He later ran onto the field at the L.A. Coliseum and at Yankee Stadium, but in Frank Gifford's memory, the tunnel from the locker room to Griffith Field at Bakersfield High still is a pretty big deal.
"The first time I saw it, I thought it was so huge, so mammoth," Gifford said. "Those are memories I'll always have."
Gifford, a 1947 BHS graduate and member of the college and pro football halls of fame after a star-studded career at USC and with the New York Giants, returned to Bakersfield on Friday as part of the "Hometown Hall of Famers" series presented by the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Allstate Insurance Company.
The program presents each of the Hall of Fame's 273 members with a historical plaque in his hometown.
"It means a lot to me," said Gifford, who was presented with his plaque in a ceremony at BHS' Harvey Auditorium on Friday afternoon. "Bakersfield is such a big part of my life.
"My dad was an oil worker, and we traveled a great deal ... until I got to high school. I decided I wanted to stay in Bakersfield, and my dad went up to Alaska. A lot of people I met in Bakersfield, like Homer Beatty, probably changed my life."
“And Homer pulled me aside after the game, and he said, ‘You’re my quarterback, and we’re going to work this out.’ And we did. Football has been very good to me.”
After winning the 1947 Central Section championship with the Drillers, Gifford went onto Bakersfield College, then USC, where he started for three years and was an All-American in 1951.
The next year, the Giants drafted him, and in a 13-year career, Gifford was All-Pro at three positions and the league MVP in 1956.
Seven years after he retired, Gifford began a 27-year stint as a commentator on Monday Night Football. He currently lives in New York, with his wife, Kathie Lee, who is a host on NBC’s “Today” show.
It’s been a wild ride for Gifford, but he still remembers his start.
He lived in 47 towns before coming to Bakersfield, but this is where his Hometown Hall of Famers plaque will rest.
“Two or three years ago, I came out to see my son at USC,” Gifford said. “We had an afternoon off one day, and we drove up the Ridge Route and into Bakersfield.
“I showed him the high school and the little stadium where I played. It really got me — I got very emotional about it, when I realized I went from that little stadium to the Coliseum to Yankee Stadium.
“The thing about Bakersfield to me is that it’s a family town. It’s a working people’s town, and that’s the best kind of people in life. And I mean that sincerely.”
Beatty took over for Dwight Griffith as the Drillers' football coach in 1946. That was Gifford's junior season, and he was called into action when the starting quarterback was killed in an auto accident.
"They were playing the national anthem and then had 30 seconds or a minute of silence," Gifford said. "I was wearing his number and playing his position. It was very memorable, still is. I got through it, fumbled around and stumbled around, and I thought, 'Hell, this is it for me.'