In 1987, I was writing for the Village Voice and covering the phone for the paper’s sports section (They had one back then.) One lazy Tuesday after the week’s edition had been put to bed, I answered a call from a guy who wanted to write about football. The cigarette-and-whisky voice told me he was no rookie. He called himself Fred, said he lived in the Village and had written a couple of books and done some magazine writing. His ideas sounded good to me; I took down his name and number, promised to pass his queries on to the editor, and told him I’d call him back soon.
Only after I hung up and stared at my handwriting on the notepad did I realize I had spoken to Frederick Exley, the author of A Fan’s Notes. It was one of those books that you don’t read in college courses, that usually gets recommended to you by that strange friend who read Borges while you were reading Updike. This was how I stumbled across about half of my favorite books—Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds, and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, books like that.
When I first came to New York, I was at the Strand when a friend had handed me a copy of A Fan’s Notes. What’s it about, I asked. I was told, it’s about this alcoholic who hero worships Frank Gifford. That didn’t sound very promising.
Flipping through it on the subway, I came across a passage, though, which lit me up: “I cheered for him [Gifford] with such inordinate enthusiasm, 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 for him; that roar was not only a promise of my fame; it was its unequivocal assurance.”
A Fan’s Notes stayed white hot in my memory, and I could hardly believe my good luck just a couple of years later to have come across the author. The day after Exley called, I dialed the number he had left me: Is this Frederick Exley, I asked. He recognized my voice. “Call me Fred,” he said. And so I did during a series of phone conversations in which we talked football and literature.
“Don’t you think football is a much more interesting game than baseball?” he asked me, an opinion with which I agreed, but only because I thought saying yes was much more conducive to conversation. Football seemed to be the only sport he liked. “I’d rather watch paint dry,” he said, “than watch pro basketball.” We both spent much time reading Nabokov and Edmund Wilson—he told me he thought Wilson had “cleaned Vladdie’s clock” in their famous exchange of letters—and we were both delighted to find we had spent hours in secondhand book shops tracking down old editions of G.K. Chesterton. I sent him the first feature I had written for the Voice, an account of what it was like to grow up in an Alabama dominated by Bear Bryant. I was immensely pleased when he overpraised it.
I asked Fred if A Fan’s Notes was a novel or a memoir. “Well,” he replied, “I used a lot of stuff from my life, but I made up a lot of the book, too, and when you make it up, that’s fiction.” He pointed out that in “A Note to the Reader” at the beginning of the book, he had said, “I ask to be judged as a writer of fantasy.”
The question most on my mind, though, I never asked, namely, whether he intended to write another novel. (I didn’t know he had already written two others.) I figured I’d save that for the beer we were planning to have at one of the Village haunts frequented by writers, particularly Voice writers—the Lion’s Head or Bradley’s. Instead, we talked on the phone about the Giants Super Bowl season and their prospects for the coming year. Once he dictated a short piece, about 500 words, on Giants coach Bill Parcells, comparing him to legendary Giants coaches of the ’40s and ’50s, Steve Owen and Jim Lee Howell.
I told him about seeing Frank Gifford and his New York sports contemporary Mickey Mantle at Bob Costas’s radio show broadcast from Runyon’s Saloon. I was surprised that they didn’t sit at the table together. Exley chuckled, “Frank didn’t care much for Mickey.”
Indeed he did not. In fact, Gifford’s attitude towards New York’s greatest sports hero revealed a dark side of his nature which almost never got written about. In 1983, I went to Buffalo for a profile of O.J. Simpson (talk about heroes with a dark side) as the Monday Night Football crew prepared for a Jets-Bills game. While waiting for Simpson to arrive, I had occasion to spend a few minutes with Gif at the Bills cafeteria.
The conversation was pleasant until I mentioned Mantle. They were born just a year apart (Gifford was a year older), and Gifford’s 11 seasons with the Giants coincided with Mantle’s glory years with the Yankees. Gifford even used Mantle’s locker at Yankee Stadium—or at least, that’s the way I heard it. When I mentioned this, Gifford stiffened and replied, “He had my locker.” I was taken aback; it was, after all, called Yankee Stadium, not Giants Stadium.
Perhaps I had worded it wrong and should have said, “You and Mickey shared a locker,” but Gifford didn’t say shared. He said used his locker.
I mentioned this to Exley, who thought that Gifford’s enmity towards the Mick started when Mantle was a rookie in 1951 and the Yankees were playing an exhibition game at the University of Southern Cal’s baseball stadium. Frank was practicing on the adjacent football field when an enormous roar went up from the crowd. Mantle had hit a colossal home run over the right field wall and the entire USC football team stood in awe as the ball cleared the wall and rolled towards their huddle. A titanic blast, some said, of nearly 600 feet.
Gifford always claimed that the ball stopped rolling at his feet. Exley recalled, “It took Gifford off the cover of the school paper for days. When he had a stomachache, it would be on the front page—I’m not kidding. But for a couple of days no one was talking about Gif. They were talking about Mickey’s home run, and I guess Frank didn’t like that.”
Frank also didn’t like playing second fiddle to Mantle in New York. After the Giants won the NFL championship in 1956, Gifford told a writer, “All of a sudden, instead of going to the dumps on the West Side, somebody would be inviting you to dinner at Toots Shor’s. It was just a different world.” It was the world Mantle had been living in for years; in 1956 he had won his fourth World Series ring with the Yankees. As Whitey Ford once put it, “Toots Shor’s was where champions went, and Mick was the uncrowned king of Toots Shor’s.” (After Mantle’s death, Gifford was quoted as saying that Mantle was “a total asshole. A sexist, not a nice person. I didn’t know him, but I didn’t want to know him.”)
