It’s been said that Y.A. Tittle was born to perform on a stage.
Without a doubt, he did that and then some.
Tittle was an All-SEC performer at LSU, setting school records and breaking the hearts of opposing teams.
He then played in the NFL for 17 years and became one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) November 20, 2016
“The Bald Eagle” never let a challenge get the best of him, and he gave his body and soul to the game.
During his final season, someone took a picture of Tittle that showed his spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak.
The photo has since become one of the most famous in sports history and has cemented Tittle’s status forever.
This is the story of Y.A. Tittle.
Big Shot at Marshall High
Yelberton Abraham (Y.A.) Tittle Jr. was born on October 24, 1926, in Marshall, Texas.
— Ken Crippen (@KenCrippen) October 24, 2016
As is customary in Texas, both Y.A. and his brother, Jack, were hooked on football at a young age.
Both boys gravitated toward the quarterback position and would practice for hours.
“I remember going out to the backyard and hanging up an old tire as a target,” Jack said of Y.A. “He’d throw at it by the hour. And he didn’t take the easy way out. He’d get that tire swinging and still hit it on the button.”
Jack Tittle was a talented signal-caller at Marshall High School and would receive a scholarship to play for Tulane University.
Now that his brother was in college, Y.A. wanted to emulate him.
He put in the work to become the starting quarterback himself when he reached high school and led the Mavericks with distinction from 1941 through 1943.
Tittle lived for Friday nights when the town would nearly shut down for a game and Tittle could experience the benefits of being a prep star.
“I’d neck with a girl, if I was lucky,” Tittle liked to joke.
As a senior in 1943, Marshall traveled with his team several hundred miles to Waco, Texas, to play the high school team ranked second in the state.
The Mavericks upset the team, and Tittle gained state-wide attention for the victory.
“From the piney woods of East Texas came the challenging roar of the Marshall Mavericks, led by a tall, lanky redhead with a magical name: Yelberton Abraham Tittle,” recalled Tittle in 2014 of a newspaper account about the game.
By the time Tittle was graduating from high school, he’d already attracted interest from several local universities.
Although he lived in Texas and was pressured by the local populace to attend a Texas school, Tittle really liked LSU.
“Every year, we’d go see Jack play against LSU, and I was impressed even as a young kid with the enthusiasm, the tiger in the cage, the campus, just the whole LSU atmosphere,” Tittle said. “I was recruited by a number of schools, but I committed to LSU after my senior year.”
Before committing to LSU, Tittle visited the University of Texas and verbally agreed to become a Longhorn.
In fact, he was even promised a summer job just for saying he would attend UT.
Bobby Layne, another Longhorn recruit was promised a summer job as well but got paid even though he didn’t show up.
Tittle soured on Texas quickly and changed his mind about becoming a member of the school.
When approached by a member of the Tiger staff about possibly switching schools, Tittle agreed and enrolled at LSU.
Tittle Starts for the Tigers
At the time of Tittle’s college enrollment in 1944, World War II was still raging.
Typically, freshmen students were not allowed to suit up for varsity sports, but the war effort required bodies.
Since a large number of college-age men were serving in the military, rosters needed to be filled with freshmen athletes.
As a result, Tittle saw playing time as a freshman tailback.
LSU head coach Bernie Moore used the Single Wing offense, which meant that Tittle passed the ball on occasion.
Y.A. Tittle led LSU in passing all 4 years, 1944-47. His high season was 780 yds in 1946 with 13 TDs. pic.twitter.com/97hxmvhAKS
— Vintage LSU Football (@vintagelsuftb) June 7, 2022
In his first college game against Alabama, Tittle did a little of everything including passing for a touchdown, rushing the ball, punting, return man on special teams, and playing defense.
That season, the Tigers beat Jack Tittle’s alma mater, Tulane, for one of LSU’s two victories.
During the contest, Y.A. completed 12 consecutive passes, which would set a program record that stood for half a century.
The “Ice Bowl”
Before the 1945 season, Moore switched to the T formation, and Tittle had even more opportunities to pass the ball.
The Tigers improved that year, netting seven wins.
As a junior in 1946, Tittle was named All-SEC as he led the Tigers to a 9-1-1 record.
During a game against Tulane at the end of November, Tittle had three touchdown passes that led to a convincing 41-27 win.
The man, Y.A. Tittle… pic.twitter.com/3vlmP58xWt
— Vintage LSU Football (@vintagelsuftb) March 27, 2022
That victory helped LSU get invited to the Cotton Bowl for the first time in school history.
