Frank Gifford and Frederick Exley: Beyond ‘A Fan’s Notes’

AP Photo/John Rooney

In my New Jersey days, before The NFL Shop, you lettered your own unraveling sweatshirt with the no. 16, because that was the number worn by the New York Giants’ Frank Gifford, the mostly unscarred, square-jawed, clear-eyed epitome of a football hero. Gifford, who died on Sunday at the age of 84, joined the Giants out of USC in 1952, and his 78 career touchdowns — 43 of them by air, including one against the Colts in the 1958 NFL title matchup known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played” — are still a Giants record. Gifford’s 1959 Sports Illustrated photo shoot, with that “16” obscured by a sideline cloak and an assessing, obdurate expression the Dark Knight might covet, summed up his magnetizing duende.

Off the field, Gifford had an unstudied charm that made him a natural even in the hothouse of Manhattan sports celebrity, a kind of effortlessly charismatic cipher who took the odd movie cameo and could occupy a table at Toots Shor’s with the assurance of Frank Sinatra. He was something special, conscious of being in the pack with DiMaggio and Mantle: “I was the player,” runs his oft-quoted line, “and the Giants were the team.” Still, there are no guarantees such mandarins find their proper monumental status in our imagination.

But Gifford had Frederick Exley. A Fan’s Notes, Exley’s landmark 1968 personal history and “fictional memoir,” pivoted on the author’s lifelong obsession with Gifford. Never a best seller, now in print largely thanks to its enshrinement in the Modern Library, A Fan’s Notes is a specialty item in the way The Big Lebowski is a cult movie. “Strong, beautiful, American, one of a kind” is what Kurt Vonnegut would call it. “Each time I re-enter it,” critic Jonathan Yardley would write, “I find something new, something surprising, something that moves and changes me.” Complimenting Exley’s redemptive storytelling, Walter Kirn would say, “His failure will endure.”

fans-notes-first-editionHarper & Rowe

Other men might inherit from their fathers a head for figures, a gold pocket watch all encrusted with the oxidized green of age, or an eternally astonished expression; from mine I acquired the need to have my name whispered in reverential tones.

The first of what would become a rather despairing trilogy,1 A Fan’s Notes was in sum mostly reverent toward Gifford, as it presented a tortured, almost pitiable protagonist yearning for the sort of acclaim that was so readily Gifford’s to receive:

Frank Gifford went on to realize a fame in New York that only a visionary would have dared hoped for: he became unavoidable, part of the city’s hard mentality. I would never envy or begrudge him that fame. I did, in fact, become perhaps his most enthusiastic fan. No doubt he came to represent to me the realization of life’s large promises.

Ex, as he called himself and answered to among friends, had begun the fixation on Gifford that led to this nostalgia-and-booze-soaked threnody of dysfunction around 1951, when both men were enrolled at USC. Gifford, a converted quarterback and defensive back who became a halfback his senior year and slashed for four touchdowns against Ohio State, was campus royalty; Ex was a legendarily hard-drinking English major. Like Gifford, Exley would head to New York, having been raised upstate in Watertown as the son of a crusty semi-pro footballer. Before he truly discovered his great gift — striving to redeem his own scattered life in long, lapidary sentences touched with wit and pathos — Exley would spend his twenties as the victim of his own deep emotional maladies. He would know a depression that led to electroshock therapy. In his three main works, he would explicate a painful grapple with attempts to capture the love of the kind of unreachable American princesses he longed for.2

Though he never saw Frank play in college, Exley would understand the mythic heft of this transformed oil driller’s son who became an All-American. Exley’s Fitzgeraldian tangle of thoughts about Gifford only deepened as no. 16’s NFL career soared. In one mid-novel excursion, Exley explains his own role as a failing writer among the working stiffs around him in the $1 bleacher seats:

It was very simple really. Where I could not, with syntax, give shape to my fantasies, Gifford could, with his superb timing, his great hands, his uncanny faking, give shape to his … he became my alter ego, that part of me had its being in the competitive world of men …

Gifford was not as outlandishly gifted as the league’s top specialists today, but was so versatile he once campaigned to replace quarterback Charlie Conerly. Yet, great as his Jints career was, Gifford was almost better known for the hit that left him “a small, broken, blue-and-silver mannikin,” as Exley wrote — his near-beheading in 1960 by the Eagles’ Chuck Bednarik. It would become one of pro football’s signature moments, but for Gifford and his loyal teammates, it was never a defining one. “I saw plenty of guys get the crap knocked out of ’em that never made the Hall of Fame,” Sam Huff once told me.

“One had to hand it to the guy, his gift for living out his dreams,” Exley would write near the end of the book, as Gifford returns from his injury to make a great, Odell Beckham Jr.–like acrobatic catch. What Exley has found has come many pages before: “It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan.”

Yet A Fan’s Notes would transform “that long malaise, my life,” providing a provisional ascent in terms of literary reputation to Exley, whom I would come to know through my friend Dave Hirshey, now a columnist for ESPN FC. Thus came the day when Hirshey, having gotten acquainted with another novelist hero of ours, Richard Ford, arranged with Giants management for the four of us to attend a home game against the Cleveland Browns at Giants Stadium. Ford, Hirshey, and I would watch the game as a trio: Ex sent word through intermediaries that, after an apparently bibulous morning in Watertown, he had been denied permission to board his regional airline flight to Newark. Hirshey and I would occasionally journey upstate as a duo to visit him, enjoying the welcome of Ex’s amiable and unpretentious bar buddies, though his prolonged and intermittently breathless catarrhal wheeze when he really liked a joke would make us nervous for his damaged heart. (As his gift and his health slowly eroded, he would go on to a later life cautiously walking the fairways-adjacent byways of his hometown bearing nitroglycerin patches and a burden of unquenchable sadness. He died in June of 1992 at age 63.)

Fully understanding that he was the center of what was ultimately a fictional construct by a somewhat wounded contemporary, Frank Gifford willingly, if at first cautiously, befriended Exley. By then Gifford was deep into his second successful career, with Monday Night Football, first keeping it all between the hash marks while Howard Cosell nattered like a stuck Selectric typewriter and Dandy Don Meredith serenaded, then transitioning to a role opposite Al Michaels. And so in January of 1987, in the halcyon days of the Giants’ Super Bowl run that season, I joined Hirshey in Los Angeles, where he was preparing to document for Esquire a meeting between Exley and his football deity. At the photo shoot, author and his storied subject lined up for the portrait like a patient god and a water boy.3 (A couple of years later came an event that will always remind me of the graciousness of Gifford, who had the humility and wisdom to accept another man’s obsession with him. “Gods do not answer letters,” John Updike wrote of Ted Williams, but then what are we to make of the elegant party Frank and Kathie Lee would throw for Ex in their 57th Street Manhattan apartment?)

As one would naturally do when brought in close contact with the sweet-natured, vulnerable Exley for a photo, Frank tossed his arm around Ex, and his left shirt cuff shot up. I idly remarked, “Frank’s watch wins.” He had a gleaming two-toned Rolex, if I recall, and Fred a battered, probably unwound Timex. Gifford made a slightly pained grunt, a sort of “my bad,” although he was quite blameless. In a heartbeat he had peeled his watch off, and — as I quickly muttered a demurring apology — gave me an easy grin. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, dropping the watch into his pocket before again facing the camera: the mythologizer, the myth, and the man himself, all caught in the lens.

Fred Schruers is the author of Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography. 

Filed Under: Books, NFL, Frank Gifford, Frederick Exley, A Fan's Notes, New York Giants, USC Trojans