Frank Gifford, a Hall of Fame football player for the New York Giants and a legendary broadcaster, died Sunday at his Connecticut home of natural causes, his family announced. He was just seven days shy of his 85th birthday.
Gifford is survived, among others, by his wife, television personality Kathie Lee Gifford.
His family said in a statement: "We rejoice in the extraordinary life he was privileged to live, and we feel grateful and blessed to have been loved by such an amazing human being."
Gifford was a No. 1 draft pick by the Giants in 1952 and enjoyed a versatile career with New York, playing both offense and defense. He was named NFL Player of the Year in 1956 and named to seven Pro Bowls for three different positions – defensive back, halfback and flanker.
"Frank Gifford was an icon of the game, both as a Hall of Fame player for the Giants and Hall of Fame broadcaster for CBS and ABC," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. "Frank's talent and charisma on the field and on the air were important elements in the growth and popularity of the modern NFL."
Though Gifford was the centerpiece of a Giants offense that went to five NFL title games in the 1950s and '60s, he experienced highs and lows as an NFL player. Gifford fumbled twice early in the 1958 NFL championship game, both of which led to Baltimore Colts touchdowns, and later came up short on a critical third down. The Colts eventually won 23-17 in the league's first overtime game. The thrilling finish helped popularize the NFL and was dubbed "The Greatest Game Ever Played," although not by Gifford.
"Not my greatest game," Gifford told the AP in 2008. "I fumbled going out (of the end zone) and I fumbled going in."
Gifford and his teammates felt he was robbed by an incorrectly spotted ball with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter, though video technology employed for a 50th anniversary documentary indicated the call was correct. In any event, the Giants were forced to punt in the '58 game, leading to a famous drive led by Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas to send it into overtime.
Gifford had his best year in 1956, rushing for 819 yards, picking up 603 yards receiving and scoring nine touchdowns in 12 games. The Giants routed the Chicago Bears 47-7 at Yankee Stadium, where Gifford shared a locker with Mickey Mantle.
A crushing hit by 233-pound Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik in November 1960 flattened Gifford and likely shortened his football career. Bednarik was pictured standing over the unconscious Gifford, pumping his fist in a celebration thought by many to be over the top. Gifford was in the hospital for 10 days and sidelined until 1962.
In 12 seasons, all with New York, Gifford scored 34 rushing touchdowns and 43 receiving touchdowns.
His numbers led to his election to the Hall of Fame in 1977 and Gifford's jersey number, 16, was retired by the Giants in 2000.
After he retired following the 1964 season, the flexible Gifford turned to broadcasting. After initially working with CBS, he joined ABC's "Monday Night Football" in 1971, at first as a play-by-play announcer and then as an analyst.
Later in life he stayed in the spotlight through his marriage to Kathie Lee Gifford, who famously called him a "human love machine" and "lamb-chop" to her millions of viewers.
"He was a great friend to everyone in the league, a special adviser to NFL commissioners, and served NFL fans with enormous distinction for so many decades," Goodell added. "We will always remember Frank's contributions and miss his friendship. Our hearts go out to Kathie Lee and the entire Gifford family."
Gifford hosted "Wide World of Sports," covered several Olympics — his call of Frank Klammer's gold medal run in 1976 is considered a broadcasting masterpiece — and announced 588 consecutive NFL games for ABC, not even taking time off after the death of his mother shortly before a broadcast in 1986.
While he worked with others, including Dan Dierdorf, Al Michaels, Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson, Gifford was most known for the eight years he served as a calm buffer between the folksy Don Meredith and acerbic Howard Cosell.
In its early years the show was a cultural touchstone, with cities throwing parades for the visiting announcers and celebrities such as John Lennon and Ronald Reagan making appearances.
"I hate to use the words 'American institution,' but there's no other way to put it, really," Gifford told The Associated Press in 1993. "There's nothing else like it."
A handsome straight-shooter who came off as earnest and sincere, Gifford was popular with viewers, even if some accused him of being a shill for the NFL. When he wasn't on the field, Gifford tried to put his movie-star good looks to use in Hollywood, appearing in about a dozen films, most notably the 1959 submarine movie "Up Periscope."
Born Aug. 16, 1930, in Santa Monica, Calif., Frank Newton Gifford was the son of an itinerant oil worker. Growing up in Depression-era California, Gifford estimated he moved 47 times before entering high school, occasionally sleeping in parks or the family car and eating dog food. He was a star at Bakersfield High School and was an All-American during his senior season at the University of Southern California.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.