The game itself was dubbed the “Ice Bowl” as the Dallas area was overcome by freezing temperatures.
Playing against the University of Arkansas Razorbacks, neither squad was able to generate enough offense to score any points.
Despite the game ending in a scoreless tie, both Tittle and Razorbacks receiver Alton Baldwin were named co-MVPs.
Tittle Loses His Pants
Tittle’s senior year in 1947 was marked by LSU regressing to 5-3-1.
However, Tittle performed well for the Tigers yet again and was named All-SEC for the second year in a row.
During a game against Ole Miss, Tittle was playing on defense when he intercepted a pass from Rebels’ quarterback Charley Conerly.
As he started racing for the end zone, a slight mishap ensued.
“An Ole Miss player grabbed me by the belt,” Tittle said. “When I tried to pull away, the belt broke. My pants began to fall, little by little. I’m trying to pull ’em back up, and I get tackled around the 20. We wound up missing a field goal that would have won the game.”
The sight of Tittle holding the pigskin in one hand and his pants in the other while running was a sight to behold.
In 1947 in Baton Rouge on an inception return, the Ole Miss Rebels literally knocked the pants off of LSU Tiger Y A Tittle. Charlie Conerley threw the pass and Charlie’s Rebels beat the Tigers that night. Y A took a lot of punishment.
— Bubba Geter (@NatchezReb) October 20, 2018
He could have scored a pick-six if not for his pants falling down around his ankles while dodging a tackle.
LSU lost the contest 20-18.
Tittle Joins the Colts
While attending LSU, Tittle passed for numerous program records including attempts (162), completions (330), yards (2,525), and touchdowns (23).
He also rushed for seven more scores.
All his records would eventually be broken as the forward pass became more prevalent in football.
During the 1948 NFL Draft, Tittle was selected with the sixth overall pick by the Detroit Lions.
He also had an offer from the Baltimore Colts of the All-American Football Conference and chose to play for the Colts instead.
Tittle passed for well over 2,000 yards in 1948 and 1949 and led the AAFC in several categories including interceptions (18) in 1949.
— Dan Daly (@dandalyonsports) October 10, 2017
His 2,522 passing yards and 16 touchdowns in 1948 nearly led the Colts to an Eastern Division title.
That led to Tittle being named AAFC Rookie of the Year.
In 1950, Baltimore became a member of the NFL, and Tittle’s passing yards dropped to 1,884 yards.
Tittle’s touchdown passes also went from 14 in 1949 to eight while his pick count rose to 19.
When the 1950 season concluded, the Colts ceased operations.
The franchise returned to the league in 1953.
The Niners Draft Tittle
Because the Colts closed its doors, Tittle had the distinction of being re-drafted in the 1951 NFL Draft.
This time, he was selected by the San Francisco 49ers.
Frankie Albert was already with the club as its quarterback, and Tittle started only one game in 1951.
In 1952, both quarterbacks split time, and Tittle had 1,407 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions in five starts.
Finally, in 1953, Tittle became the Niners’ starting quarterback and passed for 2,121 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 16 picks.
After San Francisco ended the year 9-3, Tittle was voted to his first Pro Bowl.
The “Million Dollar Backfield”
Before the 1954 season, the 49ers acquired three notable players to add to their offensive backfield.
John Henry Johnson and Joe Perry, both fullbacks, joined the team as did halfback Hugh McElhenny.
Along with Tittle, the group became known as the “Million Dollar Backfield.”
The #49ers "Million Dollar Backfield" of the 1950s, all enshrined in the PFHOF
Hugh "The King" McElhenny
Joe "The Jet" Perry
John Henry Johnson pic.twitter.com/Rs5VNQ9cFZ
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) June 24, 2022
The four would comprise the only full backfield in NFL history where every player became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
That same year, Tittle was placed on the cover of the new magazine Sports Illustrated.
He was the first pro football player to grace the cover of the publication.
Despite an all-star caliber lineup, the Million Dollar Backfield could only lead San Fran to seven wins.
Tittle returned to the Pro Bowl on the strength of his 2,205 passing yards, nine touchdowns, and nine interceptions.
In 1955, Tittle led the NFL in both touchdowns (17) and picks (28), but his interception mark would be the highest of his career.
— #Random49ers (@Random49ers) September 25, 2022
After an underachieving 4-8 record in 1955, San Francisco fired Red Strader and hired Tittle’s former teammate, Albert, as its head coach.
