Kathie Lee Gifford on Heartbreak of Losing Husband Frank: "I Wasn't Able to Watch One Football Game This Season"

Kathie Lee Gifford_Frank - H 2016
Courtesy of Kathie Lee Gifford

Kathie Lee Gifford_Frank - H 2016

Eight months after her husband's death, the 'Today' co-host movingly calls her 29-year marriage to the legendary NFL player and broadcaster, the day he died and why "it was an easy decision" to donate his brain to science: "Frank would want his life to continue to matter."

This story first appeared in the April 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

I knew who Frank Gifford was. I mean who didn't in this world? My brother, my father, we were all big Baltimore Colts fans growing up in Maryland. And the Colts hated the Giants [Gifford played his entire 12-year NFL career with the Giants]. We all remembered that 1958 championship game. [The Colts won 23-17 in overtime.] But my father used to always say, "I like that Frank Gifford. What a class act." So I grew up hearing about the class act.

Then I get to Good Morning America and one morning — this was June 1982 — I was in very early to do an Alpo commercial with a Basset Hound that stunk to high heaven. I was walking down the hall, and I saw the greatest set of buns I've ever seen in my life leaning over a sink, putting his contact lenses in. And I had just had something called radial keratotomy, which was the precursor to Lasik. I had gone from legally blind to 20/20 vision with this operation. And so I yelled out, as I am wont to do, "Have I got an operation for you!"

Gifford, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977, played running back and flanker.

And then for four years he became my friend, like my big brother. He was my patron saint. He did battle for me. He just cared. I was a new kid in New York, and he'd call me and go, "The cowboy is in town, do you want to have lunch?" Well, the cowboy was Don Meredith. And I'd go to lunch with these two legends and they'd laugh and make jokes and tease me and I would say to myself, "Kath, you're not in Kansas anymore."

Nobody was more surprised than I was when we fell in love. It was a 23-year age difference. I remember saying to the Lord, "Lord, if you just give me 10 years with this man it'll be the greatest blessing of my life." Well, the Lord gave me 29 years with him and two of the most incredible kids you'll ever meet [son Cody, 26, and daughter Cassidy, 22].

The last four years of our lives together were unbelievable. He was having some health problems, but they weren't physical; they were dementia-related. We knew he'd been hit in the head many times through his career. But you don't know if someone is suffering from CTE until you have the pathology. So that's why we made the decision to donate Frank's brain to science. My son, who played football in high school and in college at USC, also had many concussions. I mean, these kids who start out playing Pop Warner football, by the time they get to high school, they've had all kinds of hits to the head.

From left: Frank, Kathie Lee, Cody and Cassidy attended a Broadway premiere in November 2012.

The morning that I found Frank, I yelled for Cody to come and help me. The EMTs came and told us that he was gone instantly and never knew when he hit the floor. I mean, I was grateful for that. But Cody said, "Mom, we need to talk." Because time is of the essence. And so we sat at our kitchen table and said, "What would Dad want?" and "What would the Lord want?" And they were totally in unity — Frank would want his life to continue to matter and the Lord would want us to do what was right to help others. It was not a difficult decision.

We are a family that's in transition, no question. I wasn't able to watch one football game this season. I just couldn't. Too soon. Frank loved the NFL. He said, "Kathie, every dream I had came true because of the NFL." He made great friends there and he was convinced the NFL was ultimately going to do the right thing about CTE. Frank was one of the players who started the players' union back in the '50s when they had to meet in secret because they were concerned about their jobs. He was the first-round draft pick for the Giants in '52, right out of USC. He made $8,000 his first year with a $250 signing bonus.

In 1963 Gifford (left) hosted legendary restaurateur Toots Shor (right) and Richard Nixon in his New York City apartment.

Everybody thinks that Frank was born with this silver spoon in his mouth because he was such an elegant, graceful man. But the truth is they didn't have spoons when he was growing up; they were so dirt poor during the Depression. His father was an itinerant oil worker, and they moved 29 times between the time Frank was born until they settled in Bakersfield, Calif. And we know all this because of his mother's Bible. She chronicled where they lived during that time: "Just arrived in Wink, Texas, 1942, Dad can't find work, moving on to Oklahoma." It was a brutal life. They ate dog food. He was grateful to have it. He knew where he came from.

I can't think of one person who has the career Frank did: 27 years on Monday Night Football, all those Olympics. He blazed a trail for so many to segue from football to the sports booth.

Gifford (right) in 1984 with Monday Night Football broadcast partners O.J. Simpson (left) and Meredith.

Frank was a beautiful man. He was matinee-idol beautiful. He was signed to Warner Bros. to be an actor, and every woman drooled over him and every man wanted to be him. That never changed. But Jack Warner was looking at a screen test of Frank — I think it was with Angie Dickinson. And Warner says, "Well, he's a great-looking man, no question, but he'll never be a movie star. His eyes are too close together." I would have said he'll never be a movie star because he's a terrible actor, but no.

By the way, the morning that he passed into the new life, he still had the greatest buns God ever made.