R. I. P. Frank Gifford, Notes from a Fan

Frank Gifford of the New York Giants was knocked out of the game by a vicious hit from Chuck Bednarik of the Philadelphia Eagles, and sat out the entire following season.
Frank Gifford of the New York Giants was knocked out of the game by a vicious hit from Chuck Bednarik of the Philadelphia Eagles, and sat out the entire following season.

Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes painfully details the dark side of football fandom, as its narrator struggles with his sanity, not helped at all by a faulty sense of identification with and disordered attachment to the image of handsome football star Frank Gifford.

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. It was something more than this: I cheered for him with such inordinate enthusiasm, my yearning became so involved with his desire to escape life’s bleak anonymity, that after a time he became my alter ego, that part of me which had its being in the competitive world of men; I came, as incredible as it seems to me now, to believe that I was, in some magical way, an actual instrument of his success. Each time I heard the roar of the crowd, it roared in my ears as much for me as him; that roar was not only a promise of my fame, it was its unequivocal assurance. (134)

Frank Gifford died this past weekend, ending a life’s journey that really started when an indifferent high school student was convinced to take academics seriously enough to get and keep a college scholarship. After starring in football at USC, Gifford was drafted into the NFL at just the moment when it was mushrooming into America’s Game, the King of Sports and sports entertainment, and Gifford played a key role in expanding the sense of entertainment as he became a media personality following his playing days, emerging as the iconic straight man between bombastic Howard Cosell and Dandy Don Meredith on Monday Night Football.

In a blurb on the jacket of the Vintage Contemporary edition of A Fan’s Notes, James Dickey claims that “no one should have had Exley’s life,” and the tragic beauty and stark power of the book is how far from Gifford’s was the narrator’s life, however much that narrator wanted to believe in the magic identification between the football fan and the football star. In America, big-time football is full of excess and illusion, temptations to idolatry, and Farewell to Football will explore some of these dangers.

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