IN the ``in box, out box'' world of television staffing, Frank Gifford has staying power. Many sports personalities have come and gone during his 24 years on ABC's ``Monday Night Football'' - Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Joe Namath, O.J. Simpson, Fran Tarkenton, Alex Karras, and Fred Williamson - but Gifford remains.
On Monday he will close out the National Football League's regular season when he works the San Francisco-Minnesota game alongside his longest-tenured Monday-night sidekicks: play-by-play man Al Michaels and fellow analyst Dan Dierdorf.
``I think we do as good a job as any threesome that has worked these games,'' he says during a phone call to his personal New York office. Despite going their separate ways during the week (Gifford lives in New York, Michaels in Los Angeles, and Dierdorf in St. Louis), the three are often intuitively in sync with one another on the air.
This may be most apparent, Gifford says, when a lopsided game forces the group to become more entertaining. ``We get into a more jocular type of attitude - maybe kid each other a bit - without ever discussing it [off camera],'' he says.
That Gifford has been the Energizer Bunny of ``Monday Night Football'' has caused some to belittle his work. ``I've been accused of being everything from vanilla to being a shill for the National Football League,'' he says. ``Some people think that you can't be doing a good job unless you are bombastic and critical.... I don't know where that concept ever came up in journalism.''
Then he adds, ``I'm basically as critical as I care to be about individuals who I know are doing something very difficult.''
This knowledge was gained firsthand during his own playing days. After graduating from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Gifford played professionally with the New York Giants from 1952 to 1960, retired briefly, and then returned in 1962 for three more seasons of active NFL duty.
``I played in what people call `the greatest game ever played,' '' he says of the 1958 NFL championship game, won by the Baltimore Colts in sudden-death overtime. ``Every time I hear it referred to that way it amuses me because it certainly wasn't my greatest game. I didn't play that well.''
Nonetheless he is keenly aware of that game's significance as a turning point in NFL history. ``It made a big difference in the direction pro football went,'' he says. ``I'm pretty proud of that. I feel a little of the same thing for `Monday Night Football.' I've been on the telecast 24 years [and] have never missed a game.''
Many viewers may not realize that Gifford is in both the college and pro-football halls of fame, and that he was the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 1956, when he led the Giants to a league championship.
Versatility may have been his chief hallmark as a player and perhaps a preview of things to come as a broadcaster. During his NFL career, he was named to the Pro Bowl all-star game at three different positions - halfback, defensive back, and wide receiver.
As a broadcaster, his athletic good looks and easy manner have made him just as versatile. Besides his ``Monday Night Football'' credentials, many viewers have known him as a host of ``ABC's Wide World of Sports'' and a regular on the network's Olympic coverage from 1972 to 1988. A recreational skier, he and Bob Beattie have often been paired as broadcasters of Alpine events.
Gifford's emergence as a television personality was helped along by several factors: He was a debonair athlete who played in New York; he studied acting during and after college and was comfortable before the cameras; and he had an opportunity to try his hand at sportscasting while still an active player, first in his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif., and then in the Big Apple.
The first threesome
Gifford was working for CBS when Roone Arledge, then president of ABC Sports and a golfing buddy, approached him in 1970 about joining the innovative ``Monday Night Football'' telecasts. Contractually, Gifford was stuck at CBS that first year, but he recommended that Arledge contact former Dallas quarterback Don Meredith, whose wit and freewheeling spirit made him a welcome complement to Keith Jackson and Howard Cosell in the original three-headed Monday-night booth.
``Don is a very interesting guy,'' Gifford says. ``He lives in Santa Fe [N.M.] now and writes and sculpts. He just had fun [on `Monday Night Football']. His perspective was, `I'm here to enjoy it, and if I screw up ... so what?'''
Gifford replaced Jackson in the second year of ``Monday Night Football'' and in 1986 gracefully yielded the play-by-play duties to Michaels.
Gifford has lived in the limelight for many years, but he seems content to share or relinquish it, as often now happens within his own marriage. Kathie Lee Gifford has become a star as cohost of the nationally syndicated ``Live With Regis and Kathie Lee'' TV talk show.
He calls her a ``wonderfully talented woman,'' a fact the NFL will acknowledge Jan. 29 when she sings the national anthem before Super Bowl XXIX in Miami. Frank will be in the broadcast booth.
The Giffords want their two young children (Frank's second family) to grow up ``knowing Mommy and Daddy have tried to make a difference.'' They are deeply involved in the Association to Benefit Children, an organization that provides care for babies diagnosed as HIV positive.
The couple recently bought the old Ronald McDonald House in New York to use in this cause and renamed it the Cody House after their four-year-old son. They hope this care facility will be replicated across the United States.
The Giffords also have made two ``infomercials,`` one on strengthening marriages and the other on teaching values to children.