Y.A. Tittle, discarded quarterback who starred for Giants, dies at 90

He was selected to 7 Pro Bowls
Former New York Giants Y.A. Tittle was inducted into the team's Ring of Honor in 2010.
Former New York Giants Y.A. Tittle was inducted into the team's Ring of Honor in 2010.

Y.A. Tittle, the Hall of Fame quarterback who led the New York Giants to three consecutive NFL championship games in the early 1960s after the San Francisco 49ers had discarded him as too old and too slow, died on Sunday night in Stanford, California. He was 90.

Louisiana State University, where he played his college ball, announced his death.

Tittle threw for dozens of touchdowns and thousands of yards, won a Most Valuable Player Award and was selected to seven Pro Bowls. But he endeared himself to New York not as a golden boy but as a muddied, grass-stained scrapper.

He was a balding field general with a fringe of gray who, at 34, in his old-fashioned high-topped shoes, had undeniably lost a step or two, but kept picking himself up off the ground to find a way to beat you, and New York cheered.

“For all Y.A.’s bumpkin ways, I suspect the city saw in him a reflection of itself,” the Giants star and broadcaster Frank Gifford remarked in his 1993 memoir, “The Whole Ten Yards.”

“He was somebody who had come from somewhere else, who’d been gotten rid of, and a lot of New Yorkers can identify with that.”

Though he was the first to admit that he didn’t look the part — “I’ve been old and baldheaded and ugly since I’ve been 28,” he reflected long afterward — Tittle became a marquee figure with the Giants and one of their most popular players. The Giants’ radio station played the novelty song “I’m in Love With Y.A. Tittle,” and when Tittle connected on long passes, Yankee Stadium reverberated to chants of “Y.A., Y.A.”

Tittle led the Giants to Eastern Conference titles in 1961, ’62 and ’63, though they were beaten each time in the NFL title game.

He threw for 242 touchdowns and 33,070 yards in his 17 years as a pro, and his 36 touchdown passes in 1963 set a record that stood for 21 years. He was named the league’s most valuable player in 1963 in an Associated Press poll and elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.

The end for Tittle as one of football’s best and most resilient quarterbacks essentially came in Pittsburgh on Sept. 20, 1964, in his 17th bruising year in the pros, when a massive lineman slammed him to the ground in a game that Tittle’s Giants lost to the Steelers.

Slowly, Tittle tried to pull himself up off the turf, woozy from a concussion, and Morris Berman, a photographer for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was there to snap the picture: Tittle kneeling, his shoulders drooped, his helmet knocked off, his bald pate exposed, his face bloodied.

Perhaps more than the Pro Football Hall of Fame would do later, the image immortalized Tittle in football lore — in the image of the aging warrior who had finally fallen.

Yelberton Abraham Tittle Jr. was born on Oct. 24, 1926, in the East Texas town of Marshall and grew up there, the son of a postal worker. As a youngster, he idolized Texas Christian’s star quarterback Sammy Baugh and threw footballs through hanging tires as he had seen Baugh do in newsreels. His older brother, Jack, who went on to play blocking back in the single wing for Tulane, honed Y.A.’s football skills when he played junior high and high school football.

Tittle became a two-time all-Southeastern Conference quarterback playing for LSU from 1944 to 1947, having been deferred from military service in World War II because of asthma. As a junior, he led the Tigers to the 1947 Cotton Bowl game, a 0-0 tie with Arkansas on a windy, frigid day.

He made his pro debut with the Baltimore Colts of the All-America Football Conference in 1948 and was named rookie of the year. He credited his coach, Cecil Isbell, formerly an outstanding passer for the Green Bay Packers, with fine-tuning his technique and bolstering his confidence.

Tittle joined the 49ers when the Colts disbanded after the 1950 season, their first year in the NFL. (A later Baltimore Colts franchise was far more successful.)

He played for two seasons behind Frankie Albert, a 49ers’ future Hall of Famer, then became the No. 1 quarterback in 1953. He handed off to running backs Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenny and John Henry Johnson in what became known as the Million Dollar Backfield (for brilliance on the field, not for the salaries they earned) and later threw soaring “alley oop” passes to R.C. Owens, who would race downfield and then outjump defenders.

But Tittle’s San Francisco teams never won a conference title. Late in the 1960 season, coach Red Hickey installed a shotgun formation, which required occasional scrambling that the aging Tittle could not handle. Hickey benched him in favor of the much younger and more agile John Brodie, who went on to have a stellar career of his own.

Shortly before the 1961 season began, Tittle was traded to the Giants for Lou Cordileone, a young guard, in what became one of pro football’s most lopsided deals. “Me for Tittle?” a startled Cordileone remarked. “Just me?”

