Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once said, “Learn to get in touch with the silence within yourself, and know that everything in life has purpose. There are no mistakes, no coincidences, all events are blessings given to us to learn from.” He was a quiet guy, but special: a game changer extraordinaire. He had reached his inner peace and was okay with who he had become. He was once a tall, pencil thin, redheaded kid with a slingshot right arm; he could be as awkward as Jimmy Stewart. He was small town, as country as corn shucks and always talked football, always. He had a face that was hard to forget and looked as though he never had a square meal in his life. He owned high cheek bones, deep-set blue eyes and was baldheaded most of his life. Even at an early age, he looked older than a pair of Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars. But, you don’t become a legend without a fight. He was in for the fight of his life.
The black and white photo taken of him on Sunday, September 20, 1964, has over the years become ingrained in the very minds of every fan of the world of professional football. Morris Berman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette snapped this iconic image at old Pitt Stadium. This picture would change the way photographers looked at sports, and it emphasized the power of capturing a moment of reaction from the players themselves. In this photo the quarterback now rested on his knees, in the dirt and grass of his own end zone. He had been knocked down and bloodied by Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive end, “Big Bad John” Baker, who stood 6’ 7” tall and weighed 280 pounds. Baker’s teammates kidded that John was so big he had his own zip code. This QB would suffer a concussion and a cracked sternum on this play. His helmet is missing, head down, his shoulders slumping, all while looking exhausted, in pain, broken and discouraged beyond explanation. Even his swollen hands screamed disbelief as they lay on top of his thigh pads. He had thrown an interception while being leveled by Baker. The ball landed in the arms of Steelers’ defensive tackle, Chuck Hinton, and was returned for an eight-yard touchdown. The New York Football Giants had lost another game. Pittsburgh would beat New York that day, 27-24.
But it’s his bald, bloodied head that draws your attention in this photo. You see, there are two streams of blood visible, one running from his forehead into his left eye, while the other sneaks its way down in front of his left ear. The “Blood Picture,” he called it, the one picture of him that everybody wanted autographed. It’s true, I have one myself. This photo was taken during his seventeenth and final season. “I hate this picture,” he once said. Most of us never admit we are too old until it’s too late. He was 37 years old but looked 50. A copy of this photo hangs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Eventually, he used this picture on the back cover of his 2009 autobiography, entitled Nothing Comes Easy: My Life in Football: Y.A. Tittle. The Giants finished their season in last place with a dismal 2-10-2 record. Y.A. Tittle, down and out, retired.
Interestingly, “Big Bad John” Baker lived in the neighborhood where I grew up, located in Wake County, in the city of Raleigh, North Carolina. Baker attended Ligon High School and then North Carolina Central University. He was drafted in 1958 by the Los Angeles Rams. My dad introduced me to John Baker in the off-season, as Baker would return to Raleigh and shop at my dad’s convenience store, known as Gordon’s Market on Six Forks Road. In 1978, long after his retirement, Baker would be elected Sheriff of Wake County, North Carolina; and he served for 25 years. Baker used this photo as a campaign tool. John Baker died on Halloween Night, October 31, 2007, which was appropriate, because the man was simply scary. Baker was 72 years of age. In 1972, Baker had appropriately been elected to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
Born October 24, 1926, in a small town in Texas, with a Biblical name right out of the Old Testament, Yelberton Abraham Tittle would make the #14 a famous number in New York City. As a kid, Tittle would change his name to Y.A. It just seemed simpler to say, and he was embarrassed to say his full name. “I’ve got the worst name in the world,” he once said in an interview. Y.A. grew up in the town of Marshall, just a long post pattern from the Louisiana state line. In 1936, at the age of ten, he had wanted to be like quarterback, Sammy Baugh. He would lead the Marshall High School Mavericks at quarterback, while wearing a long-sleeved jersey and a leather helmet. Y.A. was a bit headstrong and was once benched because he refused to run the plays called by his head coach. Y.A. would grow to be 6’ tall and weigh 192 pounds, and he was recruited by Louisiana State University (LSU). Tittle accepted their offer and headed to Baton Rouge to play for the Tigers. He also liked being close to his older brother, Frank, who attended Tulane. “Frank was my hero,” said Y.A. In 1947, as a junior, Tittle, while wearing the #63, was named the MVP of the Cotton Bowl which, was played in an ice storm against the University of Arkansas. The game ended in a scoreless tie. “It was cold,” said Tittle, “Five degrees below zero.”
Hopefully, you know the rest of the story. Y.A. Tittle became the first pro football player to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated, on November 22, 1954. The New York Giants retired his #14. In 1971, Y.A. Tittle also joined the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Andy Purvis is a local author. His books "In the Company of Greatness","Remembered Greatness" and “Greatness Continued” are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc. They are also available in e-reader format. Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.