In the hours after Frank Gifford died Sunday, many connected to words about him in Frederick Exley's brilliant "A Fan's Notes." I found myself thinking of a different story, one written by columnist Bob Greene. It was called "The Coolest Guy in the Room."
Frank Gifford was, to me, a bland, likable broadcaster. I didn't see him play football. I could not imagine him playing football anymore than I could imagine Jim McKay or Keith Jackson playing football. He was a broadcaster in my mind.
Then, one day I picked up Bob Greene's story about Gifford. It began like so:
"There are men in this world who, since they were little boys, have had life beaten."
It made little sense to me that a story about Frank Gifford could begin like this. Greene expected that. "If all you know about Gifford is what you've seen on 'Monday Night Football' you might be smirking a little by now," he wrote.
He proceeded to tell quickly of Gifford's dazzling life. Gifford was an All-America tailback at USC when that was perhaps the most exciting thing an American young man could be. He was an NFL star in New York just as pro football was exploding. He became a handsome and beloved television star in the when that was about the most glamorous thing imaginable.
Greene sought out Frank Gifford to ask one question: What does that feel like, always being the coolest guy in the room?
Gifford, being the coolest guy in the room, didn't get the question at all. It was too much a part of him. "I enjoy walking into a room," he said. "Most of the rooms I walk into, either I'm working, in which case I don't give a s--- what the people think about me, or they're my friends, in which case I know what they think of me. So yeah, I'm comfortable. I've never had a problem walking into any room, if that's what you're asking."
That was not what Bob Greene was asking, not really. He prodded. Gifford said he'd never worried about his looks, never felt awkward, never concerned himself with doubts or uncertainty. "People have always looked for things in me that they'd like to see in themselves," he said, not immodestly.
The story seemed like it should end there. But Greene, almost as an afterthought, asked Gifford if there was anything that he wanted out of life that was denied him. And that's when the story turned. Frank Gifford may have been the coolest guy in the room. But, he was still human.
"There wasn't a whole lot of doubt in my mind," Gifford said, "that I would have been an All-Pro quarterback."
Greene was taken aback. "Why did you want to become a quarterback?" Greene asked.
"I didn't want to BECOME a quarterback," Gifford said. "I WAS a quarterback. ... I was never a halfback. I didn't want to be a quarterback. I was a quarterback. Nobody ever seemed to understand that."