The Niners would turn in a 5-6-1 record that year while Tittle passed for 1,641 yards, seven touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.
After the year, Albert broke up the Million Dollar Backfield when Johnson was dealt to the Detroit Lions.
Even without Johnson, the 1957 Niners played well and reeled in eight victories.
During the season, Tittle and receiver R.C. Owens developed a play where the quarterback would throw high to Owens (who stood 6’3”).
Since the receiver usually towered over his defenders, Owens could catch the ball with little effort.
Tittle called the play the “alley-oop” and is credited as the first person to ever use the term.
Long before T.O. hit the Bay Area, there was another pass-catching Owens- R.C.- to star for the Niners. Here he is, reeling in another "Alley Oop" from Y.A. Tittle. #GoNiners pic.twitter.com/WCMddnLGNI
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) March 12, 2019
In later years, the lingo would be used more commonly in basketball for dunk plays.
Due to their second-place finish in the Western Conference, the 49ers returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1949.
In the Conference Playoff game against Detroit, Tittle was on fire, passing for 248 yards and three scores.
However, the Niners’ lead evaporated when the Lions came back from 20 points down to defeat San Francisco 31-27.
Tittle would be voted to the Pro Bowl for the third time and received first-team All-Pro honors.
For the season, he passed for 2,157 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions.
Tittle’s 63.1 completion percentage led the NFL.
Brodie and Tittle Fight for Playing Time
In 1958, Tittle started six games and passed for 1,467 yards, nine touchdowns, and 15 interceptions.
He split time with 1957 first-round pick John Brodie, although the Niners’ fan base preferred Tittle.
Albert was replaced after the 1958 season by Red Hickey, and Tittle started 10 games in 1959.
After passing for 1,331 yards, 10 touchdowns, and 15 picks, he was selected for the Pro Bowl for the fourth time.
— Niners History (@NinersHistory) September 7, 2022
Then, in 1960, Hickey installed a new formation called the shotgun and played Brodie as the starter.
Tittle could see the writing on the wall and considered retiring after the 1960 season.
However, he returned to San Francisco in 1961 and found out shortly after reporting that he was no longer needed.
Tittle Becomes a Giant
At the conclusion of the first preseason game in 1961, San Fran let Tittle know he had been traded to the New York Giants.
Lou Cordileone, the 12th pick in the 1960 draft, was sent to San Francisco from New York in the deal.
When he learned about the trade, Cordileone was not thrilled.
“Me, even up for Y. A. Tittle? You’re kidding,” said Cordileone before adding that the Giants traded him for “a 42-year-old quarterback.” (Tittle was 34 at the time).
Tittle was now on the same roster as former Ole Miss foe, Charlie Conerly, but the Giants were frequent contenders for the NFL title.
The franchise had played in the league title game three out of the five previous seasons and coach Allie Sherman hoped Tittle could help them return in 1961.
Giants players were initially bitter about Tittle joining the team as their allegiances were with Conerly.
That began to change when Tittle led a comeback win against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 2.
He would then start 10 games in 1961 and pass for 2,272 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 12 picks.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) June 15, 2022
Tittle would receive a second-team All-Pro nod after the year along with another Pro Bowl selection.
Meanwhile, the Giants went 10-3-1 and returned to the NFL Championship game to play the Green Bay Packers.
They were promptly thumped by coach Vince Lombardi’s crew 37-0.
Tittle Takes Over
Not long after the 1961 championship game, Conerly called it quits and Tittle became the unquestioned starting quarterback for the Giants in 1962.
The “Bald Eagle,” so named because of his lack of hair and the fact that he looked a decade older than his age, had arguably the best season of his career.
— 18d.Media (@18dMedia) October 10, 2017
While leading New York to a 12-2 record, Tittle passed for 3,324 yards (a career-high), 33 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions.
His touchdown total led the NFL and he was voted NFL MVP, first-team All-Pro, and to his sixth Pro Bowl.
During a game against the Washington Redskins, Tittle became the fourth NFL player to throw seven touchdown passes in a single game.
New York returned to the NFL Championship game only to lose to Green Bay again, with a score of 16-7, when the Giants had to resort to a ground-based game due to freezing weather conditions.
Tittle Repeats as League MVP
In 1963, the Bald Eagle soared again when he passed for 3,145 yards, 36 touchdowns (a career-high and NFL single-season record at the time), and 14 picks.
