There have been many great players in the history of the NFL. There are 295 Hall of Famers. And there have been perhaps fewer than 100 transcendent players in 10 decades of the sport.
Frank Gifford was a transcendent person in pro football.
He was the first poster boy for the league's glamorous East Coast franchise, the New York Giants. Gifford is one of the few in the 95-year history of pro football to make a drastic position change late in his career and still play at a high level. And he was the only man this side of Pat Summerall to make former players a commodity in the television business, with his decades of work and many player-turned-broadcaster disciples being the payoff.
Through it all, he was considered top shelf, a good man to all his peers.
"Frank was a nice man ... and he was a solid sender. And you could count on him," said Rosey Grier, Gifford's teammate in New York for seven years. "I've lost an incredible friend."
Being the pretty boy emblematic of the popularity of the 1950s Giants hardly lent itself to being liked by the men playing with Gifford or playing against him. Following the mass exposure of the 1958 NFL Championship Game, "The Greatest Game Ever Played," Gifford became pro football's equivalent to Mickey Mantle: the gridiron's sexiest name in the sports world's sexiest market. Yet, his tough, versatile play won over not only his teammates but opponents as well.
"He was an honorable guy, and a straightforward football player, well-liked, and had a good reputation, and overall just a real tribute to the National Football League as a player," said fellow Hall of Fame running back, and Gifford's contemporary, Jim Taylor.
Gifford's mass appeal was new to the franchise, and it came as the sport of pro football was exploding. Big Blue's most famous player before Gifford entered the league in 1952 was Mel Hein ... an all-time great in the 1930s, to be certain, but a center nonetheless, a lineman in a sport that ranked behind baseball, boxing, college football and golf when he played. Gifford was the ultimate pitchman, and he was unafraid to stretch his sea legs.
Take this snippet from an article out of the Boston Globe in December of 1956: "Frank Gifford, New York Giants' back who was the first player to finish in the top five in both rushing and passing receiving in the NFL since its 12-club setup, has a movie screen test coming up ... A teammate asked, 'What are you going to be, Frank, a stunt man?' Gifford snorted and replied, 'A Shakespearean actor!' "
He would perform in commercials, be seen all over in print, and be the Madison Avenue to the "Violent World" of teammate Sam Huff. But perhaps the most relevant aspect of that newspaper story from nearly 60 years ago was the football part.
Gifford was a helluva versatile player, even excelling on defense early in his career. His rushing and receiving ability pushed him to be named league MVP in 1956, as voted on by the players.
"He played hard always, and he had a good sense of the game," Grier explained. "And so he could run, he could pass, he could play defense ... and so any time he was needed to play either way, he was ready ... Jim Lee Howell, and Vinny Lombardi, and all the coaches ... Tom Landry ... had so much respect for him, and the Maras."
As Taylor explained, "He caught passes, and threw passes, and blocked and was a good overall football player. He had ability and lasted, what, 10 or 12 years in his career ... and was well-respected when we played the Giants a number of times (including the 1962 Championship Game between the Giants and the Packers)."
Most peers would be jealous of a guy like this, who seemingly had it all, including the respect of legendary coaches like Lombardi and Landry. But he surely wasn't envied for the event that led to a late-career turning point.
An image seen by millions is that of fellow Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik looming over a fallen Gifford in a key contest between the Philadelphia Eagles and Giants late in 1960 that would decide the Eastern Division. Knocked out cold, Gifford would be carried off on a stretcher and not play for a year and a half. He would return -- at age 32, mind you -- to play a completely different position.
"He got hit in the head, concussion ... he stayed out a whole year ... (Bednarik) caught him in the sweet spot," said Taylor.
"I never thought he'd come back," Grier said. "But he came back, and he got to be the Comeback Player of the Year."
Gifford managed to not only make the transition from running back to wide receiver, but he become one of the best in the league in his early to mid-30s, averaging more than 20 yards per catch in '62 and making the Pro Bowl in '63.
Sure, other players have switched positions over the years: Eric Metcalf comes to mind. But to do so at a Hall of Fame level? Rod Woodson pulled it off, hopping from corner to safety late in his legendary career. Gifford's flip from the backfield to out wide was more like a leap.
Career change was not scary to a man whose slide into the broadcasting business was perhaps the only thing smoother than all the plays he made look so easy on the field. Gifford's 25-plus years in the broadcast booth generated more fans than his playing career ever could, and his influence across generations has been acutely revealed in the number of players today who are working in media. Troy Aikman, Cris Collinsworth, Bob Trumpy and Dan Dierdorf all owe something to the man.
Gifford was a steady analyst masquerading as a play-by-play man throughout the 1970s and '80s, swimming in those rare waters where only Summerall -- a former Giants teammate -- had kicked. His imperfect, perfect synergy with Howard Cosell and "Dandy" Don Meredith on "Monday Night Football" made prime-time football must-see, must-listen-to TV.
"Don (Meredith) and he remained wonderful friends, and he was a truly, very nice guy, and a great football player in his era," said Bob Lilly, another Hall of Fame peer from the '60s. "And I think we're all gonna miss him. All of us that knew him are gonna miss him."
Like Summerall, Gifford could do either job in the booth, and he was easy listening for America, albeit on Mondays.
"He was a great storyteller," said Hall of Famer John Randle, who was in the league from 1990 to 2003 but remembered watching Gifford as a youngster. "The way he told a story, his voice ... when he talked about the game, it sounded so peaceful. It just didn't sound like it came from a football player. He sounded just like a regular commentator. But to hear him tell it, it just really drew you in, to listen to him tell the story of the game.
"When I was a kid watching him, I never thought, 'This is a guy in the Hall and all.' But you just saw him as a guy giving the commentary. Then, all of a sudden, you know who he is, and that he played football. And, he just had a calmness when he talked that drew you in. He was almost like a Paul Harvey to me. I would sit there and just ... you know, it was like you didn't have to watch the game, you could just listen ... you didn't need a TV. You just listened to Frank tell the game."
Yet, for all the influence he had as the modern athlete who mastered the 1950s mud pits and media, altered his game to return to the game and brought the beauty of pro football to all of our living rooms, Gifford's final legacy might be the way he is remembered as a man by those who were his brethren.
"It's been so long ago for me, but I played against him at Yankee Stadium" said Mel Renfro, a Hall of Fame defensive back whose rookie year with the Dallas Cowboys was Gifford's last in the NFL, "and I think he scored a touchdown against me. But I just always admired him as a former player, and a broadcaster, and a really nice person to be around. I just admired everything that he did."
"Frank and I went into the Hall of Fame the same year, 1977. I knew Frank as a ballplayer, and knew him to say hello and that type of thing, but never had been close to him as a friend," explained Forrest Gregg, another Packer opponent and Hall of Famer. "But during that Hall of Fame induction I came to like him very well as a person ... I thought Frank was a great football player, good person."
Perhaps Randle sums up the transcendence, and impact, of Gifford better than anyone.
"On the field ... off the field ... he carried himself in such a manner that every player wishes he could follow his footsteps."