The season begins, but with a respectful silence
With last weekend’s entertaining little Hall of Fame affair when all the NFL stars aligned in Canton, Ohio, we can now bid adieu to football’s lengthy weight room season.
It’s time for the pads, straps, bumps, bangs and more of that uniquely funky body odor permeating locker rooms coast-to-coast as players around the nation get into some serious testosterone-fueled work.
With that in mind, I pop fresh from the proverbial shower to attack the keyboard in an effort to once again prove my powers of prognostication against the outcome of utterly trivial yet monstrously popular football games.
Yeah! Now I’m pumped…
As usual, with America awash in deeply troubling socio-political issues, it’s good to have something fun to turn to that we can ignore when we have to and that allows us to ignore the rest of the world when we want to.
Sad it is though, when reality intrudes, like again this past weekend when at the very time the pro football world was celebrating the beginning of the season and honoring its heroes, one of the game’s icons came to the end of his journey in life.
It’s going to be hard for awhile to imagine professional football without Frank Gifford around somewhere. Despite the fact that I’m one of those middle-age-plus residents now, he never was a player to me, though it was impossible not to know how good of a player he had been: built upon the characteristics of being smart, prepared and controlled.
To this day, his name is all over the NY Giants’ record book – and in multiple locations of that tome – owing to his skills as a running back, receiver and cornerback. They are not gaudy stats; but then, unless you were a Los Angeles Ram, the 1950s NFL was not a very gaudy period stat-wise.
It’s unfortunate that as a player Gifford became so identified with one play and thus was the “Poster Boy” for the dangers of the game, thanks to his now-iconic concussion delivered by the Eagles’ one and only “Concrete Charlie” Bednarik.
Every time Gifford’s playing career came up for discussion, these are the bones that jump from the closet of skeletons to shout “Boo!” Even after he’s died. (Even, like now; for instance.)
Because of the limitations of the media in those days, the film of this infamous hit doesn’t look all that devastating, but then Bednarik’s body blocks the view of what actually happened. I suppose it’s enough to know that Gifford had a long period of time erased from his memory thanks to what was apparently the father of all clotheslines.
With more than a few of his marbles knocked loose, Gifford retired for the 1961 season to contemplate his future. Thankfully, he wasn’t done yet. He came back for two more years, earning “Comeback Player of the Year” in 1962 and a Pro Bowl invite as a receiver that same year (though the game itself was played in ‘63).
During his playing days in New York, he cultivated celebrity status and made a lot of media contacts. He had his own radio show, which was unheard of at the time for an active player, and he developed a very photogenic “buttoned-down man about town” sort of image.
This made him an object of ridicule and jealousy among some of the other players who considered such things un-manly. As a result, he took more than his share of licks on the field. He never dwelled on those things, but a few sportswriters of the day noticed.
But by doing these things he had scouted the next phase of his professional football life, working the broadcast booth. As a player in the “Greatest Game Ever Played” (that being the 1958 NFL Championship which his team lost to the Colts), Gifford was well aware of the potential in national television and that it would be a huge new venue for the sport, so he followed that particular game plan for another 32 years.
Again: smart, prepared and controlled.
Personally, I never thought he was all that much behind the microphone – seldom incisive and persistent in the obvious. But it’s not fair to compare him to a unique talent like Pat Summerall, his former teammate, or to smooth and polished communicators like Jack Buck and Vin Scully.
Gifford’s character defined an approach that was not flashy, but steady and capable. He was hardly ever flat out wrong and was never, ever quirky. That made him the perfect complement to those twins of quirk: the rowdy Dandy Don Meredith and the acerbic Howard Cosell.
That was the broadcast team that made Monday Night Football an occasion not to be missed, and made Gifford a household name. When the game was terrific, the booth was respectably engaged. When the play on the field stunk up the joint, the booth could be the show with Gifford perfectly suited to be the ringmaster.
Considering the post-career meltdowns so many players have suffered over the years, Gifford deserves credit for always making the most of the talents he was given. That’s the kind of legacy we all should aspire to achieve. If more of us did, the world would be a less troubled and confused place.
Farewell Frank, and thanks! You are fondly remembered and will be greatly missed.
Mark Bell can be reached at [email protected]