Sports lore speaks of professional football coming of age on Dec. 28, 1958, that windy Sunday at Yankee Stadium when the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants 23-17 in overtime to capture the National Football League championship. The “Greatest Game Ever Played,” transfixed millions of television viewers and set the NFL on course to becoming the nation’s most popular sport.
But it was in the early 1960s when the NFL truly began to sizzle, thanks to the Green Bay Packers of coach Vince Lombardi and the Giants of quarterback Y.A. Tittle, who died Sunday night in Atherton, Calif., at the age of 90. Lombardi is one of sports’ iconic figures. His Packers won five NFL titles between 1961 and ‘67, including the first two Super Bowls. Following his death in 1970, the Super Bowl trophy was named in his honor.
Tittle didn’t win any championships. From 1961-63 he led the Giants to three straight NFL title games but he lost each time, the first two to Lombardi’s Packers and in ’63 to George Halas’s Chicago Bears. NFL Films compared Tittle’s grim pursuit of a title to “Captain Ahab pursuing Moby Dick.”
But what Tittle did for pro football, particularly in the media capital of New York, should never be underestimated. The Giants of the late 1950s were best known for defense led by middle linebacker Sam Huff along with defensive ends Andy Robustelli and Jim Katcavage. The ’59 Giants finished 10-2 despite a two-game stretch where the best the offense could manage was six field goals by future broadcaster Pat Summerall. The joke was the defense used to tell the New York offense, “Now get out there and hold them,” meaning no turnovers.
But with Tittle—who arrived in New York in 1961 thanks to one of the most one-sided trades in NFL history—the Giants’ offense ignited. Throwing to wide receivers Del Shofner, Kyle Rote and Frank Gifford, tight ends Joe Walton and Aaron Thomas and the multipurpose Joe Morrison, Tittle produced the most productive offenses in Giants history. He threw an NFL-record 33 touchdown passes in 1962 and upped the mark a year later with 36, a standard that stood until 1984 when the Miami Dolphins’ Dan Marino threw 48. The ’63 Giants averaged 32 points per game, a franchise record no subsequent Giants has come close to matching. Tittle was selected the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.
The great New York Yankees teams of the late 1950s and early ‘60s rarely sold out Yankee Stadium other than the World Series. But the Giants, who moved to the House That Ruth Built from the Polo Grounds in 1956, became the hottest ticket in town. Beginning in Tittle’s peak years of 1962-63, the Giants sold out every game—a stretch that continued throughout the ‘60s, even as the team entered a nearly two-decade playoff drought. Because NFL rules did not allow home games to be televised within a city’s 75-mile radius, Giants fans would travel to motels in Stratford, Conn., to catch the action from Yankee Stadium.
Giants were always in demand from a fan base that couldn’t get enough of Big Blue. Player sightings were reported at nightclubs, Broadway shows and restaurants like Toots Shor’s. Rote, Summerall and Gifford w0uld go on to enjoy successful careers in broadcasting.
But Tittle was the biggest name on the city’s most popular team.
A native of Marshall, Texas, Tittle attended LSU where he twice won All-SEC honors. Although drafted by the Detroit Lions, Tittle chose to sign with the Baltimore Colts of the All-America Football Conference, earning Rookie of the Year in 1948. When the Colts (no relation to the later Baltimore Colts) disbanded after the 1950 season, Tittle joined the San Francisco 49ers where he enjoyed success for much of the ‘50s. The now-bald quarterback earned Pro Bowl honors in 1953, ’54, ’57 and ’59 and became the first NFL player to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated in the Nov. 22, 1954 issue.
Tittle’s title frustration began in a 1957 Western Conference playoff game against the Lions. Playing before a packed crowd of more than 60,000 at Kezar Stadium, Tittle led the 49ers to a 27-7 lead early in the third quarter. The winner of the game would host the Cleveland Browns the following week in the NFL Championship Game, and 49ers fans were advised they could start purchasing title tickets. The Lions had other ideas, scoring 24 unanswered points for a stunning 31-27 victory. Detroit clobbered the Browns 59-14 seven days later for the NFL crown.
By 1960, Tittle’s star was waning in San Francisco. Niners coach Red Hickey was beginning to experiment with a shotgun offense that required the quarterback to run as well as pass. Former Stanford star John Brodie seemed better suited to the task than the aging Tittle who started only four games in the ’60 season. When the 49ers used their 1961 No. 1 draft pick on UCLA’s Billy Kilmer, an even better running quarterback than Brodie, there was no room Y.A.
The Giants, looking for quarterback insurance behind 40-year-old Charlie Conerly, picked up Tittle in exchange for former No. 1 draft choice Lou Cordileone, an offensive guard who joked about being traded for “a 42-year-old quarterback.” Tittle, actually, was 34.
