Frank Gifford's death a reminder of his biggest fan: Fred Exley

Dylan Stableford
Frank Gifford's death a reminder of his biggest fan: Fred Exley

The death of Frank Gifford on Sunday sparked plenty of remembrances of the 84-year-old who was a legendary pro football player and broadcaster. And for many, the news of Giffords passing reminded them of the late Frederick Exley, a cult author best known for A Fans Notes, an acclaimed 1968 fictional memoir that details his obsession with the NFL Hall of Famer.

I cheered for him with such inordinate enthusiasm, Exley writes, 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.

But Exley didn't always idolize Gifford. In the book, Exley recalls his first encounter with the football star when they were both students at the University of Southern California:

Sitting at the counter of one of the campus hamburger joints, I was having a cup of chicken noodle soup and a cheeseburger when it occurred to me that he was one of a party of three men seated a few stools away from me. I knew without looking because the other two men were directing all their remarks to him: Hey, Frank, how about that? Hey, Frank, cha ever hear the one about ... It was the kind of given-name familiarity one likes to have with the biggest man on the block. My eyes on my soup, I listened to this sycophancy, smiling rather bitterly, for what seemed an eternity; when I finally did look up, it was he — ambrosial locks and all. He was dressed in blue denims and a terry-cloth sweater, and though I saw no evidence of USC stamped anyplace, still I had an overwhelming desire to insult him in some way. How this would be accomplished with any subtlety I had no idea. I certainly didn't want to fight with him. I did, however, want to shout, Listen, you son of a bitch, life isn't all a goddam football game! You won't always get the girl! Life is rejection and pain and loss — all those things I so cherishingly cuddled in my self-pitying bosom.

Frank Gifford was an All-American at USC, Exley mockingly writes, and I know of no way of describing this phenomenon short of equating it with being the Pope in the Vatican.

But after Exley moved to New York City, he became an obsessive fan of Gifford and the New York Giants.

Following its 1968 publication by Harper & Row, A Fans Notes won Exley the William Faulkner Foundation Award for notable first novel and was a National Book Award finalist in 1969. It also earned Exley a famous new fan: Gifford.

In 1988, Gifford threw a book party for Exley following the release of Last Notes From Home, his third and final novel.

It was clear that Frank liked him, Mel Zerman, a former Harper executive and friend of Exley, recalled in a 2005 interview. Why shouldnt he? The book is very worshipful.

Exley, who battled alcoholism and physical and mental health issues throughout his life, died in 1992 following a couple of strokes. He was 63.