From the football field to the broadcast booth, Frank Gifford was a star. And a winner.
An NFL championship in 1956 with the New York Giants. An Emmy award in 1976-77 as television’s “outstanding sports personality.” Induction in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in ‘77.
Gifford, as well known for serving as a buffer for fellow announcers Don Meredith and Howard Cosell on “Monday Night Football” as for his versatility as a player, died Sunday. He was 84.
“Frank Gifford was an icon of the game, both as a Hall of Fame player for the Giants and Hall of Fame broadcaster for CBS and ABC,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “Frank’s talent and charisma on the field and on the air were important elements in the growth and popularity of the modern NFL.”
In a statement released by NBC News, his family said Gifford died suddenly at his Connecticut home of natural causes Sunday morning. His wife, Kathie Lee Gifford, is a host for NBC’s “Today.”
“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,” his family said in the statement. “We ask that our privacy be respected at this difficult time and we thank you for your prayers.”
Born Aug. 16, 1930, in Santa Monica, Frank Newton Gifford was the son of an itinerant oil worker. Growing up in Depression-era California, Gifford estimated he moved 47 times before entering high school, occasionally sleeping in parks or the family car and eating dog food. He eventually graduated from Bakersfield High.
A running back, defensive back, wide receiver and special teams player in his career, Gifford was the NFL’s MVP in 1956. He went to the Pro Bowl at three positions and was the centerpiece of a Giants offense that went to five NFL title games in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Beginning in 1971, he worked for ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” at first as a play-by-play announcer and then as an analyst.
Later in life he stayed in the spotlight through his marriage to Kathie Lee Gifford, who famously called him a “human love machine” and “lamb-chop” to her millions of viewers.
“He was a great friend to everyone in the league, a special adviser to NFL commissioners, and served NFL fans with enormous distinction for so many decades,” Goodell added.
Gifford hosted “Wide World of Sports,” covered several Olympics – his call of Franz Klammer’s downhill gold medal run in 1976 is considered a broadcasting masterpiece – and announced 588 consecutive NFL games for ABC, not even taking time off after the death of his mother shortly before a broadcast in 1986.
“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,” said Bob Iger, chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company, which owns ABC.
“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.”
While he worked with others, including Dan Dierdorf, Al Michaels, Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson, Gifford was most known for the eight years he served as a calming influence between the folksy Meredith and acerbic Cosell.
In its early years the show was a cultural touchstone, with cities throwing parades for the visiting announcers and celebrities such as John Lennon and Ronald Reagan making appearances.
“I hate to use the words ‘American institution,' but there’s no other way to put it, really,” Gifford told The Associated Press in 1993. “There’s nothing else like it.”
A straight-shooter who came off as earnest and sincere, Gifford was popular with viewers, though some accused him of being a shill for the NFL.
He experienced the highs and lows as a player. Gifford fumbled twice early in the 1958 NFL championship game, both of which led to Baltimore Colts touchdowns, and later came up short on a critical third down. The Colts eventually won 23-17 in the league’s first overtime game, which helped popularize the NFL and was dubbed “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” although not by Gifford.
“Not my greatest game,” Gifford told the AP in 2008. “I fumbled going out (of the end zone) and I fumbled going in.”
Gifford had his best year in 1956, rushing for 819 yards, picking up 603 yards receiving and scoring nine touchdowns in 12 games. The Giants routed the Bears 47-7 at Yankee Stadium, where Gifford shared a locker with Mickey Mantle.
“Frank Gifford was the ultimate Giant,” co-owner John Mara said. “He was the face of our franchise for so many years.”
A crushing hit by 233-pound Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik in November 1960 flattened Gifford and likely shortened his football career. Bednarik was pictured standing over the unconscious Gifford, pumping his fist in a celebration thought by many to be over the top. Gifford was in the hospital for 10 days and sidelined until 1962.
Gifford’s 5,434 yards receiving were a Giants record for 39 years, until Amani Toomer surpassed him in 2003. His jersey number, 16, was retired by the team in 2000.
When he wasn’t on the field, Gifford tried to put his movie-star good looks to use in Hollywood, appearing in about a dozen films, most notably the 1959 submarine movie “Up Periscope.”