Most of the Giants were comfortable with Conerly calling the shots. After Tittle helped spark a 17-14 comeback win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 2, however, the veterans began to grow comfortable with the younger fellow. The offense ignited. Head coach Allie Sherman, who had replaced the ultra laid-back Jim Lee Howell at the end of the ’60 season, had a creative offensive mind, and Tittle could make his schemes work.
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In nine of the remaining 12 games the Giants scored more than 20 points, five times going past 30, including a 53-0 pasting of the Washington Redskins. The Giants held off the defending NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles for the Eastern Conference crown but were routed 37-0 by the Packers in the 1961 NFL title game. Tittle, who had nearly led the Giants to a regular-season victory over Green Bay earlier in December, was dreadful, completing only six of 20 passes and throwing four interceptions.
With Conerly retired, it was Tittle’s show in 1962 and the “Bald Eagle” responded. En route to his historic 33 touchdown passes he equaled an NFL record by throwing seven in one game against Washington as the Giants set a franchise record with 398 points scored and finishing 10-2. Again the Packers were the opposition, this time at Yankee Stadium where the Giants hoped for warmer weather than what greeted them the previous December in Green Bay.
Instead, conditions were wretched. With temperatures confined to the teens, and wind gusts of 35 mph, it was not a day for throwing the football. Tittle completed less than 50 percent of his passes for less than 5 yards per attempt and threw an interception. Green Bay defended its title with a 16-7 victory.
Tittle and the New York offense were never better than in ’63, scoring more than 30 points in 10 of 14 regular-season games en route to 448 points for the season. The team clinched the Eastern Conference crown with a 33-17 victory over Pittsburgh with Tittle throwing two touchdown passes to Morrison and one to Shofner. Gifford’s spectacular one-handed catch kept alive a key third-quarter drive after the Steelers had pulled within 16-10.
Instead of the Packers, the Giants would face the Bears at Chicago’s Wrigley Field for the NFL title. One year earlier at Wrigley, the Giants defeated the Bears 26-24. In 8-degree weather, the Giants scored first when Tittle connected with Gifford for a 14-yard TD, and a quick 7-0 lead. The lead nearly grew to 14-0 when Tittle hit a wide-open Shofner on the Chicago goal line but the All-Pro receiver dropped the ball. One player later, Bears linebacker Larry Morris intercepted a Tittle screen pass and returned it inside the Giants 5-yard line. Soon the Bears evened the score 7-7.
Morris had done far worse damage. On the touchdown pass to Gifford, Morris rolled into Tittle, tearing a ligament in the quarterback’s left knee. Tittle could no longer plant his feet to get much zip on the football. The Giants held a 10-7 halftime lead, but another Tittle interception led to the Bears’ second touchdown and the final score of 14-10. Tittle completed only 11 of 29 passes and was intercepted five times.
In the quiet anger of the Giants’ locker room, Allie Sherman said of Tittle, “He’s a hell of a man. 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.”
Tittle, perhaps realizing he would never win an NFL championship, said “It was just a bad day.”
The ’64 season was a disaster for Tittle and the Giants. Over the winter, Sherman had traded Sam Huff, the heart of New York’s defense, to Washington. The team was aging at warp speed. The second game summed up the season’s woes. Playing in Pittsburgh, the Giants led 14-0 when 270-pound Steelers defensive end John Baker slammed into Tittle, knocking his helmet off. The wobbly pass was intercepted by defensive tackle Chuck Hinton for a pick-six as Tittle sat wounded in the end zone, blood streaming down his face. Morris Berman’s photo of the beaten and bloodied Tittle became a lasting image of violence of pro football, the aging warrior no longer able to answer the bell.
The Giants finished 2-10-2, their worst record since the team was founded in 1925 and the beginning of an extended playoff drought that didn’t end until 1981. Tittle announced his retirement Jan. 22, 1965, the same day that Joe Namath—a quarterback who would bring a championship to New York—had his introductory news conference with the Jets.
The following summer, Tittle told Sports Illustrated, “For 27 years I have put on my armor and gone out to engage what really is a sort of warfare. This fall, I’ll be attending my insurance business. I’m too old to give it one more shot but I wish I could.”
Tittle never returned to football, building a successful Bay Area insurance business that worked with many clients in Silicon Valley.
The Bald Eagle left the game with 242 career touchdown passes, a record until broken by John Unitas later in the 1960s. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971. The stellar ’71 group also included Jim Brown, Vince Lombardi and Tittle’s former Giants teammate Andy Robustelli. Steve Sabol of NFL Films called it the Hall’s “best class ever.”
Unlike Phil Simms, Jeff Hostetler and Eli Manning, Y.A. Tittle never won an NFL championship. But no Giants quarterback ever threw the football better.