Kathie Lee Gifford and Son Cody on Frank’s Last Days with CTE: ‘He Was Dying Long Before He Died’ (Exclusive)

The NFL superstar's widow and son tell PEOPLE about the severe memory loss that led to a diagnosis, their hope of helping others with a documentary on CTE risks

<p>Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic</p> Frank Gifford, Cassidy Gifford, Kathie Lee Gifford and Cody Gifford

Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

Frank Gifford, Cassidy Gifford, Kathie Lee Gifford and Cody Gifford

Kathie Lee Gifford, the widow of NFL great Frank Gifford, and their son Cody are lending their support to the commercial release of the emotional documentary Requiem for a Running Back, which explores the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (more commonly known as CTE), the brain disease that led to Frank's death.

“The NFL gave my father a life,” Cody tells PEOPLE. “But at the same time, there were dangers.”

The legendary New York Giants star-turned sports broadcaster was tough on the field and fast with play-by-play or football, basketball and golf analysis on air. But in the years before Frank's death in 2015 at age 84, his family began to notice breaks in his memory.

On one of their last nights together, Cody says, “in the span of one minute or two minutes…he had forgotten everything I had just said.”

<p>Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic</p>

Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

When Cody first saw Requiem for a Running Back, an independent documentary released in 2017 about fellow football star and CTE-sufferer Lewis Carpenter, in which Frank appears, “I just let out a big sigh,” he recalls. “It struck me all the similarities these guys had gone through.”

Related: Kathie Lee Gifford Recalls the Moment She Met Frank Gifford: 'That's What's Called a God Wink'

Cody approached Carpenter’s daughter, Rebecca, the documentary’s director. “I said, ‘How can we help direct traffic to this?’ "

<p>Walter Iooss Jr. /Sports Illustrated via Getty</p> Frank Gifford in 1963

Walter Iooss Jr. /Sports Illustrated via Getty

Frank Gifford in 1963

Now, Cody has funded the first-ever commercial release of the film, available Dec. 1 on Amazon, Google YouTube and Apple iTunes. He and Kathie Lee hope that it will reach a wider audience, and educate more athletes and their families about CTE.

In August, doctors from Boston University’s CTE Center released the alarming results from a recent study, which looked at the brains of 152 young athletes exposed to repetitive head impacts who were under the age of 30 when they died. Among the sample, slightly more than 41% “had neuropathological evidence of CTE,” according to the study. By contrast, fewer than 1% of the general public has CTE.

Per the center, CTE is defined as “a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic non-concussive hits to the head." That brain degeneration "is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.”

Kathie Lee says she has never been the same since she saw Frank’s brain scan.

“It was heartbreaking to look at it,” says Kathie Lee, who shares that Frank’s CTE was at a stage 4 on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being most severe. “ We found damage to the hippocampus, which is the center for short-term memory…it’s the cumulative aggregate blows that you take over a lifetime.”

Related: Inside Kathie Lee and Frank Gifford's 29-Year Love Story

The NFL did not respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.

Though Cody followed somewhat in his father’s footsteps — he walked on to the team at the University of Southern California but tore his ankle as a junior and left after a “lackluster career,” he says — he now is more aware than ever of the risks.

“It’s an intoxicating thing if you grow up loving football your entire life,” he says. “I lived it and breathed it. It’s hard to walk away.”

<p>Nathan Congleton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty</p> Kathie Lee Gifford and son Cody Gifford

Nathan Congleton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty

Kathie Lee Gifford and son Cody Gifford

Both mom and son say they are committed to more widely sharing what they know about CTE, and the hope that there could be prevention and treatment.

“Nobody would care more about people and kids being hurt,” says Kathie Lee, “than Frank would have.”

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