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Page 2 / CROWE'S NEST

It turned out to be the biggest snap of his career

January 28, 2008|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- The photograph is iconic, among the most enduring images in sports history. But to see it hanging here, in the offices of Y.A. Tittle Insurance & Financial Services, is a bit of a surprise.

It depicts the company's founder, Pro Football Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle, at perhaps the lowest point in his career, battered, bruised and bloodied.

Moments before the indelible shot was snapped by Morris Berman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the New York Giants quarterback had been pounded to the turf by 270-pound defensive end John Baker of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tittle's fluttering pass had landed in the arms of a surprised Steelers tackle, Chuck Hinton, who returned the interception eight yards into the end zone for a touchdown.

Alone and helmet-less in the end zone, shoulders drooped and arms rested on his thighs, Tittle is shown seated on his haunches, a dazed look in his eyes and blood trickling from his famously bald head. Two games into the last of his 17 professional seasons, the fallen warrior had suffered a concussion and cracked sternum.

"Heck of a way to get famous," Tittle, now 81, says of the photo.

Actually, Yelberton Abraham Tittle already was quite well known long before that September afternoon at Pitt Stadium in 1964.

In the three seasons after his trade from the San Francisco 49ers in 1961, the former Louisiana State standout was the NFL's most celebrated quarterback. Twice the league's most valuable player, he led the Giants to three consecutive championship-game appearances and passed for a record 36 touchdowns in 1963, a mark that stood until Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins passed for 48 in 1984.

Tittle's star had long faded, however, before his name was thrust back into the news last April, when Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam was killed in an auto accident while en route to an interview with Tittle.

"I could have been with him," says Tittle, seated at a tidy desk in his office across the street from Google's sprawling headquarters. "I had offered to pick him up."

Halberstam, Tittle notes, was researching a book about the 1958 NFL championship game between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts, often called football's greatest game. Tittle did not play in that game, but several of his Giants teammates did, and Halberstam wanted to ask about them.

"He wasn't going to write about me," Tittle notes.

Still, he probably would have asked about the photo.

Tittle, like the editors at the Post-Gazette, had failed at first to see the beauty in the image but later came to appreciate the poignancy of it.

"That was the end of the road," says Tittle, who played in pain the rest of the season but was ineffective and unable to rally the Giants, whose string of three consecutive Eastern Conference championships ended with a 2-10-2 record and Tittle's retirement. "It was the end of my dream. It was over."

Surprisingly, for an image that Tittle says "made me more famous than all the footballs I threw," Berman's photo was not published in the Post-Gazette because editors said it lacked action. It wasn't until after Berman entered it into contests that the now famous image took on a life of its own, winning a national award, securing a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and earning wide acclaim as one of the most recognizable sports photographs of the 20th century.

"That was my chance to win a Pulitzer," Berman, who died in 2002, later lamented, "but the photo was ineligible because it wasn't printed."

Still, the image helped to change the way photographers looked at sports, leading them to focus on reactions as well as more standard game coverage.

"It said to a lot of people that sometimes the most revealing sports photograph was made after the play was done or the game was over," Rich Clarkson, former director of photography at National Geographic, told The Times in 2002. "It led other photographers to open their eyes to things other than peak action."

Years later, Tittle says, Baker even used the photo in his campaign to win election as the first African American sheriff in North Carolina's Wake County, a position the late Steelers lineman held for 24 years until 2002.

Says Tittle, laughing, "He put my picture on his campaign posters and said, 'If you don't obey the law, this is what Big John will do to you.' "

Tittle, a father of four and grandfather to seven, was 34 when he was traded to the Giants. He had spent the previous 10 seasons with the 49ers, had established his Bay Area insurance business and seriously considered retiring rather than reporting to the Giants, a move that probably would have kept him out of the Hall of Fame.

In New York, he punched his Hall ticket. And though his first three seasons ended with losses in the NFL championship game, he was OK with that.

"Of course, winning is the most important thing," he says. "But being introduced before the championship game and running out there -- 'No. 14, Y.A. Tittle,' and 75,000 people stand up to cheer you -- that's championship enough. Not as good as the real McCoy, but that thrill of getting there was a tremendous satisfaction."

In New York in the early 1960s, he was the star of stars.

Then, for better and worse, came that Sunday at Pittsburgh.

--

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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