“Four, seventy-eight. Split right. Hut. Hut-hut!” You have just read an audible, seemingly evolving from the line of scrimmage at a football game. College and pro football teams audible all of the time. I recently received what I perceived as an audible from my editor. I was asked if I would be interested in interviewing, via land line, pro football Hall-of-Famer Frank Gifford, a Bakersfield High School graduate. I graciously accepted the task as Gifford was going to be in town to accept a plaque presented by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in conjunction with Allstate Insurance Company, at Bakersfield High School. The presentation was part of Pro Football and Allstate’s “Hometown Hall of Famers” series. My reaction to the offer was, well, quite audible!
Gifford’s representative was to call me at precisely 8:45 a.m. Now, the day before I had prepared my list of questions and had recited them about ten times to myself, imagining that Gifford was within earshot. Honestly, I felt a bit out of my league as I had never interviewed ANYBODY before. But at 8:44 a.m. the morning of the call a ubiquitous calm came over me and signs of dry-mouth were not present. R-r-r-i-i-i-i-ng! There’s Mr. Gifford.
We conversed for the better part of 15 minutes and Mr. Gifford was as affable and as engaging as could be. I immediately felt comfortable in his “presence” and I could sense he in mine. I respectfully referred to Gifford as Mr. Gifford. Thirty seconds into our conversation he said “Please, call me Frank. You’re making me feel like an old fart!” So, Frank it was. He intimated that when he had initially gone out for the team coach Homer Beatty did not think that he would make the team. As a junior at BHS, he was called to duty as the quarterback after the starting quarterback had perished in an automobile accident. Having been quite an inspiration to local athletes over the years, I asked Frank who he had been inspired by while growing up. He said Coach Beatty, of course, had influenced him heavily but that a Bakersfield High football player who prepped before him, Charlie Sarver, was a huge inspiration for the fledgling football aspirant. Charlie was an outstanding athlete — and Frank once burrowed underneath the fence surrounding the stadium in order to get in to get a glimpse of Sarver and his teammates at work on the gridiron!
I dug back deep into Gifford’s career and asked him a few questions regarding some of the players he played with — and against. When asked about Detroit Lion great Alex Karras, who recently passed away, he said that he was one of the real characters of the game. But along side that, Karras was a ferocious defensive lineman and you always wanted to know where he was on the field. I asked him if New York Giant quarterback and teammate Y. A. Tittle was the toughest quarterback he had ever seen. He said that, indeed, he was one of the toughest. Gifford referenced an iconic picture of Tittle in the endzone on his knees with blood running down his face, his uniform caked in dirt and grass, and utterly fatigued as his team had just lost an important game. When asked if Baltimore Colt Johnny Unitas was the best two-minute quarterback ever, Frank summoned Bobby Layne as being Unitas’ equal. Would shifty Gale Sayers of the Chicago Bears have eclipsed the great Jim Brown’s all-time rushing record had knee problems not befallen him? “Absolutely,” he said. That subject bequeathed Frank’s glowing take on Brown and his prowess as the Cleveland Brown running back. He said not only was Jim Brown a punishing, straight-ahead type runner, he was also fleet of foot as he timed below 10 seconds in the hundred yard dash, the measure of true athletic speed back then. He also mentioned that Brown was a first and third down back, meaning that you could give him the ball in any situation and he was likely good for the first down or to break the big play. That’s respect, folks!
I asked Gifford about the two men with whom he came into our living rooms with on ABC’s legendary “Monday Night Football.” When questioned as to whether on not “Dandy” Don Meredith was as fun-loving off camera as he was on it, Gifford said Meredith was, indeed, a lovable character. Meredith was also a very artistic gent as well. He told a story about the irascible Howard Cosell, the villain, if you will, of the broadcast triumvirate. As Cosell lay dying in his hospital bed, Frank felt the urge to go see his old television mate one last time. As Frank approached Cosell's room he asked the doctor if he could go in to see his friend and the doctor had said no. Gifford asked if it was because others were inside the room with Cosell and the doctor said, “No, nobody has ever come to see him!” It was apparent to Gifford that Cosell had virtually no friends, brought on by the fact that Cosell had always been about Cosell. As the doctor left, he said he slipped into the hospital room to bade his broadcast buddy one last farewell. Cosell could not speak but he looked at Gifford and a tear slowly rolled down his cheek. Whether it was a tear of joy that Gifford had come to see him — or a tear of remorse for the fact that he had alienated himself from others, we’ll never know.
At conversation’s end, I thanked Gifford for spending time with me and also thanked him for helping to put Bakersfield on the sports map here in the United States. He, in turn, thanked me and said that he wished that we could have met personally. I was humbled. The Pro Football Hall of Fame and Allstate Insurance company are to be commended for the award bestowed upon Gifford. He is a well-deserving gentleman of whom I have the utmost respect for. And out of that profound respect, I still prefer to address him as Mr. Gifford — if I may be frank