In 2013, The Baltimore Sun caught up with Y.A. Tittle, then 86, who recalled his playing days with the Colts more than half a century earlier. Tittle died Sunday; this is a reprint of that article.
He was Baltimore's first football star, an oddly named quarterback on a motley Colts team that boasted his strong arm but little else. For three years, Yelberton Abraham “Y.A.” Tittle led the club, won fans' hearts and even got his face plastered on the wrappers of Koester's Bread.
Then the Colts disbanded, in 1951, and Tittle was gone — first to the San Francisco 49ers and then to the New York Giants in a 17-year Hall of Fame career that was launched here. Though best known for his success elsewhere, Tittle still embraces his Baltimore roots.
"My first Colts coach [Cecil Isbell] inspired me to become what I am — a great forward passer," Tittle said from his home in Atherton, Calif. "When I left college, I didn't know what kind of player I was, but Isbell believed in me. He was my confidence builder. He convinced me that I was the greatest player to ever throw the football."
In 1948 Tittle, who'd played at LSU, signed with the Colts, then a ragtag club in the All-America Football Conference whose players bore colorful names like "Bus" Mertes, "Stormy" Pfohl and "Racehorse" Davis. A smash hit, Tittle passed for 346 yards and four touchdowns and ran for a fifth score in the Colts' opener, a 45-28 rout of the New York Yankees.
Named the league's Rookie of the Year, he steered Baltimore to a 7-7 mark while throwing for 2,522 yards and 16 touchdowns. Already balding, the 22-year-old Tittle finished second in passing to Cleveland Browns great Otto Graham.
It would be the best of his three seasons here.
"We trained that summer in Sun Valley, Idaho, because one of the team's owners owned a share of a ski resort there," Tittle said. "We stayed in a lodge, where all of these pretty college coeds had summer jobs waiting on tables. The other guys had fun, but it irritated me because I'd just gotten married a week earlier.
"I was jealous, yes, but I never broke my marriage vows."
In 1949, the Colts reverted to form and went 1-11. When the AAFC folded at season's end, Baltimore joined the NFL and finished 1-11 again. The only victory was a 41-21 blitz of Green Bay, at home, in which the Colts managed a 27-point comeback in the fourth quarter. At game's end, jubilant fans carried Tittle off the field and into the locker room.
But empty seats and front-office squabbles killed the franchise, its players divvied up by the league. The Colts would return to the NFL in 1953 with the makings of their title teams of 1958 and 1959.
And Tittle? He spent 10 good years in San Francisco and beat the Colts a few times. In 1958, Baltimore got even, roaring back from a 27-7 halftime deficit to defeat the 49ers, 35-27, in a contest that Colts players said eclipsed their sudden-death championship win that year.
Tittle, who rushed for two touchdowns that day, doesn't recollect the game.
"It was probably the worst game in my life," he said. "That's why I don't remember it."
Dealt to the Giants in 1961, he took New York to three straight division titles and earned the league's Most Valuable Player award before retiring in 1964.
Time has been kind to Tittle. He still works at the insurance agency in San Jose that bears his name. A widower — his wife of 64 years died in 2011 — he lives near family, attends his grandson's schoolboy football games and answers his fan mail, often 10 letters a day.
"Sometimes I go next door, to the country club, and throw the ball around with the little kids there," he said. "They like to go out and catch passes. I can still make the ball hum in the air; you can hear it whistle.
"I'm thinking of making a comeback. I'll put on a wig and get a tryout with the 49ers, who won't know who I am. When I make the team, I'll pull the wig off and say, ‘It's me.' "
He'll do that after the Super Bowl, Tittle said:
"I'm too old to get hit anymore, especially by the Ravens."