Tittle led the league in touchdown passes along with a completion percentage of 60.2 and a passer rating of 104.8.
He would also be named NFL MVP for the second straight year and was voted first-team All-Pro and selected for his seventh Pro Bowl.
The Giants went 11-3 and met the Chicago Bears for the world title.
° 1963 NFL CHAMPIONSHIP °
George Allen's ferocious, top-ranked #Bears defense hobbles NYG QB Y.A. Tittle ('63 NFL MVP) and his top-ranked offense in a 14-10 battle at arctic Wrigley Field.
• "Papa Bear" Halas' 6th NFL title as #Chicago head coachhttps://t.co/wduWSpD9PW pic.twitter.com/p2ra3Jnwq6
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) December 30, 2018
Tittle and New York were doing well during the contest before Bears linebacker Larry Morris crashed into Tittle’s knee in the second quarter.
Tittle played through the pain and got help from a cortisone shot and a pile of athletic tape at halftime.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be nearly enough to prevent the quarterback from throwing five interceptions and losing the game 14-10.
“He’s a hell of a man,” said Sherman about Tittle after the game. “He played on one leg. It’s too bad. I think we could have cut them up a little better if he had not been hurt.”
The loss of their third straight title game took the wind out of the Giants’ sails.
In 1964, the franchise cratered to a 2-10-2 record.
Tittle started 11 games and passed for 1,798 yards, 10 scores, and 22 interceptions.
During a Week 2 game against the Steelers, Tittle was leveled by Pittsburgh defensive end John Baker as he was attempting a pass.
The hit knocked Tittle’s helmet to the ground and the ball fluttered in the air until it was picked off and returned for a touchdown by the Steelers’ Chuck Hinton.
Photographer Morris Berman snapped a shot of Tittle kneeling on the ground after the play with blood trickling down his face and wearing a defeated look.
A bleeding Y.A. Tittle Jr. in one of the most iconic sports photo of all time, 1964. Y.A. was from Marshall, Texas, and was an NFL quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, New York Giants, and Baltimore Colts in his 17-year career. Taken by Dexter Mozley for the AP. pic.twitter.com/8FN9tKIvVw
— Traces of Texas (@TracesofTexas) March 30, 2020
Although the iconic photo looked like Tittle was finished, he played through the rest of the season with broken ribs, a cracked sternum, and a concussion from the Baker hit.
On occasion, Tittle was replaced by backup quarterback Gary Wood.
When the 1964 season mercifully ended, Tittle threw in the towel on his career.
He would joke that Wood was playing much better than him and not just, “took my job away, but started to ask permission to date my daughter.”
Sports Illustrated interviewed Tittle months later, and he gave the magazine his final farewell.
“For 27 years, I have put on my armor and gone out to engage what really is a sort of warfare,” said Tittle. “This fall, I’ll be attending my insurance business. I’m too old to give it one more shot, but I wish I could.”
In 17 years, Tittle passed for 33,070 yards, 242 touchdowns, and 248 interceptions.
He also rushed for 1,245 yards and 39 more scores.
Tittle was a seven-time Pro Bowler, two-time NFL MVP, three-time first-team All-Pro, second-team All-Pro once, three-time NFL passing touchdowns leader, two-time NFL completion percentage leader, and NFL passer rating leader once.
He would be voted into the 49ers Hall of Fame and added to the Giants Ring of Honor.
New York also retired Tittle’s number 14.
After Football and Death
Tittle didn’t stray from football after retiring.
He was an assistant coach with the 49ers before joining the Giants as a quarterback coach.
Tittle sold insurance while playing in the NFL and started his own insurance company, Y. A. Tittle Insurance & Financial Services, after leaving football.
Yelberton Abraham Tittle, known to football fans as Y.A. Tittle, was one of the most prolific passers of his era & a member of our Class of 1971.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) October 9, 2022
In 1972, he was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 1987.
For a brief moment in the 1999 movie Any Given Sunday with Al Pacino, Tittle appeared as a football coach.
During his later years, Tittle was diagnosed with dementia and died at age 90 on October 8, 2017.
“Y.A. Tittle will forever hold a special place in not only 49ers history but that of the National Football League. His individual accomplishments speak for themselves, but as a member of the ‘Million Dollar Backfield,’ he was part of one of the most storied offensive attacks the game of football has ever seen,” 49ers CEO Jed York said after Tittle’s passing.