"You want to ask me how it feels to be the nice guy?" Frank Gifford asks, over the breakfast table, the morning before he joins Howard Cosell and Don Meredith to broadcast the Redskins Cowboys on Monday Night Football. d

"A lot of people can't ask me. They stammer and spit, and finally come out with something about the 'nice guy role.' It's kind of funny. I mean . . . it's what we all set out to have out kids do," he says at 50 with the self confidence that seems to verge on pugnacity to those of us who are unaccustomed to the the deadpan locker-room towel-snapping style that marks a lot of professional athletes.

Even the nice guys. The guys who do the play-by-play action while the Cosells and Merediths get the glitter. Guys like Frank Gifford.

Nice guys?What happened to heroes? Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Or, at this breakfast table, ignoring his black coffee in favor of sweeping crumbs off the tablecloth with a matchbook, Frank Gifford?

Frank Gifford was the oil-rigger's kid who played his record-breaking way through USC and onto the New York Giants, where he scored more touchdowns (78) than any Giant ever, racked up more yards pass-receiving (5,484): and was second only to Alex Webster in most yards gained rushing (3,704).

None of this tells you anything about what Frank Gifford meant, though. Gifford was a hero: handsome, smart, modest, fighting his way up the field for $35,000 a year, the kind of guy parents pointed out to their kids.

The problem is, a lot of those kids grew up thinking not just that nice guys finish last, but that they aren't even in the race.

In this country of no heroes, the rogues are kings.

Mean Joe Greene does the Coke commercial and we pay Johnny pay check to tell us we can take this job and shove it.

And Gifford grinds out the play-by-play coverage, the meat and potatoes, while Howard Cosell, the original New York big mouth, and Dandy Don Meredith, the aw-shucks-'n'-pickup-trucks good ol' boy, get the dessert.

"I admire what they do, the way they convey the spirit of the game," Gifford says. "I think my job is more technically difficult and takes more work. . . "

Times have changed.

Think about the following lines, written by Frederick Exley in an autobiographical novel called "A Fan's Notes," published in 1968 and nominated for a National Book Award.

"In those days we all stood at the bar poised on the the threshold of some rhapsodic destiny. Frank Gifford, more than any single person, sustained for me the illusion that fame was possible."

Exley attended USC in the early '50s when Gifford was an All-American, a demigod, the football hero who got the glory, the girl, all those pieces of the American dream (remember the American dream?) and all of which Exley craved with a passion that led him on a trail through drunk tanks and mental wards until he finally got it with the book.

Anyhow: One day at USC Exley was talking to a friend. He'd noticed a girl on campus and he wanted to know who she was.

"'That?' he asked in profound astonishment to my query about the girl . . . . 'That,' he proclaimed with meancing impatience, 'just happens to be Frank Gifford's girl!'"

The book keeps coming back to Gifford as Exley's idol, doppelganger, rival and alter ego.

"No matter how adroitly Gifford handled himself, silently I said to myself, speaking in the direction of the tube, 'Have your day, friend. In a matter of months, I'll be more famous than you'"

And nowadays, at least in some circles, he may be.

"The guy's got an incredible cult following," Gifford says. "People send me copies of the book for autographs. When I first heard of it, it gave me an uneasy feeling -- the guy's a lifelong voyeur.

"Bennett Cerf mentioned it to me at a cocktail party. He said: 'We're not going to publish it, but I think you should read it.' Somebody sent me and asked to meet me. It told him I'd meet him outside the Giants' press room. I expected some . . . some freak, but there was this guy with short hair and a Brooks Brothers suit . . ."

The freaks, as in hippies, only a decade ago decided it was the Frank Giffords of America who'd gotten us into everything from Vietnam to Watergate.

That mindset is "your fault and our fault," he says, a TV sportscaster to a print reporter. "The bad guys are the most colorful. We had a field day with Nixon and all the Watergate characters. There are so many media people -- they're very competitive, they're looking for a story. In sports in the '50s, you didn't have television like we have it now and you guys cared more about the events. Journalists were careful in covering up the things that really didn't matter. If Reggie Jackson punched somebody out in a nichtclub like some players in the '50s it would be all over '60 minutes' and '20/20,' all of it. It's gone a little too far in the other direction.

Heroes and rogues.

In 1978, a poll of sportscaster popularity showed Frank Gifford trailing only Howard Cosell in the "liked most" category, and ahead of Don Meredith. o

The problem was that they both beat him in the "liked least" category, which nowadays seems just as important.

In professional football itself, it's the liked-leasts who get the glory: bruisers. out of the Dick Butkus school: Jack "Assassin" Tatum, Conrad Dobler, Harvey Martin, Too-Tall Jones.

Maybe it's because, as Gifford says, "a lot of the fun has gone out of the game with the high salaries. They're all worried about running around on a pair of $250,000 legs."

And the bad guys are the ones who break them. The bad guys cut the stars down to size, which is to say our level. So Nov. 20, 1960, was a very tough day for the Frederick Exleys and anyone else who rooted for the heroes, not the rogues.

In the final minute of a game agianst the Philadelphia Eagles, Gifford went up for a pass, and Eagle linebacker Chuck Bednarik came up behind him, "pounding the turf furiously, like some fierce animal gone berserk . . . Gifford never saw him . . . " as Exley wrote.

And Bednarik, standing over him, waving his fist, had put him out for the season with a concussion. Then the whole next year.

"Poor old Chuck, the things they called him," Gifford says now, failing to understand taht reality has nothing to do with the mythology sports fans demand. "I was just off-balance and he hit me. He waved his fist because I'd dropped the ball and the Eagles recovered, that's all. I still see him, we play golf together."

After a year's retirement, Gifford came back as a flanker, and finally announced his retirement in 1965.

Just as the bad guys, the rogues were taking over.

Nowdays, he says, the whole country has this problem. "I know a lot of people who run corporations -- bright, successful, courageous people, and they wouldn't think of going into politics. I can understand how all these politicians get in trouble. Economically, it's very difficult, and that's all wrong."

Nice guy, good guy: Gifford likes being one, and says: "It's odd that people think that's strange."

Then again, there's a lot he may not understand.

He got into sports because he could run fast and jump high, he says, "and if you can run fast, it's better than sitting in the corner with your nose running. You know how there was always that one kid with it coming down his lip . . ."

One kid, or a stadium full, which is to say the rest of us.

The night after Chuck Bednarik left Gifford unconscious on the field at Yankee Stadium, "like a small, broken, blue-and-silver mannikin," as Exley wrote, Exley, full of rage and despair, got himself into a preposterous fistfight, which he lost.

Gifford shakes his head, which is startlingly handsome, tan, blue-eyed almost brutally sure of itself.

He says: "It blows my mind that somebody could get that involved."