Gifford surely would have been miffed at the final chapter of their mingled destinies, as this week news of his funeral service was overshadowed by the outpouring of sentiment on the 20th anniversary of Mantle’s death on August 13.
In truth, there was something a little … I don’t want to say disappointing because I didn’t talk with him long enough to know that, but something just a little lacking in Gifford’s football career. Though he was possibly the best known college football player of his time, he never won the Heisman Trophy, as did so many of his successors at Southern Cal. (The players who did win it while Gifford was in college are today mostly forgotten.)
In A Fan’s Notes, Exley wrote, “What did I long for? At twenty-three, I of course longed for fame.” And, “Frank Gifford, more than any other single person, sustained for me the illusion that fame was possible.” One reason Exley idolized Gifford was that he was at Southern Cal at the height of Gifford’s college glory, and he was living in New York when Gifford became one of the first nationally known football stars with the Giants. Exley couldn’t imagine more to want out of life than that.
But Gifford could. I once heard him talk wistfully about his failure to win the Heisman, awarded to the outstanding college football player in America, even though in the early ’50s he was probably the best known college football player in the country. And he just missed becoming the most famous pro football player in the game. For want of a yard—actually about six inches, he always insisted—things could have been different.
Late in the fourth quarter of the 1958 NFL championship game against the Baltimore Colts, with the Giants ahead 17-14, Gifford was stopped near midfield just short of a crucial first down. “I wasn’t short,” he told me emphatically. “I made that down. It was a bad, bad spot by the officials. If they give us the right spot on the ball, we’d get the first down and probably go on to chew up the clock and win the game.” Instead, the Giants had to punt, the Colts got the ball, and Johnny Unitas marched them downfield for the tying field goal and then a thrilling sudden death victory in overtime. It’s still called “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
For millions, it was the first pro football game they ever watched, and for millions Johnny Unitas became the first pro player to become a household word, like Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. What isn’t remembered is was how close Frank Gifford came to that same fame. “I’ve replayed that run, and the officials’ spot, a thousand times in my dreams, and no matter how far I run, each time they put the ball down just a few inches short.”
In the early ’60s, when pro football boomed, Gifford’s image was surpassed and at least partly absorbed by another halfback who, like Gifford, could run, catch, kick and even throw the famous option pass. Paul Hornung had won the Heisman Trophy, at Notre Dame, and with the Green Bay Packers he was fortunate to have the same coach, Vince Lombardi, who had helped make Gifford a star in New York. Gifford won a single championship with the Giants; Hornung won four with Green Bay.
Even after rereading A Fan’s Notes, I could never quite understand or share Exley’s love for Gifford, nor did Gifford ever mean anything special to me. I suppose he failed to touch me for precisely the same reason he appealed to Exley: He was the perfect model of American success. Handsome enough to be considered for Tarzan movies and a walk-on in many films and TV shows. An All-America at Southern Cal (a school I have always despised). A great and versatile pro football player with a championship ring and then a TV star on Monday Night Football.
If it seemed that everything came too easy for him, you can’t say he didn’t pay the price. It took a lot of guts to come back from the hit the Eagles’ Chuck Bednarik put on him in 1960 that took him out for the entire 1961 season. (A play described by Exley in all its terrible beauty: “Dropping his shoulder ever so slightly, so that it would meet Gifford in the region of the neck and chest, he ran into him without breaking his furious stride, thwaaahhhp, taking Gifford’s legs out from under him, sending the ball careening wildly into the air, and bringing him to the soft green turf with a sickening thud.”)
All of which meant that I admired him and rather liked him from a distance without feeling much about him one way or another. Gifford’s fall from grace in 1997, when a tabloid paid a stewardess to entrap him in a hotel room, didn’t make much of an impression on me except for a moment of gladness that Exley had not lived to see his hero shamed; he had died five years earlier of what I heard were numerous complications stemming from alcoholism. He never wrote another book that might have cemented his literary reputation, though I have heard good things about his other two novels (or fictional memoirs), Pages From A Cold Island and Last Notes From Home. I always meant to read them and still tell myself now and then that I’m going to, but the farther away I get from those years, it gets more likely that I will never track them down.
I never did have that beer with Exley at the Lion’s Head or Bradley’s in the Village, either, something that still gives me a twinge of regret when I see a copy of A Fan’s Notes or see something written about it.
He did write a couple of short pieces on football for the paper, but never the big features he talked about doing. I couldn’t pin any of the editors down long enough to listen to interest them. I’d say, “This guy wrote a great novel about this alcoholic who worships Frank Gifford …” and their eyes would roll. The Giants, after all, had won the Super Bowl earlier that year, and the heroes were Lawrence Taylor and Phil Simms and nobody wanted to hear about Frank Gifford’s Giants any more.
In one of the many pieces published after Gifford died last Sunday, someone wrote, “If people still remember Frank Gifford 100 years from now, it will be because of Frederick Exley.” I’d like to believe that is true, but I very much doubt that it will be. DiMaggio will probably be remembered one hundred years from now, but not because of Hemingway, and Ted Williams as well, even if John Updike isn’t.
It’s a safe bet Muhammad Ali will be remembered, but not because of Norman Mailer. It’s probably a stretch that either Frank Gifford or Fred Exley will be remembered in a hundred years, but it would be a very cruel world where both were forgotten and a very fair one when mention of one sparked recognition of the other. And I think Fred Exley would be more than satisfied with that tradeoff.