Quarterback Y.A. Tittle now sounds like a grizzled relic of football, but there was a time when his name was just weird. Comic Phil Foster had a bit about it in the 1950s: “I used to love the tough guys in pro football. In my day we had real he-men: Bronko Nagurski, Alex Wojciechowicz, Mel Hein. Now what have we got: Names like Milton Plum, Y.A. Tittle. Y.A. Tittle?”
Tittle died Sunday at the age of 90, his alma mater LSU confirmed to USA Today. He played 17 seasons and was the all-time leader in passing yards, TDs, and a bevy of other categories when he retired. As Seth Wickersham put it in a 2014 profile of Tittle, he was “a backup with the Colts, as a star with the 49ers and as a legend with the Giants.” His time in football went from an era where he played both ways, in college, to a year where he threw for 36 touchdowns in a single season. He went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
A photo of Tittle, bloodied in the end zone after giving up a pick-six to the Steelers in 1964, is among the most famous in sports. But my strongest memory of Tittle was a story in which he was once tackled by his own pants.
I first read the tale in a book I read as a kid, The Sports Hall of Shame. Tittle, playing both ways in college at LSU, intercepted a pass in a game against Ole Miss. The story, which Tittle told often on the banquet circuit, goes like this: He evaded a tackler, who managed to rip off his belt buckle. So Tittle ran down the sideline, holding the ball in one hand and holding his pants up with the other. One more tackler attempted to stop him, but Tittle stiff-armed him. Unfortunately, that stiff-arm caused his pants to fall. He fell to the ground in LSU territory.
“If my pants hadn’t fallen, I’d have scored easily,” Tittle said, per the book. “It was really an embarrassing moment. There I was down to my jock strap in front of 50,000 people. I kept asking my teammates to surround me, but they didn’t help me a damn bit. They were all laughing so hard they couldn’t do anything. Everybody was getting such a chuckle out of it except me.”
LSU didn’t score on that series and lost the game, 20-18. Ole Miss went to the Sugar Bowl. “We lost and Ole Miss went to the Sugar Bowl instead of us,” Tittle said. “Losing my pants kept us out of the Sugar Bowl. Imagine, I got tackled by my own pants.”
Tittle’s story seems like it was a bit of an exaggeration, a solid football yarn. The Advocate reports an account in one newspaper at the time does not mention it, while another says Tittle “almost lost his pants on the run as his belt broke.” So there was an interception and there was a pair of loose pants.
Tittle received the benefit of the doubt on how dramatic the play was, but take this as motivation: Y.A. Tittle was tackled by his own pants, and went to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.