Frank Gifford and Our Changing Relationship
I continued to follow Gifford’s exploits when he turned pro. He never disappointed. He was not only talented but versatile, sometimes playing defense in addition to starring on offense as a runner, passer, and receiver.
He was also very good looking and Madison Avenue was using him in their ads and commercials on television, which was just starting to become the main form of entertainment.
And, he was physically tough. He got brutalized by a hit from linebacker Chuck Bednarik, who celebrated in an over-the-top action that became a very famous photograph. The hit knocked Gifford out for a year, but he was as good as ever when he came back to the NFL.
After he finished his playing career, he joined the Monday Night football team with Howard Cosell and Don Meredith. MNF was just trying to make a place for itself on the football calendar in 1972, when a telecast was scheduled for Candlestick Park on Dec. 4, as the 49ers hosted the Los Angeles Rams.
At that time, there was a luncheon for the MNF crew the day of the game. I had started writing a full-time column in June of that year. My column that morning was very critical of Cosell but also said that Gifford was not a very good replacement for Keith Jackson as main announcer (Jackson had gone to doing college games, his preference).
At the cocktail party that morning, the 49ers PR man, George McFadden, told me that Gifford wanted to talk to me. When I went over to him, Gifford just said, “I wanted to see the man who could write that.”
I just shrugged my shoulders and said, “It’s my job.” That was the total of our conversation and I wasn’t thinking about it when I went in and sat down at my table, no more than 10 feet from the stage.
Cosell was the first to talk, of course, and then Gifford came on and broke into tears when he mentioned my column. Cosell quickly took the microphone back and started berating me for the next half hour, as only he could. It was quite an experience, to put it mildly.
On my way out, The Chronicle’s managing editor, Gordon Pates, who had been very supportive of my efforts to get a column, came up to me and said, “That was the best thing that could have happened! Everybody who didn’t read your column this morning is going to go home and read it now.”
Wells Twombley, then writing an Examiner column, was a good friend of Cosell’s, and he told Howard, “I wish you had blasted me instead!”
There was no question that incident gave me a serious boost, painful as it had been to listen to Cosell’s ranting.
And when a TV film was made about MNF many years later, there was one segment where the three announcers were reading The Chronicle and commenting, “Did you see what this guy Dickey wrote?”
As time passed, I got to know Cosell much better and we often talked at length – guess who was doing most of the talking – on various subjects. We usually agreed because we were both against the hypocrisy and role-playing of so many owners and executives.When he wasn’t playing a role for TV, Cosell could be very good company – and he was never dull.
I never saw Gifford, my one-time idol, again. I regret that because I would have liked to tell him that he was a good announcer who was just put in the wrong spot on MNF. More important, he was always a good person.
And I certainly hadn’t intended to make him cry!
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