After enrolling at the University of Southern California in the late ’40s, Los Angeles-area native Frank Gifford made his mark on the school’s football team. “He was kind of the glamour boy for that particular team,” fellow football star Sonny Jurgensen told SI.com. “But when he played, he was a heck of a player. He could run the ball, he could throw the ball, he could play defense.” Ultimately, he was named an All-American athlete.
A 'GIANT' MOVE
Upon graduating in 1952, Gifford was drafted in the first round by the New York Giants, where he spent his entire professional career. He “was the ultimate Giant,” Giants president John Mara said upon his passing. “He was the face of our franchise for so many years. More importantly, he was a treasured member of our family.”
In 1956, halfback Gifford led his team to the NFL Championship – and earned himself the title of Most Valuable Player in the process. “We had the best defense in football and a pretty good offense … and we had a pretty magical season,” he later said. “To win the Championship in New York was something very special, too.”
QUITE A SCARE
In a 1960 game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Gifford was hit hard by Eagles player Chuck Bednarik; his injuries forced him to the sidelines for nearly two years. “I caught the ball about the same time as he caught me,” Gifford explained, adding that he fractured several vertebrae in his neck. “Had I played anymore it could’ve been really serious.” During his time off the field, he dabbled in sports broadcasting, but “I really missed something,” he said. “It dawned on me – I could do this the rest of my life, but I can’t do the other the rest of my life. It was the toughest year of my life football-wise, once being the New York Giant and all of a sudden I was having a hard time even making this football team.” His work paid off, though, and he returned to the team before retiring in 1964.
LIVE FROM NEW YORK
The year 1971 brought Gifford back to football as the play-by-play announcer for ABC’s Monday Night Football. “I put my heart and soul into broadcasting, and I really did love it,” he said. He played the straight man to his slightly rowdier counterparts, Howard Cosell and “Dandy Don” Meredith (pictured), and later served as color commentator with Al Michaels and Dan Dierdorf. In 1977, he won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Sports Personality; he left MNF in 1997.
CEMENTING HIS LEGACY
New York Giants co-owner Wellington Mara had the honors of inducting Gifford into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977. “[He] was one of the greatest players to ever play for the Giants,” Mara said in his speech. “He added dignity, tone and class to our entire operation. Even among stars, he was a standout.” “Once a Giant, always a Giant,” Gifford later said when reflecting on the moment. “I couldn’t imagine not being a Giant. I was really blessed.”
THE MARRYING KIND
Gifford met TV personality Kathie Lee Johnson on a 1981 episode of ABC’s Good Morning America; the two wed in 1986 (it was the second marriage for both). Her first impression of her husband-to-be? “He’s got an incredible set of buns,” she later recounted to PEOPLE.
GOING FOR GOLD
In one very public on-screen collaboration, Gifford and his new bride hosted a nightly show for ABC during the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. With Frank’s sports knowledge and Kathie Lee’s penchant for talk, “it had to be seen to be believed,” the website AwfulAnnouncing.com joked.
The couple welcomed their first child, son Cody (a.k.a. Codesville), in 1990. Kathie Lee had documented her pregnancy on her series Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee, and on the day Cody was introduced to the television audience, 41 percent of viewers in the show’s home base of New York City tuned in – the syndicated program’s highest N.Y.C. share ever. Kathie Lee was happy to share her son’s every move, though had one mandate from the day he was born: “We want Cody to play gentleman sports – no boxing, no football, no hockey,” she said, citing Frank’s four football-induced nose breaks. “As his mother, I’d like to protect his face.”
ALL 'FOUR' ONE
Just three years later – after Kathie Lee suffered a very public miscarriage – daughter Cassidy was born. Speaking to PEOPLE in 2015, Cassidy said of her parents, “We’re like the most normal family on the planet, honestly. I’m very grateful. They’re awesome. We fight a lot – don’t worry! We’re not perfect. But I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world.”
In 2005, the whole crew turned out to support Kathie Lee at the New York City opening of her musical Under the Bridge. Things hadn’t been so great just eight years before, though; in 1997, The Globe released video stills allegedly showing Gifford in a tryst with a married TWA flight attendant. After denying the affair, he and Kathie Lee eventually released a statement, saying, “This experience has been as painful for us as it would be for any other couple. However, we will get through this together. We ask that our privacy be respected at this difficult time.”
A NEW DAY
Gifford helped his wife celebrate her 60th birthday (they share the same birth date, Aug. 16, though he was 23 years her senior) during her fourth hour of Today in 2013. Bringing even more humor to the already lighthearted show, it was a moment to remember, as cohost Hoda Kotb so poignantly said on the Aug. 10, 2015, telecast, the morning after Gifford died at the age of 84. “This is how I will remember #frankgifford,” Kotb later wrote on Twitter, “always making us laugh.”