Y.A. Tittle, the Hall of Fame quarterback who led the Giants to three division titles in the 1960s but never won a championship final in high school, college or the pros and is immortalized by one of sport’s most famous images of defeat, died on Sunday. He was 90.
Tittle’s family confirmed his death to LSU, where Tittle starred in college. No details were immediately provided.
In late September of 1964, the last of Tittle’s 17 pro seasons, he had just thrown an interception from his own end zone, resulting in a Pittsburgh Steelers touchdown, when Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photographer Morris Berman captured Tittle’s utter dejection on film.
Then 38 but appearing far older, Tittle was kneeling, stunned and bloodied, without a helmet on his bald head after being hit by Pittsburgh defensive lineman John Baker. Though he suffered a concussion and cracked sternum on the play, Tittle finished the game and the season, the worst — the Giants were 2-10-2 in 1964 — of his otherwise dramatically productive four years in New York.
The Berman photo captured what Tittle often referred to as “years of chasing the whale” but coming up just short of ultimate victory. He had been named the league’s Most Valuable Player in the 1963 season, when he threw for a then-record 36 touchdowns and led the Giants to the NFL Championship Game — the Super Bowl was still three years in the future — for a third consecutive year. All resulted in losses, twice to Green Bay and then Chicago.
Tittle totaled 33,070 passing yards and 242 touchdowns during his pro career, spent mostly with the San Francisco 49ers, where he often fought for playing time with Frankie Albert and John Brodie despite his perennial status as an All-Pro. He was traded to the Giants in 1961 for a rookie guard, Lou Cordileone, whose first reaction was “Me? Even up for Y.A. Tittle? You’re kidding,” and whose later grumble was that he had been swapped “for a 42-year-old quarterback” — though Tittle was 35 at the time.
Upon joining the Giants — stocked with such stars as Del Shofner, Frank Gifford, Alex Webster, Dick Lynch, Roosevelt Brown, Andy Robustelli, Sam Huff, Erich Barnes and Kyle Rote — Tittle generated his most prolific statistics and, in his first three seasons had a record of 31-5-1. Gifford told a reporter at the time that Tittle had “the enthusiasm of a high school kid. He loves to play. This is great for our young players. When they see a 36-year-old man so fired up, they have to get fired up, too.”
In 1962, Tittle threw a record seven touchdown passes in a single game against the Washington Redskins; only three men before him and four since have equaled the feat. His uniform number, 14, is one of only 11 retired by the Giants.
Yelberton Abraham Tittle was born Oct. 24, 1926, in Marshall, Texas, where fans still are greeted for high school games by the public address announcement, “Welcome to Marshall, home of Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle.”
He starred collegiately at LSU and was named his team’s Most Valuable Player in the 1947 Cotton Bowl, a scoreless tie with Arkansas during an ice storm despite LSU’s dramatic advantage in total yards (271 to 54) and first downs (15 to 1).
A first-round draft choice of the Detroit Lions, Tittle opted to begin his pro career with Baltimore of the short-lived All-American Football Conference, before that team was absorbed into the NFL two years later.
While still an active player, he worked as an insurance salesman and later founded his own company, Y.A. Tittle Insurance & Financial Services, and after football retirement played a coach in the movie, “Any Given Sunday.” A football parody, “Superfan,” featured a mild-mannered accountant named Y.A. Schmickle — a clear reference to Tittle — who morphed into a star quarterback.
Tittle’s wife, Minnette, his high school sweetheart from Marshall whom he married in 1948, died in 2012.