A Story That Centers Around The River

It’s the middle of the summer and what better time to tell a story that centers around the River.
To those who are aware, you fully understand.
To those who are scratching their heads, let me explain.

The River is the St. Lawrence River. We’re talking about upstate New York. The Thousand Islands. Alexandria Bay, Clayton and the surrounding areas, and all the ships at sea.

Yes, boating is the name of the game here, and it’s become a way of life for this correspondent for seven summers.

But I digress.

One of the most heralded novels of this generation is called “A Fan’s Notes”.
It was written in 1968 by a fellow named Fred Exley.

Fred Exley


“A Fan’s Notes” is a fictional memoir. It has been compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”, and had a cult following. It won numerous awards, including the William Faulkner Foundation Award for notable first novel.

It is not an easy read. It is complicated. It’s as complicated as the author.

Don’t start reading this book on a rainy day.
In fact, only read it, if you do, when the sun is shining and the birds are singing.

There is a sports connection.

Fred Exley, who was born in Watertown, New York, attended USC. It was there that he first came to know his hero, the great New York Giants star Frank Gifford, who was an All-American triple-threat halfback for the Trojans.

Frank Gifford


Gifford was a handsome campus hero. The truest definition of the genre.

Exley was a mess. He was an alcoholic and was institutionalized three times.
A sad story, indeed.

The renowned novel centers around his memories of the football player at Southern. Cal. It is said the title, “A Fan’s Notes” comes from the author’s fear he will become a spectator in life as well as in sports.

There is no doubt about his obsession with the New York Giants, and Frank Gifford, who actually became Exley’s friend.

Why Gifford stayed in contact with the author we’ll never know. Both are deceased, and I regret to this day, why I never asked Gifford about Exley. I knew Gifford well enough to ask that question. I believe Exley once said, “Frank Gifford is the only fame I’ll ever know.”

That’s brings us to Michael Bresnahan.

Michael Bresnahan


Bresnahan is the proprietor of the popular Admiral’s Inn restaurant in Alexandria Bay.

This is not meant to be a commercial, but Admiral’s Inn is where my wife Jamie and I hang out. We’re there most of the time, and people who go there are happy. I like happy.

They enjoy the camaraderie of Mike and his family. I didn’t discover the place. Jamie’s been going there for decades.

Mike actually knew Fred Exley, and knew him well.

When he bought the Dockside pub, which stands across the street from Admiral’s Inn and is still in existence, Bresnahan was urged by his father to look after Exley.

It seems Mike Sr. and Exley were high school classmates in nearby Watertown.

So as Mike Jr. toiled at the Dockside, serving drinks and sandwiches and often pizza at 3 AM, Exley was living in a room above the pub, coming downstairs to drink and eat at the largesse of the owner.

Mike recalls Exley spent part of the day drinking, then go for his nap, then come back and drink again, a lot more.

To say Fred Exley was in cups most of the time would be an understatement.

Yet, he had this connection to this national football star.

Gifford, who had a family and three children with his first wife, Maxine, who was a homecoming campus queen, in her own right, at USC, was a true sports celebrity.

Yet he would call Exley, at the Dockside, since the writer had no telephone.

Mike Bresnahan would have to bang on the pipes downstairs so that Fred Exley, upstairs would know there was a call for him. The calls were endless. Exley had made countless friends in his world.

So Frank Gifford would call, and he would have to endure hearing the banging of the pipes before he actually got to speak with Exley.

It’s hilarious.
Realize, we’re talking 1976, eight years after “A Fan’s Notes” was published ,and 12 years after Gifford retired from the Giants.

Imagine, the association of the football star and the inebriated author continued long after the celebrated book was out, and the celebrated player was through playing.

Mike, not a sports follower, did not know anything about Gifford, other than the fact he would call every other week.

One day, Exley asked Bresnahan if he would take him to New York, where the bar owner would actually meet Frank Gifford. Mike thought it was a joke.

Lo and behold, the two journeyed to the Big City, where they met Gifford outside Giants Stadium before the game and sat with him in the press box.

When they met, Gifford asked Bresnahan if he was the man who always answered the phone when he called. Mike said he was. Frank said. “what the hell is that banging I hear every time?”  Mike replied, “Fred doesn’t have any money.  It’s the only way he can get phone calls.”

Mike has no clue why Gifford and Exley were friends.

But I can take a guess.

For one, the author was an interesting man. As Mike says, “when you met Fred, he was an instant like.” Exley loved to talk, he loved to talk football.

Also, I knew this about Frank Gifford. He was as decent a human being as there was. He never regarded himself as a “star” and a “celebrity.” And I think he hung in with a man he knew from his college days, extremely talented in his field, but a man with deep and serious problems.

Gifford apparently cared.

How unique it was, that a troubled author, who wrote a novel literary connoisseurs may still remember, was connected with a famous football star who everybody remembers.

A chapter of life on the River, re-lived decades later.