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From NFL to TV, Gifford’s career mirrors football’s rise

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New York Giants halfback Frank Gifford died this weekend at 84. To a lot of people, he was probably better known as a member of the Monday Night Football crew through the 1970s and ’80s, and most of the ’90s. Or even as Kathie Lee Gifford’s husband. He played for the NFL before football became the national sport, back when boxing was a Friday-night fixture on network TV and college football was more popular than the pros.

But maybe more than anyone in the history of the game, Gifford’s career is something of a timeline for what football has become in America. 

Let’s start with a little context. Last year’s No. 1 draft pick, Jadeveon Clowney, signed a contract with the Houston Texans for more than $22 million a year and got $14 million just for signing. Frank Gifford was the No. 1 pick of the New York Giants in 1952 and played for $8,000 a year.

“And he signed for a $250 signing bonus,” says Jackson Michael, author of the book, “The Game Before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL.”

Gifford was the son of an oil-field worker who got a scholarship to USC and became a star for the Trojans. But when he got to the NFL, more people were interested in baseball than pro football.

“The league wasn’t as popular back then in 1952,” Michael says. “Television really helped increase pro football’s popularity.”

And when Gifford retired, TV was waiting. “The broadcasters were like, ‘We need an NFL guy,” says T.J. Troup, a former player and coach who’s written a couple of books on the NFL. He says hiring Gifford in the early 1960s to help broadcast was a no brainer. “If you were a Giant in Manhattan and playing well, why not make the transition if you can?”

Gifford joined Monday Night Football in 1971, its second season. In his 26 years, the broadcast went from strictly X’s and O’s to a celebrity culture all its own — and so did football. Today’s game is as much about theater as it is about winners and losers.

“It’s much more about entertainment,” Michael says. “It’s made for television.”

Which translates into big bucks for owners and teams. One estimate has the league’s TV revenue alone topping $6 billion next year. 

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