Yelberton Abraham Tittle played as a pro quarterback for 17 seasons. But, just four of those years were with the New York Giants. Yet when he stepped off the football field for the final time after the 1964 season, his No. 14 Giants jersey was retired. Perhaps no other athlete had ever earned such a tribute in so short a time.
It is ample testimony to the greatness of his short-lived career in New York. Added to the already magnificent record compiled in 13 previous seasons, it made his eventual enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame a certainty. That honor occurred in 1971.
Tittle began his pro career in the rival All-America Football Conference with the Baltimore Colts before he and that team joined the NFL in 1950. After the Colts folded, Tittle latched on with the where he gained great fame. The veteran passer was traded to New York after the 1960 season. Initially, he was not welcomed by his new teammates when he reported for duty in the summer of ’61.
The Giants were a veteran, close-knit group with a great deal of pride in their past successes and those men who had made those successes possible. Perhaps the Giants looked warily on all "outsiders" but it was also true that Tittle would be battling a particular favorite, 40-year-old Charley Conerly, for the quarterback job. The Giants had been a perennial powerhouse for several years with Conerly leading the way.
As a team, Tittle recalled later, the Giants tried to be cordial. Individually, however, “Yat” was left alone. For weeks, he was the loneliest guy in town. The Giants came to recognize Tittle for both his human qualities and his extraordinary skills in throwing a football. Soon, the cold-shoulder treatment evaporated. In its place there developed an appreciation of the tremendous contributions he made to Giants football that will never be forgotten.
As the 1961 season started, Tittle and Conerly shared the quarterbacking chores. But as the Giants moved nearer to the Eastern Conference crown, it became more and more evident that Tittle was the guy making it all possible. He was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player that season. His 1961 achievements paled in comparison to what was to follow. In 1962, he tossed 33 touchdowns passes and racked up a career-high 3,224 yards through the air. A year later, he threw a staggering then-record 36 touchdowns while again breaking the 3,000-yard passing mark. He also completed 60.3 of his passes that season. His accomplishments were awarded by earning Most Valuable Player honors again.
“Yat had a marvelous season in 1961, a superb one in 1962 and an even more magnificent one in 1963,” observed one veteran New York sports writer.
However, Tittle's contributions as a Giant far exceeded the mere statistics, impressive as they may have been.
“Tittle has the enthusiasm of a high school kid," Giants great said in 1962. “He loves to play. This is great for our young players. When they see 36-year-old man so fired up, they have to get fired up, too.”
Tittle was a terrific competitor and always ready to play, even when hurt, which some say is the mark of a true pro. The best example of this might be the 1963 NFL Championship Game when Tittle was injured early in the game, but bravely carried on despite painful injuries.
"I'll never know how Y. A. did it,” Gifford observed. “I’ll remember that show of courage long after I have forgotten the score.”
Tittle, a native of Marshall, Texas and a college star at Louisiana State, had always been a good quarterback and sometimes a brilliant one in the 13 pro seasons before he landed with the Giants. One primary goal, that of playing on and strongly contributing to a championship team, had always eluded him.
He came close to reaching his goal twice before he joined the Giants. The first came during his rookie season with the AAFC Colts. Tittle was originally signed by the in 1948 but wound up in Baltimore as part of the AAFC’s talent-equalization program.
The slick-throwing quarterback led his team to a divisional title tie. But, the Colts fell to the Buffalo Bills in a playoff to determine the Eastern Division champions.
When the Colts franchise disbanded after the 1950 season, Tittle was picked up by the 49ers. It was in San Francisco where he had to face the challenge of a veteran and capable quarterback, Frankie Albert. Tittle did not get a chance to really take over the reins of the team until Albert, a fan favorite, retired in 1953.
Y. A. led the 49ers to several fine seasons but the best came in 1957. That season, he guided the club to several come-from-behind victories that moved them into a tie for the division crown with the Detroit Lions. But, once again, disappointment loomed for Tittle. The 49ers, courtesy of his three TD throws, jumped out to a commanding 27-7 lead in that year’s playoff only to see the Lions roar back and stage a 24-point second half rally to beat San Fran, 31-27.
The 49ers' fortunes ebbed after that game and so too did Y. A.'s usefulness in San Francisco. In addition, the team’s new coach Red Hickey installed a new offense that featured the shotgun formation in 1959. Tittle's days in San Francisco were apparently numbered but the end didn't come for at least two years.
By the time that the trade that sent him to New York for an obscure lineman was announced, Tittle had settled in with a successful insurance business in the Bay Area. He underwent considerable soul-searching about whether or not to report to the Giants or to hang up his cleats.
Fortunate for him and the football world, Tittle decided to keep playing. And with that he put his true mark on the game with the storybook ending to a great career.
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