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Gifford’s Life Is Now an Open Book

You think of Frank Gifford and you think he probably has always had it made.

He’s a former football hero with movie-star looks. For 23 years, he has been an announcer on the most successful sports program in history, ABC’s “Monday Night Football.”

His wife, Kathie Lee, is a nationally known television personality. His close friends include some of the richest and most influential people in the country.

He is the father of three grown children and has five grandchildren. His daughter, Vicki, is married to Michael Kennedy, a son of Bobby.

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And, at 63, he also is the father of a 3 1/2-year-old son, Cody, and a 3-month-old daughter, Cassidy.

“I pinch myself every day,” he said, aware that life, on the whole, has been very good to him.

But it all could have been very different. He could have spent his life working in the San Joaquin Valley oil fields, as his late father did.

What saved Gifford? Football--and a high school coach named Homer Beatty.

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A chapter in the book Gifford has written with Newsweek’s Harry Waters, “The Whole Ten Yards,” deals with Gifford’s youth, and he also talked about it during an interview this week.

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Gifford’s family, which included a brother and a sister and remained close through troubled times, moved 47 times before Frank began high school in Bakersfield.

His father, Weldon, would get a job in an oil field and then send for the family. They would arrive and drive around, looking for a place to stay, sometimes sleeping in a park, or the car.

One time the family went to another small San Joaquin Valley town, Avenal, where the children were enrolled in school. When they got home from their first day in school, they learned that they were moving to Coalinga, where they spent a week before moving again.

“I don’t remember completing a single grade in the same grammar school,” Gifford recalls.

School wasn’t much fun for young Frank. He didn’t care about developing friendships, knowing he would soon be moving again. So he rarely went to school. And when he did, he didn’t put much effort into it.

Gifford’s father went from the oil fields to the San Pedro shipyards when Frank was in junior high, and the family moved to Hermosa Beach.

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Then it was back to Bakersfield, where, for Frank, the moving finally stopped. After that, when his father went off to another job, Gifford stayed with relatives.

He went out for the lightweight football team as a freshman at Bakersfield High, but at 5 feet 2 and 115 pounds, he didn’t make it.

As a sophomore, he went out for the varsity, known as the Drillers, but was sent down to the lightweight team, known as the Sand Dabs. He was a small fish in a small pond, a third-string end, and still not much interested in school.

“I even failed wood shop,” he said.

Gifford grew between his sophomore and junior years, though, made the varsity, and soon became Beatty’s personal reclamation project.

When Bakersfield’s starting quarterback, Myrl Hume, was killed in a traffic accident just before the opening of the season, Gifford became his replacement, and his football career began to take off.

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Beatty ultimately convinced Gifford that he was good enough to get a college scholarship--and not to Bakersfield Junior College, to USC.

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Gifford’s grades were a problem, though, and his curriculum had not exactly been college prep.

Gifford, inspired by Beatty, went to work in the classroom and on the football field. As a senior, he got better grades, was a bona fide football star, and had college recruiters knocking.

But his grades had been so bad before that Gifford had to go to the junior college. He spent a semester there and should have stayed for another, but he went on to USC instead. He was still academically ineligible, so he had to enroll in extension classes. He participated in spring practice even though he wasn’t eligible, and things got messy.

The Pacific Coast Conference fined USC, and Gifford said he was close to leaving for Arizona.

But he stayed, gained All-American stature, and then it was off to stardom with the New York Giants, a career that led him to broadcasting.

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As a broadcaster, Gifford has been criticized for being too bland, for making too many mistakes, for being afraid to criticize.

“I’m not the best broadcaster, and never will be,” he admits.

But he has survived, staying at the top of his profession for more than a quarter of a century.

His secret? His low-key style and his likability.

Critics and colleagues have sniped at him over the years, but public polls indicate that the average viewer likes him.

And if he is ripped for being too nice a guy, well, Gifford doesn’t mind.

If you listen carefully, Gifford, who often gets drowned out by his bombastic “Monday Night Football” partner Dan Dierdorf, quietly makes good points.

He showed he is pretty well plugged in last Monday when he said it wouldn’t surprise him if the NFL named only one expansion team on Tuesday instead of two. Dierdorf disagreed, but it turned out Gifford was right.

In his book, Gifford is fairly open about his life, his two failed marriages, and his emotions. Such candor is rather surprising from someone reputed to be a private person.

“I think I’m perceived as being a nice guy and sort of boring, so people think I’m private, too,” Gifford said. “But I’ve always been open.”

He said he wrote the book mainly so that his children would know more about him, that they would know “my life wasn’t all Yankee Stadium and Broadway.”

In an era when sports can often be a downer, “The Whole Ten Yards” is an upper. It’s a good story about a nice guy who hasn’t done too badly for a son of an oil-field roustabout.

TV-Radio Notes

HBO and boxing promoter Bob Arum are having a bit of a feud. During tonight’s Arum-promoted fight card on HBO in which James Toney faces Tony Thornton and Tommy Morrison takes on Michael Bentt at Tulsa, the cable network will devote nearly half an hour to the Evander Holyfield-Riddick Bowe fight Nov. 6. That fight will be distributed by TVKO, HBO’s pay-per-view arm. “Sure, give the fight a five-minute pop here and there, but a half-hour right in the middle of the two fights?” Arum said. “You may say I’m upset because I’m not promoting Bowe-Holyfield (it’s Dan Duva’s promotion), but I just think it’s bad television. Before watching Morrison and Bentt, the viewers might want to know something about Morrison and Bentt, don’t you think?”

Said HBO executive producer Ross Greenburg: “It’s really a non-issue. There’s a lot of interest in Bowe-Holyfield, and we’re simply giving the viewers what we think they want. It’s certainly not going to be a puff piece. Jim Lampley will do live interviews with both fighters, and he will be directing some tough questions to Bowe about his condition.”

ESPN’s outstanding “Outside the Lines” series takes a look at the coaching profession today at 4:30 p.m. Among other things, the show will explore cases of alleged sexual and psychological abuse. One scheduled feature deals with Mitch Ivey, the University of Florida’s women’s swimming coach and his relationships with his swimmers. Ivey was fired Tuesday, after an investigation that began when ESPN reporters showed up on campus three weeks ago.

Biggest injustice of the weekend is that ABC is televising Notre Dame-Navy at 9 a.m. Saturday instead of moving Penn State-Ohio State to an earlier time slot and showing it. . . . Second-biggest injustice is that ESPN is making Arizona and UCLA play at 7:30 p.m. The game should be on ABC at 12:30 instead of USC-California.

Michael Jordan will be Larry King’s guest on CNN Monday night. . . . KMPC’s Joe McDonnell, recovering from knee surgery, is scheduled to return to his afternoon time slot on Monday, Nov. 8, although he will file reports from Las Vegas on the Bowe-Holyfield fight before that. . . . KIEV has an agreement with UCLA to carry women’s basketball and volleyball. The first broadcast will be next Wednesday at 7 p.m., when the Bruin volleyball team takes on USC. The first basketball broadcast will be Dec. 1.

Included in the new Orange County Sports Hall of Fame at Anaheim Stadium when it opens Dec. 1 will be a Southern California Sports Broadcasters Assn. audio room, featuring radio calls of some of the area’s most memorable sports events. Steve Bailey has put together quite a collection.


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