Y.A. Tittle, the subject of one of the most indelible images in NFL history and a member of the 49ers’ famed “Million Dollar Backfield,” died Monday at age 90.
Funny, vivacious and intensly competitive, Tittle spent 10 seasons in San Francisco during the 1950s, playing under coaches like Buck Shaw, Frankie Albert and Red Hickey and teaming with famous 49ers like Joe Perry, John Henry Johnson, R.C. Owens and Leo Nomellini.
He, Owens and quarterback John Brodie invented one of the great sports phrases during a practice in 1957 when they decided they needed to name the oddball – but effective – play that the high-leaping Owens kept making in practice.
Today, a long heave down the field is called a “Hail Mary.” But back then, the group decided to call it an “Alley Oop,” a term that has persevered in basketball. After stumbling upon it in practice as they prepared for a game against the Los Angeles Rams, Tittle and Owens connected twice – before halftime and for the game-winning touchdown – during the game.
“The defenders, sometimes two or three of them, would be down there and (Owens) would swoop in there like a hawk and pluck it out of the air,” Tittle told The Bee in 2011. “I think it surprised everybody.”
Owens tried to persuade Tittle to throw the pass with a flutter so that he could better time his jump. Tittle, however, said a wobbly throw was beneath him.
“As a quarterback, I wanted the ball to whistle through the air. I wanted everything to be pretty,” he said. “Anyone could throw it wobbly. You could throw it like that. I was embarrassed to throw it.”
The most famous image of Tittle was taken in 1964, when he was with the New York Giants. On his knees with blood dripping from a gash on his forehead, the black-and-white shot is of a man who has given everything he could but who has tasted defeat.
The picture was taken after Tittle, 37 at the time but looking far older because of his famously bald pate, threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
“While one of the game’s most iconic photos is of Y.A. Tittle on his knees, in fact, no one stood taller than Y.A.,” Pro Football Hall of Fame President and CEO David Baker said in a statement. “The game and all those who came after him, stood on his shoulders. Y.A. was an example of the great values the game teaches such as leadership, commitment, perseverance, respect, integrity and, most of all, competitive spirit.”
In 1963 Tittle was named the league’s MVP after throwing an NFL-record 36 touchdowns. That mark stood until 1984, when Dan Marino shattered the mark with 48 touchdowns. Tittle was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971.
Every member of the “Million Dollar Backfield – Perry, Johnson and Hugh McElhenny were the others – is in the Hall of Fame. McElhenny, 88, is the only surviving member. Tittle died at Stanford Hospital, which is near his home in Atherton.
Tittle was selected by the 49ers third overall in the 1951 draft after spending two seasons in the All-America Football Conference with the Baltimore Colts and the 1950 season with the Colts in the newly-merged NFL.
“Y.A. Tittle will forever hold a special place in not only 49ers history but that of the National Football League,” 49ers CEO Jed York said in a statement. “His individual accomplishments speak for themselves, but as a member of the ‘Million Dollar Backfield’ he was part of one of the most storied offensive attacks the game of football has ever seen.”
By the numbers
33, 070 career passing yards
1971 Year of Pro Football Hall of Fame induction
242 career TDs
7 Pro Bowls
1 League MVP