. However, ABC Sports chairman Roone Arledge was dissatisfied with that team’s chemistry, and for the second season he sought a contrast to Cosell.

Gifford, who was doing NFL games for CBS, came aboard, and his modest, low-key approach proved to be a perfect complement to the abrasive Cosell.

“I enjoy working with them, and I get involved in some of the hilarity, if you want to call it that,” Gifford told American Film magazine in 1979. “But I obviously can’t get involved in it too much, because I’m busy doing what I’m doing, and that is keeping the telecast straight.”

Over the years, ABC brought in, at one time or another, such personalities as O.J. Simpson, Fred Williamson, Alex Karras, Fran Tarkenton, Joe Namath, Dan Dierdorf and Al Michaels to work the games with Gifford.

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In 1995, Gifford was the recipient of the Pete Rozelle Award, which acknowledged his exceptional longtime contributions to radio and TV in pro football.

Gifford, who won an Emmy Award as TV’s Outstanding Sports Personality for 1976-77, also hosted Wide World of Sports programs and ABC Sports specials like Battle of the Network Stars. He covered the 1972, 1976 and 1984 Summer Olympics as well as the 1976, 1980 and 1984 Winter Games. (His breathtaking call, alongside analyst Bob Beattie, of Austrian Franz Klammer’s gold-medal winning run in the downhill at Innsbruck in 1976 is considered a classic.)

Gifford also served as a guest host of ABC’s Good Morning America, pairing with Joan Lunden when David Hartman was away, and he appeared regularly on the program during the football season with reports. 

In addition to writing several magazine articles on sports and sportscasting, Gifford authored several books, including 1976’s Gifford on Courage, about the 10 most courageous athletes he knew.

Gifford had his own courageous side, returning to the Giants after being forced to sit out 18 months after he suffered a concussion and fractured two vertebrae in his back when he was blind-sided during a pass play by Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik in November 1960.

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In 1962, he came back as a flanker and was named NFL Comeback Player of the Year. He retired after the 1964 season, his 12th in the league, all of them with the Giants. His No. 16 uniform was retired by the team in 2000.

Walt Disney Co. chairman and CEO Bob Iger said in a statement: "Frank Gifford was an exceptional man who will be missed by everyone who had the joy of seeing his talent on the field, the pleasure of watching his broadcasts or the honor of knowing him. His many achievements were defined by a quiet dignity and a personal grace that is seldom seen in any arena; he truly embodied the very best of us."

"Frank's contributions to ABC Sports and our company are immeasurable. We are honored to call him a Disney Legend, and I am very fortunate to have called him a dear friend and colleague."

Gifford was born Aug. 16, 1930, in Santa Monica, the son of an oil-well driller. His family lived a peripatetic existence, and he graduated from Bakersfield (Calif.) High School, then attended Bakersfield Junior College.

As a handsome halfback at USC in Los Angeles, Gifford was the personification of  “Mr. Touchdown” in the early 1950s. He was selected an All-America as a running back and defensive back.

When he graduated with a degree in industrial management in 1951, Gifford married his college sweetheart, Maxine Ewart, who had been named Helen of Troy, the school’s most beauteous/accomplished female student. Their marriage lasted 26 years.

He began his show business career while at USC when he doubled for Jerry Lewis for the comedy That’s My Boy (1951) and appeared in Bonzo Goes to College (1952). Soon afterward, he was the No. 1 draft pick (11th overall) of the Giants in 1952 and received a $250 signing bonus.

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Gifford, 6-feet-1 and 197 pounds, began his career with the G-Men playing both offense and defense, and he made eight Pro Bowl appearances and five trips to the NFL Championship Game. In 1956, he was named the league’s Most Valuable Player as New York won the NFL title with a victory over the Chicago Bears. He also played in the famous December 1958 title game won in overtime by the Baltimore Colts; that game transformed the NFL into a big-time league for the first time.

"Frank Gifford was the ultimate Giant. He was the face of our franchise for so many years. More importantly, he was a treasured member of our family," Giants president John Mara said in a statement.

In 1956, Gifford appeared on the CBS quiz show What’s My Line? When panelist Arlene Francis finally figured out that he was a famous football player, she said, “Fullback? Halfback? Quarterback? You’ve got a lovely back! I don’t care what condition it’s in!”

“That made my career,” Gifford said in an interview years later.

As the pro game took off, Gifford, playing in the media capital of the world, had his own pregame TV show and a radio program. He appeared in magazine ads for Lucky Strike cigarettes and pitched products for hair tonic, swimwear, sherry and shaving cream.

While still with the Giants, he signed a contract with Warner Bros. for film and TV roles and hired an acting coach.

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During the height of his career, he began doing a five-minute sports show for the CBS Radio network. When a newspaper strike hit New York City in 1962, the evening newscasts doubled their airtime to 30 minutes, and WCBS asked Gifford to do the sports segment. Gifford worked the first Super Bowl for CBS in 1967.

In 1968, Gifford played himself in the NFL comedy Paper Lion, starring Alan Alda as sportswriter George Plimpton, and he had cameos as himself in Two-Minute Warning (1976), Viva Knievel (1977) and Jerry Maguire (1996). He also appeared on such TV shows as Hazel, Captain Kangaroo, The Six Million Dollar Man, Coach, Webster and Spin City.

Frank and Kathie Lee met on the set of ABC’s Good Morning America and were married in October 1986. Their marriage survived a 1997 incident in which a tabloid newspaper paid a former flight attendant to seduce the broadcaster and then published stories and photos about the affair.

And in 2013, a book written by former Johnny Carson attorney Henry Buskin claimed that Gifford had an affair with Joanne Carson, the Tonight Show host’s second wife, in the 1970s, while he was married to Maxine.

Gifford also was married to fitness trainer Astrid Lindley from 1978-86.

In addition to his wife, Gifford’s survivors include three children with Maxine, Jeffrey, Kyle and Victoria, and two with Kathie Lee, Cody and Cassidy.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4