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SUPER BOWL XXI : DENVER vs. NEW YORK : Y.A. TITTLE : Former Giant, 60, Was an Old Favorite Even When He Lost

January 23, 1987|RICHARD HOFFER | Times Staff Writer

Y.A. Tittle, who won some pretty big games but never the really big game, will watch somewhat passionately when his former team, the New York Giants, plays the biggest of them all, Super Bowl XXI, the game too big for just one language.

Tittle, who played football when a simple championship game determined the, well, champion, took the Giants to three such games in the early 1960s, never getting them over the hump. Something always happened. For two seasons, the Green Bay Packers happened.

But in 1963, in a game Tittle had said, "There is no way we can lose," Tittle happened. Tittle, busted up and limping on a bad knee, threw interceptions twice on screen passes. The runbacks set up both of Chicago's scores in the Bears' 14-10 upset.

"They might have been harder on me than they were, except that I was in what I call the quarterback's third stage," recalls Tittle, 60. "The first stage is when he's young and you're pulling for him. The second is when he's mature and you're second-guessing him. I was in the third stage, so old you just feel sorry for me."

Tittle remained, instead, the toast of the town. That may be difficult for the quarterbacks who eventually succeeded him in New York to believe. Richard Todd was booed for the Jets, and Fran Tarkenton and Craig Morton were likewise despised as the Giants struggled.

Even Phil Simms, who got the Giants to where they are today, has heard boos this season.

But Tittle, with those down-home Texas ways of his, was forgiven all. Maybe it was because he looked more like an aging fan than a football player. He was already 35 when he came to the Giants, and his baldness and the high-top shoes he favored added to the image. So the fans, instead of reviling him, awarded him a cabin cruiser as the most popular Giant.

"I came in my twilight years," he explained.

Hard to get down on a man who came to the Giants in trade for the great Lou Cordileone. New York's a tough town, but . . .

Tittle recognizes that Simms, at 30, is still in the second stage, subject to the second-guessing and impossible expectations, and he sympathizes. "I've always had a healthy respect for Phil Simms," said the former quarterback, now an insurance mogul in Palo Alto. "But he's been plagued by many unusual things, like a bad snap from center, or a big hit while attempting a big pass."

Simms will eventually pass through this stage, too. He'll either win this game or turn 38 in a Giant uniform. That's how it's done.

Of course, Tittle earned the fans' tolerance. He had already achieved a large measure of distinction with the San Francisco 49ers and was preparing to retire on those laurels when the 49ers traded him.

Tittle waffled on the decision but finally went to New York, which was quarterback-desperate. Once there, he helped the Giants to three straight division titles. That was a fairly new concept in New York at the time, and it was consequently well appreciated.

Those title winners were similar to this year's team in at least one respect. "Our team was sort of built around a strong defense, just like this one," Tittle said. "Defense is kind of the Giants' heritage."

Tittle remembered in a previous interview once hearing linebacker Sam Huff come off the field saying, "Come on gang, we got to bear down." At the time, the Rams had three points on the board in the fourth quarter.

But in other respects, the two teams don't match up, he said. "This year's team has better balance. They can pass when they want to, not when they have to."

Tittle didn't have the luxury of having a Joe Morris in the backfield. He didn't even have a top 10 runner behind him. "There was little question whether we'd run or pass," he said.

Mostly he passed. In his best two seasons there, he threw for 33 and 36 touchdowns, leading the league at the age of 37. Of course, he couldn't unload in the really big game but having unloaded in pretty big games made life ever after possible all the same.

On the heels of a 2-10 season in which he played banged up, Tittle retired for good, going into the insurance business. He has since sold the business, though he remains in the management of it and, by his own admission, has done pretty well. He passed into the quarterback's fourth stage, happy retirement.

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