Tittle replaced the Giants’ longtime star quarterback, 40-year-old Charlie Conerly, as the starter for much of the 1961 season. Teaming up on pass plays with Del Shofner, Kyle Rote and Joe Walton, he took the Giants to the NFL championship game. But they lost, 37-0, to the Packers on a frozen field at Green Bay, and Conerly retired after that.

Tittle tied an NFL single-game record by throwing seven touchdown passes against the Washington Redskins in 1962. He threw 33 touchdown passes for the season, setting a league record, but frigid wind gusts and a strong Green Bay rush in the NFL title game at Yankee Stadium stymied him in the Packers’ 16-7 victory.

Tittle passed for 36 touchdowns in 1963, but he tore a knee ligament in the first half against the Chicago Bears at Wrigley Field in the NFL championship game when he was tackled by Larry Morris. Heavily taped, Tittle returned for the second half but was unable to properly plant his feet and was intercepted four times as the Bears scored a 14-10 victory.

The Giants were an aging team that looked nothing like the Eastern Division defending champions when they regrouped for the 1964 season. The opening game turned into a 38-7 beating at the hands of the Eagles in Philadelphia, and then it was on to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers.

The Giants were leading, 14-0, by the second quarter when Tittle, deep in Giants territory, dropped back to pass. From the right side — Tittle’s throwing side — John Baker, a 6-foot-7, 280-pound defensive end, saw an opening and smashed into Tittle, 6 feet and 190 pounds or so, as he was about to pass. The ball floated loose and into the arms of Steelers tackle Chuck Hinton, who ran it back for an easy touchdown.

As the Steelers celebrated in the end zone, Tittle knelt there, dazed and injured, and Berman captured the moment.

The Post-Gazette did not run the photo the next day; editors there did not think it was anything special. But Berman entered it for prize consideration, and it won the National Headliner award for best sports photograph of 1964. It now hangs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

“Baker had crushed the cartilage in my ribs and brutally gashed my forehead,” Tittle recalled in his memoir, “Nothing Comes Easy” (2009), written with Kristine Setting Clark.

“I also suffered a concussion and a cracked sternum. That photo would later become one of the most enduring images in sports history. What a hell of a way to get famous!”

The play was a turning point: Pittsburgh went on to win, 27-24, Tittle played out the season hampered by the rib injuries, and the Giants would finish with only two wins. “After that I knew it was time to quit, especially when I saw our other quarterback, Gary Wood, was wanting to date my daughter,” Tittle told Richard Whittingham, author of “Giants in Their Own Words” (1992).

Tittle announced his retirement on Jan. 22, 1965, never having played on a championship team in high school, college or the pros.

Later that day, the New York Jets, the Giants’ rival of the American Football League, held an introductory news conference for Joe Namath, their heralded rookie quarterback.

John Baker, the huge Steelers lineman who pummeled Tittle, died in 2007 after serving for 24 years as sheriff of Wake County, North Carolina, where he was wryly known as Little John. When Baker first ran for the office, his supporters printed posters with the photo of the battered Tittle and the caption “This is what Little John is going to do for crime in Wake County.”

“I didn’t object to that,” Baker told The Post-Gazette in 1979. “I was just doing my job,” he said of his crushing hit on Tittle. “It’s a tough business.”

Tittle began selling insurance in the offseasons while a 49er. After his playing days, he developed his company, now called Y.A. Tittle Insurance Services and based in San Jose, California, into a major insurer for Silicon Valley firms and other businesses along with individuals. He hung his famous image from yesteryear in his office with the words “Nothing Comes Easy” written below.

In his memoir of the same name, Tittle recalled his playing days as a time when “I could be my own boss,” instead of having “some guy in the press box with three or four assistants” calling plays. It was, he wrote, pro football’s “golden era.”

The Mercury News of San Jose, California, reported that Tittle, who lived in Atherton, California, is survived by his daughter, Dianne de Laet, who wrote of him in the 1995 book “Giants & Heroes”; his sons, John and Patrick; his brother Don; seven grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. His wife, Minnette, died in 2012.

In August 1965, when Tittle approached the first autumn since his junior high school days when he would not be throwing a football, he likened himself to a warrior who had seen his last battlefield.

“It will be a strange fall for me,” he told Sports Illustrated. “For 27 years, from September to December, I have put on my armor and gone out to engage in what is, really, a sort of warfare. This fall I’ll be attending to my insurance business.

“I’m too old to give it one more shot. But I wish I could.”

Categories: Sports

Leave a Reply