Former New York Giants Coach Allie Sherman once summed up Frank Gifford’s true value to his team.
"I guess Frank's greatest contribution to the Giants is his winning habit!"
That's just what the Giants did – win and win consistently – during the 12 seasons that Gifford played as a multi-talented halfback and flanker in the National Football League.
The Giants, who won six divisional championships in an eight-year period from 1956 to 1963, were loaded with many of the great names of pro football. But none played a more consistent role, year after year, in sparking those championship drives than the versatile and determined Gifford.
The ultimate recognition of Gifford's impact on the Giants and on pro football came in 1977 with his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Frank and four other members – Forrest Gregg, Gale Sayers, Bart Starr, and Bill Willis – were formally inducted into the Hall on July 30 of that year.
Gifford, the Giants' No. 1 draft pick in 1952 after a spectacular tenure at Southern California actually had two careers in pro football. The first as a do-everything halfback and the second, coming after a one-year retirement in 1961, as a sure-handed, big-play flanker.
Even Frank's strongest boosters questioned whether he could regain his former effectiveness after a year's layoff and, to be sure, the first few weeks of his comeback year were the most difficult of his sports career. But the fact that he regained his star status speaks well for the courage and determination that Gifford demonstrated throughout his athletic career.
The retirement had been prompted by a severe head injury that Frank suffered late in the 1960 season when he was felled by a vicious, but clean, blind-side tackle by the Philadelphia Eagles' great center-linebacker Chuck Bednarik. Even though doctors gave him a complete physical OK for the 1961 campaign, Gifford, reasoning that he might play only one more year anyway, elected to accept a lucrative television contract and to settle down, so to speak.
Frank, however, found he couldn't stand being away from the game and, in spite of the friendly advice that he had nothing to gain by a comeback since he already had established himself as one of the all-time greats, he came back to try again.
Coach Sherman decided that Gifford could best help the Giants as a flanker where his outstanding receiving abilities could be used to their full extent. But making such a move was a comparatively difficult task, even for someone who had not been out of action for more than a year.
Kyle Rote, a long-time teammate and an assistant coach in 1962, explained, "As a running back, most of Frank's moves were to the right. Now he has to move mostly to the left. This is like becoming a switch-hitter in baseball after swinging one way all your life."
Then, too, when Gifford returned to action, Y.A. Tittle, a side-arm, hard-ball thrower was the Giants' passer. In 1960, when Frank last played, Charley Conerly, an overhand passer with a much softer touch, was tossing the football.
At first, Gifford dropped more passes than he caught and his confidence began to ebb. At the season's start, he was in an unfamiliar role on the bench. But in the fourth game of the 1962 campaign, Gifford got his chance against the Chicago Cardinals, did well against ace cornerback Pat Fischer, and from that point on was the clutch performer of old. In spite of his slow start, he caught 39 passes for 796 yards, seven touchdowns and a sensational 20.4-yard-per-catch average. He was a solid choice as the NFL's 1962 Comeback Player of the Year.
A year later, it was his sensational catch against Pittsburgh that turned the divisional tide in favor of the Giants and eliminated the Steelers from contention. In the ensuing NFL title game against the Chicago Bears, Gifford scored New York's only touchdown on a 14-yard pass from Tittle. Altogether, in his three-year "second career" as a flanker, he caught 110 passes for 1184 yards and 17 touchdowns.
If his comeback story proved to be somewhat of an uphill struggle, his first nine seasons with the Giants saw him start at the top and stay there. After a few days in camp, Giants coach Steve Owen knew he had a prize.
"Gifford is one of the most versatile athletes I have ever seen,” commented the Hall of Fame coach. “He has hard running ability. He is an accurate passer, a strong blocker, a sensational receiver, a superior defensive back and, with practice, he could become a consistent place-kicker."
Gifford did all of these things and more, particularly in his first three or four years with the Giants. After a fine rookie season as an offensive back with some kick return duty thrown in, Frank was pressed into two-way service in 1953. He averaged 50 minutes on the field throughout the season. Eventually, a two-way assignment in the era of one-way specialists proved too much for even Gifford to handle and that realization may have been the turning point in Gifford's career.
A new assistant coach from West Point, Vince Lombardi, took over the Giants' offense in 1954 and immediately claimed Gifford for the exclusive use of his attack unit.
"To me, Vince was the difference between my becoming a good pro player and just another halfback." Gifford insists. "He turned my life around. Anything I accomplished in this game, I owe to him. He was a very special man."
Once he settled down to one-unit play. Gifford began setting the NFL on fire and the Giants, too, began enjoying their finest years ever. In 1956, Frank finished third in the NFL in receiving and fifth in rushing and he won unanimous Player of the Year honors. In the NFL title game won by the Giants over the Bears, 47-7. Gifford played a leading role with two dynamite catches to sustain long drives in the early going and then capped it off with a 14-yard touchdown reception to end the scoring.
Gifford was named All-Pro by major wire services four times – 1955, 1956, 1957 and 1959. He also played in seven Pro Bowls, the first time in 1954 as a defensive back, the next five times as an offensive back and then in 1964 as a flanker. He was named the Most Valuable Player in the 1959 classic. No other Pro Bowl star has ever displayed such diverse abilities.
Altogether, Gifford amassed 9,862 yards during his NFL tenure. He had 367 career receptions and scored 484 points. His name still is prominently scattered throughout the Giants' record book.
One of his most impressive statistics, however, pops up in the passing category which shows that he completed14 touchdown passes in only 63 attempts. His 823 yards on 29 pass connections were good for a sizzling 28.4-yard average.
Gifford, born August 16, 1930, in Santa Monica, California was the son of an oil field roughneck whose job opportunities took the family to various spots in California before Bakersfield became home.
From the very beginning on the football field, Frank was a versatile performer. He was an end, a quarterback, and a halfback at Bakersfield High School and won all-state honors.
As a triple-threat tailback, he led Bakersfield Junior College to the Junior Rose Bowl.
And then he moved on to All-America laurels as an offensive-defensive iron man at Southern California.
Gifford looked forward to the challenge of playing in the NFL but, to pursue this ambition, twice had to turn down lucrative offers from the Canadian football league. The first came from Edmonton before he joined the Giants and the second from Toronto two years later.
"I just couldn't compromise my loyalty to the Giants," Gifford explained in turning down the Argonauts’ block-buster (by 1954 standards) offer.
When Gifford first joined the pros, he looked upon the venture as a chance "to get a few bucks together, pay off a few bills and call it a career after one year."
As it turned out, both Gifford and the NFL had much more to offer to each other and, on his final retirement on March 18, 1965, Giants' executive Jack Mara expressed strong sentiments about his departing star.
"He was one of the finest men ever to wear a Giants uniform. He gave extra dignity, tone and class to the entire organization. He was a standout even among stars."
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