Kathie Lee Gifford and her son Cody Gifford appear in the documentary Requiem for a Running Back, which tells the stories of NFL players, including Frank Gifford, husband and father respectively, being posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). They want to be clear: “We don’t hate football. We certainly don’t hate the NFL.”
Those were executive producer Cody’s words, about the film that is now streaming. The project is directed by Rebecca Carpenter, daughter of Green Bay Packers champ Lew Carpenter, who was diagnosed with CTE, leaving her looking for answers about the brain disorder linked to head injuries. The neurodegenerative disease — with symptoms including memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and dementia — long affected boxers and has since been found in the brains of over 300 NFL players over the last nearly 20 years. Studies show it has affected athletes playing other contact sports.
Cody, who runs Gifford Media Group, saw a cut of the film in 2018. At the time, it included an image of his father, the New York Giants superstar turned NFL commentator, that “just sucked the air out of me,” he says. “I was just weeping watching it. It touched me deeply.” He asked Rebecca — who produced it independently because “the market didn’t really want to touch it” due to the “subject matter,” which has been controversial — “How can we help? I want people to see this.” The film was updated and Kathie Lee and Cody appeared in it talking about having Frank’s brain studied after his 2015 death. Cody funded the film’s first commercial release.
‘We’re not out to get the NFL’
“One of the things I love about it is that it’s not inflammatory. It’s not accusatory. We’re not out to get everybody. We’re not out to get the NFL — that was never our position,” Cody says of the film’s exploration of CTE in players. “The NFL gave my father a life — those are his words, not mine. My dad would always attribute [his success] to the great coaches he had, [telling him], ‘You could be something special.’ He really did make a beautiful, special life — and football was primarily the vehicle that gave him that.”
Kathie Lee says, “Cody is so right: Frank was so grateful for everything his NFL career gave him. Frank wrote a bunch of incredible books, but in one he talked about how he grew up during the Depression in dire poverty. He ate dog food as a child. … His family moved to 29 different places. He was a struggling boy who stuttered. The only way Frank could distinguish himself in all those different places was by being athletic.” Early on he realized it was going to be his ticket to a better life.
While football may have been his salvation, Frank once sustained a tackle so severe that there is an entire Wikipedia article devoted to it (see: The Hit). He sustained a concussion from the 1960 injury and was hospitalized for 10 days and retired as a result. In an epic comeback story — which netted him NFL Comeback Player of the Year accolades — Frank came out of retirement in 1962 and played through the 1964 season. He went on to be a broadcaster on ABC’s Monday Night Football for 27 years. In the documentary, Kathie Gifford recalls NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sending her a note after Frank’s death calling him “the face of the NFL.”
Despite his success, Gifford had to face the reality of CTE, which manifests differently for everyone stricken with it. In the film, the children and wives of former players describe their loved ones behaving erratically and aggressively as they unknowingly battled it. Families were torn apart by the hidden illness. Frank’s CTE clearly affected his memory.
The Giffords participation in the film is not to get people to stop playing or watching football. Their hope is that the youngest players avoid contact football until they are at least 14, lessening the number of blows to their small bodies.