Kathie Lee and Cody Gifford say they're 'not out to get the NFL' by supporting CTE doc. 'Our mission here is to try to educate people.'

They want to be clear: "We don't hate football. We certainly don't hate the NFL."

Kathie Lee Gifford and son Cody Gifford
Kathie Lee Gifford and son Cody Gifford are featured in a new documentary about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. (Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
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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, in conversation with Yahoo Entertainment, 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.

“Football saved Frank” from who knows what kind of life, she says.

Frank Gifford and Kathie Lee Gifford
Frank Gifford and Kathie Lee Gifford were married in 1986. "As a family, we miss him every day," she tells Yahoo. "But one day we'll all be reunited." (Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

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.”

Frank Gifford
Frank Gifford was a superstar for the New York Giants and went on to have a long broadcasting career. (Walter Iooss Jr. /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) (Set Number: X9618 )

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.

“We’re so blessed that his symptoms were mainly severe memory problems,” says Cody, who was behind the family’s decision to have Frank’s brain studied after he died. It was a massive heart attack that killed him, one week before his 85th birthday. “His hippocampus — the short-term memory center — had been severely damaged. One could very easily have attributed it to age-related dementia. So it was hard for us — at the time we didn't really know. He was an older man and he lived a wonderfully rich life — and was able to do so very successfully. But he also had resources that other people did not have. He had all of us. He had financial resources. He had great doctors. So he was in a very small minority of people who had those resources.”

The Today show and Live With Regis and Kathie Lee host adds, “Football is a family thing.” Like Frank, “Cody lived and breathed football,” playing when he was young, going to the state championships in high school and as a walk-on at the University of Southern California. However, “I can't watch it anymore after seeing Frank’s brain scan,” which showed stage 4 CTE, the most advanced stage. “It’s just brutal. And the more brutal it is, the more the crowd cheers. It’s upsetting to me. We have deep personal loss.”

‘This is a repetitive head trauma issue’

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.

“There are so many more studies right now talking about the dangers of kids playing contact football,” Cody says. “They’re finding that the earlier you start, the higher the probability that you may have issues — not that you definitively will, but that probability goes up. It’s directly correlated to the earlier you start playing contact football. So our position is: Why can’t you just play flag football until high school?”

Gifford points to NFL superstars who started out playing flag football in their youth before transitioning to tackle in high school, including Tom Brady and Drew Brees. The latter founded a flag football league for kids.

“Our mission here is to try to educate people that you don’t need to play contact football as a child to have success in the NFL down the road. And you shouldn’t frankly,” says Cody. “If you're going full contact from the age of 6 years old,” when many kids start, “and then you have a pro career, you’re talking about tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of aggregate hits.”

The film's mission "is to try to educate people that you don't need to play contact football as a child to have success in the NFL," Cody Giffords says. (Requiem for a Running Back)
The film's mission "is to try to educate people that you don't need to play contact football as a child to have success in the NFL," Cody Giffords says. (Requiem for a Running Back)

The Giffords want parents to do their research before allowing their children to play any contact sport.

“Based on what we have learned and the most recent study with the largest sample size ever of brains that were donated where the deceased are under the age of 30,” pointing to one from Boston University researchers on athletes who played contact sports as kids — mostly football, but also ice hockey, soccer, wrestling and rugby — and died before turning 30, many by suicide, “over 40% of them had traces of CTE. So when you really start peeling back the layers of this onion, this is not just a football problem. This is not just an NFL problem. This is a repetitive head trauma issue.”

Cody learned about head trauma first-hand. During his senior year in high school, he sustained three concussions playing football, including two in one week. He returned to finish his season, but suffered a third concussion before the state championship. Even with that history, he walked onto the team at USC during his junior year, but it was a short-lived run due to an ankle injury.

Frank “never wanted me to play,” Cody says. “You referred to that one hit,” sidelining Frank in 1960, “which is the most infamous of his career — or any career for that matter. But there’s 1,000 smaller ones. It’s not just the hits to the head. It’s broken limbs. It’s everything else. I grew up going to the [Pro Football] Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, with my dad and knowing a lot of his former teammates and the guys who have made it and have done it very successfully at a very high level. They’re not cavalier about how dangerous the game is — because it really is dangerous.”

‘It’s an inconvenient truth’

"I have two sons now and I love those little boys and my wife more than anything in the entire world,” Cody says. His wife, Erika, who appears in the doc, gave birth to the couple’s second child last week. “I can’t imagine having to sit there and watch them be subjected to some of the things that I was subjected to or what I subjected other people to” playing football.

Cody Gifford with Ford Matthew Gifford
Cody and his wife, Erika, welcomed their second son, Ford Matthew Gifford, last week. (Cody Gifford)

Kathie Lee, who is also mom to actress Cassidy, hopes to steer her three grandsons away from Grandpa Frank's combative athletic path.

“You can’t control what they’ll do as adults, but when they’re little, you can get them involved in things that are not going to kill them,” she says, citing tennis and other non-contact sports.

“Football is a religion in our country,” she continues, “and that’s not a healthy thing. And there are parents that just want to be on the sidelines rah-rah-rah-ing their kid, ‘Go get ’em.’ There’s a very unhealthy thing that happens where you want to do as much damage as you can to your opponent.”

Cody says that after seeing the film, “I just felt a responsibility to give it a little bit of a nudge. And I’m appreciative of my mom for being interviewed ... because it was not a documentary that at the time a lot of people wanted to [fund] because it’s a controversial subject.”

Adds Kathie Lee, “It's an inconvenient truth for an awful lot of people that just can’t even imagine life without football. And we’re not suggesting that [but] saying, ‘Can it just start later? Please, give these kids a chance.’”

Cody believes that his father would be proud of them speaking out about CTE.

“I find this to be very much a continuation of his legacy,” he says. “We would always say that he cared more about people than he did about a game.”

‘Requiem for a Running Back’ is now streaming on Apple TV/iTunes, Google Play and Amazon Prime.