NOVEMBER 22, 1954
Hawk's eyes narrowed above a plastic face mask, barren pate sheltered beneath a gleaming red helmet, Yelberton Abraham Tittle Jr. glared out from our Nov. 22, 1954, cover as the first professional football player to appear there. SI was just three months old; Y.A. was 28 and in his seventh season as an NFL quarterback, his fourth with the San Francisco 49ers. Nineteen fifty-four was to have been a banner year for the Niners, a team sparked by the Million Dollar Backfield of future Hall of Famers Tittle, Hugh McElhenny, Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson. But injuries, notably McElhenny's separated shoulder in the sixth game, quashed San Francisco's title hopes.
It would be Tittle's fate to repeatedly come within striking distance of a championship, only to fall short. In 1957 the Niners were leading the Detroit Lions 27-7 in the third quarter of the Western Conference playoff game when the Lions rallied and won 31-27. But Tittle would have other chances. In 1961 the 49ers, committed to a new shotgun offense, traded Tittle, a drop-back passer nearing his 35th birthday, to the New York Giants for rookie lineman Lou Cordileone. ("What?" Cordileone asked. "Me, even up for Y.A. Tittle? You're kidding.")
The trade would go down as one of the most lopsided in NFL history. The shotgun flopped in San Francisco, and Tittle took the Giants to three straight title games. But the championship continued to elude him, and after a losing season in 1964, the Bald Eagle called it quits at 38 and headed back to his insurance business in Palo Alto, Calif. "When I played, you had to work in the off-season," he says, "because we never made the kind of money they make now." Tittle's highest salary was $70,000, snack change for the Steve Youngs of today.
But the old quarterback has prospered as the proprietor of Y.A. Tittle & Associates Insurance Services. He and his wife of 48 years, Minnette, have four children and seven grandchildren. Y.A. and Minnette travel extensively and have amassed a valuable collection of folk art from all parts of the globe. And last year their daughter Dianne, a poet, harpist and classical scholar, wrote a memoir of her father, Giants & Heroes, which likens him to the Greek warriors of antiquity. Y.A. says, "I think Dianne recognized that while I never won a title, it was the struggle that counted, just as it was with the ancient Greeks."