Y.A. Tittle, the quarterback discarded by the San Francisco 49ers who led the New York Giants to three consecutive NFL Championship Game appearances and eventually landed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, died Monday at the age of 90.
Louisiana State University, where Tittle played collegiately, announced his death via a statement from deputy athletic director Verge Ausberry.
Yelberton Abraham Tittle Jr. was born Oct. 24, 1926 in Marshall, Texas. As a youth, he idolized Texas Christian star quarterback (and future Hall of Famer) Sammy Baugh. Tittle began preparing for his life as a quarterback by throwing footballs through hanging tires because he’d seen newsreels of Baugh doing so.
Tittle played at LSU from 1944-47, getting a deferment from military service in World War II because of his asthma. He was an All-SEC selection in both 1946 and 1947. Tittle was the Tigers’ quarterback in the 1946 Cotton Bowl against Arkansas that ended in a 0-0 tie due to frigid temperatures and icy field conditions.
He was drafted sixth overall by the Detroit Lions in the 1948 NFL Draft but began his professional career with the Baltimore Colts of the All-America Football Conference. Tittle was named Rookie of the Year and remained with the Colts until they disbanded in 1950 (Another Baltimore franchise named the Colts joined the NFL in 1953).
Tittle joined the 49ers for the 1950 season, becoming the team’s starter in 1953. He became the first professional football player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated on Nov, 22, 1954. Tittle appeared on the cover in his 49ers uniform and time-period specific acrylic helmet.
Tittle led the NFL in touchdown passes (17) in 1955. The 49ers were expected to compete for championships led by Tittle and the rest of the Million Dollar Backfield (fullback Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson and halfback Hugh McIlhenny) but they never won a conference championship.
Tittle’s time in San Francisco was over when head coach Red Hickey came in and installed the shotgun offense, which required scrambling that Tittle could not handle at his age. Before the 1961 season, he was traded to the Giants for offensive guard Lou Cordileone (who famously said, “Me for Tittle? Just me?” when the trade was announced).
It turned out to be one of the most lopsided trades in NFL history.
Tittle led the Giants to Eastern Conference titles in 1961, 1962, and 1963 but was unable to deliver an NFL Championship after losing twice to Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers (1961, 1962) and George Halas’ Chicago Bears (1963). He was an All-Pro in his three seasons with the Giants and named the 1963 NFL Most Valuable Player.
On Oct. 28, 1962, Tittle became the fourth quarterback in NFL history to throw seven touchdowns in a 49-34 victory over the Washington Redskins. Only four quarterbacks have thrown seven touchdowns in a game since.
Tittle’s final play in the NFL was immortalized in a photo that hangs at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In a 1964 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the 6-foot, 190-pound Tittle was hit by Steelers defensive end John Baker, who was 6’7” and weighed 280 pounds. Tittle was on his knees in the end zone with his helmet knocked off by the hit, looking very dazed and confused. The moment was captured by photographer Morris Berman.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette chose not to run the picture in the next day’s edition, thinking it wasn’t very newsworthy. Berman entered the picture for prizes and it won the National Headliner award for Best Sports Photograph of 1964. It came to symbolize an aging superstar who was finally knocked down and couldn’t get back up.
The self-deprecating Tittle recalled the hit in his 2009 memoir “Nothing Comes Easy”.
“Baker had crushed the cartilage in my ribs and brutally gashed my forehead,” Tittle wrote. “I also suffered a concussion and a cracked sternum. That photo would become one of the most enduring images in sports history. What a hell of a way to get famous!”
The day Tittle announced his retirement, Jan. 22, 1965, is the same day the AFL’s New York Jets announced the signing of Alabama quarterback Joe Namath. For the most part, Tittle spoke fondly of his playing days saying “he could be his own boss” instead of having “some guy in the press box with three or four assistants” calling plays.
After his playing days, Tittle owned and operated an insurance company. During his fall after football, he was reflective in the same way as a soldier who no longer has a war to fight.
“It will be a strange fall for me,” Tittle said in a 1965 Sports Illustrated interview. “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.”
In his NFL career, Tittle was 2,118-of-3,817 for 28,339 yards, 212 touchdowns, and 221 interceptions. He also carried the ball 291 times for 999 yards and 33 touchdowns.
At the time of his retirement, Tittle was the NFL’s all-time leader in career passing yards, career passing touchdowns, career passing attempts, career completions, career games played (176), and career total offense (29,338).
He was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection (1953, 1954, 1957, 1959, 1961-63) and a four-time All-Pro (1957, 1961-63). Tittle led the NFL in touchdowns three times: 1955 (17), 1962 (33), and 1963 (36) and led the NFL in passer rating in 1963 (104.8). Tittle was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971. His No. 14 was retired by the Giants and he was inducted into both the Giants Ring of Honor and 49ers Hall of Fame.
Tittle’s wife, Minnette, died in 2011. He is survived by sons Michael, Patrick, and John and daughter Dianne Tittle de Laet. Dianne wrote of her father in the 1995 book “Giants & Heroes”.