Y.A. Tittle, the strong-armed quarterback who led the New York Giants to the brink of championships in 1961, 1962 and 1963 at the back end of a 17-season Hall of Fame career, has died. He was 90.
Tittle died Sunday night at Stanford Hospital near his home in Atherton, California, according to the Associated Press.
In his three seasons with the Baltimore Colts, 10 with the San Francisco 49ers and four with the Giants, Tittle never won a National Football League championship, though he came close.
Starting in 1961, with Tittle at the helm, the Giants won three consecutive Eastern Division titles before losing each year’s championship game — twice to the Green Bay Packers, once to the Chicago Bears.
In 1964, Tittle, 38, returned for one last try. The Giants won just two of 14 games that season, finishing last in their division. The team’s struggles, and Tittle’s, were captured in one of sport’s most famous photographs, which shows a dazed Tittle on his knees on the turf of Pittsburgh’s Pitt Stadium, blood trickling down his bald head, after he was sacked by the Steelers’ John Baker.
“That was the end of the road,” Tittle said of the photograph in a 2008 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “It was the end of my dream. It was over.”
He displayed a copy of the picture in the Mountain View, California, office of Y.A. Tittle Insurance & Financial Services, the firm he ran during and after his football career, the newspaper reported. Under his son, John, the firm became San Jose-based Y.A. Tittle Insurance Services.
Known for contributing to the rise of football’s passing attack, Tittle set an NFL record with 33 touchdown passes in 1962, then broke the record with 36 the next season.
“Football is all about passing, and passing is what I do best,” Tittle stated in his 2009 memoir, “Nothing Comes Easy,” written with Kristine Setting Clark.
Tittle had “a cannon for an arm,” Frank Gifford, another Giants Hall of Famer, said in a foreword to the book. “He also had a sidearm delivery that gave his passes a unique trajectory, a ball that often came to you as a blur out of the line of scrimmage.”
Yelberton Abraham Tittle was born on Oct. 24, 1926, and raised in Marshall, Texas, one of five children of Abe Tittle, a postman, and his wife, the former Alma Allen, according to a memoir by Tittle’s daughter, Dianne Tittle de Laet.
After starring as a tailback for the Marshall High School Mavericks, Tittle played quarterback at Louisiana State University from 1945 to 1948. He was named LSU’S outstanding player in the 1947 Cotton Bowl Classic, which was played in an ice storm and ended in a scoreless tie between LSU and the University of Arkansas.
He married his high-school sweetheart, the former Minnette DeLoach, in 1948, just as his professional career was beginning. They would have four children.
With the San Francisco 49ers, he was part of what was known as the so-called million dollar backfield of four future Hall of Famers: Tittle, plus running backs Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenny and John Henry Johnson. In 1954, Tittle became the first professional football player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, then a 3-month-old publication.
The closest Tittle came to a championship in San Francisco was in 1957, when the 49ers finished the regular season with eight wins and four losses, tied with the Lions atop the Western Division. In a playoff game, the Lions roared back from a 27-7 deficit to win the contest.
Before the 1961 season, San Francisco traded its 35-year-old quarterback to the Giants.
“You try to whistle in the dark when a thing like this happens, but you can’t convince yourself it doesn’t hurt,” Tittle wrote in an 1965 essay for Sports Illustrated. “For the first time in my football life I was not needed.”
As it turned out, the trade boosted Tittle’s career.
With Tittle outplaying Charlie Conerly as the team’s quarterback, the Giants went 10-3 in 1961, with one tie, winning the Eastern Division before being routed by Vince Lombardi’s Packers, 37-0, in the championship game.
In 1962, Tittle’s 33 touchdown passes helped the Giants post a 12-2 record. They again won the East before again losing to the Packers, 16-7. In 1963, as he threw 36 touchdown passes, the Giants went 11-3 before losing the championship, 14-10, to the Bears.
Tittle said he had decided that 1964 would be his final season even before that year’s losses and hard hits left him battered.
“You can’t last forever,” he wrote for Sports Illustrated, “and 17 years is just about as close to forever as you can get in this game.”
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