Y.A. Tittle: The man behind the iconic image
The picture was tucked away, but it always stood out. It was in the trophy room of Y.A. Tittle’s house just south of San Francisco. The room was painted red, and there were dozens of trophies, a handful of old footballs, so dry they seemed chapped, and on the wall, next to his four framed Sports Illustrated covers and his Hall of Fame plaque, was the picture for which Tittle is most famous: of him helmet-less and on his knees, having thrown an interception that was returned for a touchdown by the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 20, 1964, with streams of blood trickling down the topography of his forehead and cheek, a picture that not only forever framed Tittle as the embodiment of a broken warrior but also forever romanticized NFL players as broken down warriors. That picture could have been of anyone, his fate theirs, before we knew of the various agonies that would attend the post-playing life. The iconography of football pain isn’t what it used to be. On a Sunday marked and marred by injury extreme by even NFL standards, of Odell Beckham Jr. in tears as he was carted away and of J.J. Watt almost in tears as he was too, Yelberton Abraham Tittle died at the age of 90, surrounded by family, friends, and the songs he loved, leaving us an old image as impossible to ignore as the new ones on our screens.
I never knew my grandparents. Three of them had died before my parents had turned 20, and the one who lived a longer life — Kirk Wickersham Sr., my grandfather on my dad’s side — passed on when I was a little boy, leaving me with only vague memories of bouncing on his lap and him telling me to not stick my arm out of the window of a moving car. So I’ve learned to absorb the lessons of grandparents from others — lessons of war, of humility, of a particular American history, of how to grow old with dignity and of how to care for your parents as they age — which means that those lessons arrive unexpectedly and without warning … like say, in the sticks of East Texas.
It was there, just outside of Marshall, Texas, in the spring of 2014 that I wrote the story I’m most proud of: a story on what was supposed to be Y.A. Tittle’s last trip home. He was 87 years old at the time, suffering stiff legs and a tired body and most of all from dementia, the topic of his conversations repeating in a tight loop. It was impossible to know if it was due to football, but his family didn’t believe so, and they wasted no time mourning his ghost. That’s because Tittle wouldn’t let them. He was a blast to be around, a mix of childlike enthusiasm and old man jokes that left you more than charmed: It left you feeling like you were part of an occasion, the occasion being his presence. He lifted and carried each room he entered, not only because he had grown accustomed to doing so out of the obligation of fame, but because he was most comfortable holding court. He told a lot of true stories — about “necking” in high school with his future wife, Minnette — and told even more that were sort of true. “Lie to tell a truth,” he’d always say, and he always did, to great effect. Dementia stripped his memory down to his most essential self, which not only meant that everywhere he went he was on, performing on the stage of his own show. It meant that, like the best performers, he became part of your life as you became part of his.
Y.A. Tittle was a man who loved a stage. He was famous at the perfect time and place in American history to be famous: New York in the 1960s, before celebrity had become a drag. He was a legend whose legend always had a ceiling, because he didn’t deliver the championships that the damn Yankees did, and because he wasn’t a New York Giant for life, like Frank Gifford. But he had these stories — of P.J. Clarke’s, of Toots Shor’s, of old Yankee Stadium — that not only transported you to those days, but also did so without a whiff of ego or pretense of scale. In all the days I spent with him, I never heard him brag. Not about being a Hall of Fame quarterback, not about the years of owning NFL records for touchdowns thrown over the course of a season and of a game. He twice threw more touchdown passes in 14 games than Joe Montana and John Elway ever threw in 16. He regretted not winning a championship, of course. But his bigger, more revealing, regret seemed to be that more people couldn’t have been along for the ride.
After I wrote a story about him, I was suddenly along for the ride, an instant member of a vast family. Y.A. became a generational vessel for me, of an era lost and of a figure gained. I wanted my parents and my wife to meet him. I’d watch how he gazed at his daughter, Dianne de Laet, one of his four kids, and I would silently pray that my little girl will one day care for me as Dianne did for him. He gave a lot to those he loved, and he asked only one thing in return: song. There was always a guitar in close proximity of him, and that meant that someone, likely Steve de Laet, his son-in-law, would play it. He loved “On the Road Again,” “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” “Amazing Grace” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And, when it was my turn at the guitar, “Highway Patrolman.” He would start to tear up at the story of one brother dutifully protecting another, and when it ended, the dementia would always kick in, and he would put his hand on mine and say, “I’m sorry. What is your name again?” After I told him, his eyes would dry and his face would light up because he knew he had a line ready to deploy.
“Seth Wickersham? That’s worse than Yelberton Abraham Tittle!”
“The Blood Picture,” Y.A. always called it. He would insist that he hated the picture that came to define him and all of those who played his sport, but I never truly bought it. One, I don’t think he was capable of hate; he seemed to know it was a waste of energy. Two, I think he was proud of what happened before and after the picture, the surrounding frames that history left behind. The trainers rushed to surround him, and even opposing Steelers lingered to see him to his feet, the familiar ritual of today the familiar ritual of yesterday. He suffered a cracked sternum and a concussion, before we cared about that word, and he was proud to have played the following week, leading the Giants to a win over the Redskins. Nobody understood what it meant to play in that pain, because it is only meant to be understood by the select few who endure it, even if the pictures are harder to look at now. And so, on the last day of his life, as he lay in the ICU as his family serenaded him with the songs he loved and he rocked his head back and forth with the energy he had left, he lived in images we saw on another football Sunday, a grandfather to many. Though he is isolated in his most famous picture, he was not isolated as he lived it, and he was damn sure not isolated at the end.