Money & Careers

She Remembers His Helping Hand: Frank Gifford Gave Her a Chance, and She Made a Life

Monday Night Football commentator Frank Gifford is shown posing for the camera while sitting in the end zone of a football field. (Courtesy ESPN)

A friend of mine died yesterday. He was 84 years old. We hadn’t seen each other in at least three decades, maybe longer. But that’s beside the point: I will always think of Frank Gifford as my friend. Here’s why: Frank saw potential in me when I didn’t see much in myself and he reached out a hand to help me discover it.  I was wise enough to grab on and the first steps I took with him put me on a path in life that I wasn’t able to imagine for myself back then. Now, it’s impossible to imagine walking a different one.

I’d graduated from college a few months before the evening when at a friend’s house I found myself sitting across from Frank Gifford at dinner. All evening, all we did was talk sports.  It was easy for me since I’d played or watched sports for my entire life. From an early age, my parents took me to baseball, football and basketball games. My dad never dumbed down talk about what I was seeing because I was a girl, and my mom loved talking baseball, so we did. From early on, I knew how to converse in the language called sports, which back in the 1950s and 60s was usually the way boys talked and girls didn’t. Nor was I shy doing so, though I couldn’t believe I was doing this with a man I always watched on Monday nights with Howard Cosell and Don Meredith on ABC’s Monday Night Football. Our conversation rocketed through an ever-widening array of athletes and events. Rarely had I felt so exhilarated. I did not want this evening to end.

When it was time for me to head home, Frank’s parting words left me feeling like I was walking on air. “For a girl, you know a lot about sports,” he’d told me, words I inhaled as an enormous compliment. “If you are in New York and would like to meet people at ABC Sports, let me know,” he said, in a kind gesture that I doubt he figured would amount to much.

But in that instant I knew I’d see him in New York. Soon. It didn’t matter that I’d never been to the city on my own. Toward the end of September, I did. Driving from Cape Cod to New York City, I made my way across the East side of Manhattan and found the parking garage Frank told me about under the ABC building, then on Sixth Avenue. I bounced up the building’s stone steps, went through the revolving door, and gave my name to the man at the entry floor desk. He called upstairs, then told me the floor where I should get off. Sure enough, when the elevator doors opened Frank was there to greet me. Next thing I knew Roone Arledge came around the corner. He has hard not to recognize, and I knew he’d transformed ABC into the top sports network. Frank introduced us. No time to pinch myself, but wish there had been.

The next three days were a whirlwind of activity, culminating in the many hours I spent in an editing studio with Ellie Riger, the first and only woman producer at ABC Sports. Her assignment: to produce “Women in Sports” a special report with stories about strides that women were making in sports now that Title IX legally ensured equity to women and girls. A few weeks earlier, Billie Jean King had defeated Bobby Riggs in tennis in a match that millions watched on primetime TV. I’d invited friends over to watch what was a crystalizing American moment in the burgeoning women’s movement, as Billie Jean triumphed for all women in what was billed as “The Battle of the Sexes.”

Frank had introduced me to Ellie on our rounds that first day, and she’d invited me to hang out with the “girls.” So that’s what I did. Working with her on this special was Donna De Verona, a 1960 Olympic gold medal winner in swimming, who was on her way to becoming one of the pioneering women sports broadcasters. For a few magical moments, while I was there, Billie Jean King stopped by.

Those days were the key turning point in my life. I’d majored in art history, and then found my job search stymied by my lack of interest in museum or gallery work. I did not have a Plan B. Now I knew sports was it; it was what I knew, what I loved being around, and what I would somehow find a job doing. Back home, I announced to my parents that I would be moving to New York City to pursue a job at ABC Sports. In my fall visit, I’d gotten to know Barbara Roche, who was Ellie’s production assistant, and found out that she was looking for a roommate. Perfect, I figured. After she and I spent a few late autumn days apartment hunting, I moved into our two-bedroom apartment in an East Side high-rise in January 1974.

I  was never hired for a job at ABC Sports, though not for lack of trying. I went with the “foot-in-the-door approach” and applied to be a secretary. I learned stenography, already knew typing, and the next time I went to ABC I took the test to be a secretary. When I went upstairs with my results, one of the vice presidents in sports took one look at my résumé and saw my Wellesley College degree and said he’d never hire me to do that job. This was when women at news organizations like Newsweek had sued their employers for hiring them in lower-rung jobs while hiring similarly educated men in higher-rung ones. This vice president said he doubted I’d want to remain a secretary for long. Problem was that my art history major made my odds of being hired as a production assistant equally slim.

So with Barbara’s help – as she shared the advance monthly schedule of ABC Sports events and editing sessions with me – I grabbed on to the bottom rung. I signed up as a “go-for” at many of ABC Sports’ events, which meant I agreed to show up and be assigned for the day (or event) to fetch or do whatever tasks the broadcaster or producer needed me to do. By doing this, I got myself a front-row seat to learning sports media from the best in the business. I did this for little (often no) pay, while I paid my part of the rent with the salary I earned as a secretary at Harper’s Bazaar. (My Wellesley College degree hadn’t curtailed that job possibility.)

I’d visit Frank often at his local WABC sports anchor job and he’d always have a word of encouragement to offer. Often, I’d show up, and before I knew it I was on the set to see him do his five-minute report. A few times I paid my way to work as a go-for at an ABC Sports event where I knew Frank would be the broadcaster. I’d also show up in the evenings or on weekends at voice-over sessions when Frank and other broadcasters would do their layovers for taped segments. Producers knew me, and seeing me arrive, they’d invite me to take a seat in the editing booth; sometimes they’d send me on errands, like the night one of them sent me to a nearby bar on Columbus Avenue. I was told to return with two martinis (specific directions were given for how each was to be made) for Howard Cosell to drink as he did his voice-overs.

I always felt Frank was looking out for me, even when I was at an event he wasn’t doing. It hadn’t taken me long to realize that my dream of being hired at ABC Sports wasn’t going to happen. But I wasn’t deterred from wanting a job in sports. Turns out that hanging out at ABC Sports made this reality possible. By September 1974, after being rejected once, Sports Illustrated hired me as a researcher/reporter. That happened because a producer at ABC Sports suggested I apply for that job – and put in a good word for me when I did. Within a few months, I was assigned as a reporter on S.I.’s TV/Radio column, and soon people I’d known at ABC Sports were the ones I’d be asking to interview for our column. By the next year, I was writing some of those columns.

For 40 years I’ve been a journalist. While I didn’t stick with sports reporting, but moved on to news reporting with Time magazine, knowing sports is what got me hired at SI. I was hired in that job without having even one bylined story; I learned that most of the other young reporters there had piles of clips from their time as sports reporters and editors at their college newspaper. What I brought to the job instead was my passion for being in sports media that Frank had ignited that night – and a brain stimulated by my liberal arts education at Wellesley. Sports Illustrated became my graduate school of journalism.

On this day after his passing, I want to say thank you to Frank Gifford for all he did to open doors for me and most of all for believing in my potential. It’s what friends do. It’s what he did when it mattered most.

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  • hillsmom August 11, 2015 at 9:58 am

    What a truly inspiring story. Congratulations on your success and fortitude.

    Reply
  • Roz Warren August 11, 2015 at 9:36 am

    Terrific essay. Sorry for your loss.

    Reply