From the beginning of his life to the end, Y.A. Tittle was in love with LSU football.
As a boy he came down with his family from their home in Marshall, Texas, to see his brother Jack, a pretty fair player in his own right, play for Tulane against LSU in Tiger Stadium.
He was enamored by the pageantry, Mike the Tiger, the fans. He came to play in the mid 1940s after being, ahem, liberated from the University of Texas like a town in northern France after D-Day.
OK, he was kidnapped, by then LSU assistant Red Swanson. The FBI may have pulled back the lid on the cesspool that’s college basketball recruiting last month, but there were crazier tricks pulled back in the day.
When he returned in his 80s, Tittle was amazed by a Tiger Stadium that was at the time twice as big as the 46,000-seat, horseshoe-shaped coliseum where he played in his youth.
“The stadium blows your mind,” Title said when I interviewed him before a game in 2010, his shoulders draped in his gold Pro Football Hall of Fame blazer. “We never played in anything like this. This is staggering.”
Tittle, who died Sunday night in California at age 90, authored his share of LSU football lore. He was the Tigers’ first post-war quarterback, leading them to the 1947 Cotton Bowl against Arkansas. The score of the game was frozen in a 0-0 tie, both offenses locked in the ice, sleet and snow that blanketed Dallas on that New Year’s Day more than 70 years ago.
Though he would go on to play 17 seasons in the NFL, in un-balmy places like New York, Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit, Tittle told me that Cotton Bowl was the coldest game of his life.
Though he made his name in the NFL, enshrined in Canton in 1971, college football always had a special lure for Tittle.
“I personally like the college game better,” Tittle said. “Mainly because of the band and the student section and the enthusiasm.”
Three years ago he returned to Baton Rouge from his home in suburban San Francisco, having slowed down physically, his mind now ravaged by dementia. Those around him knew it would likely be his last visit to LSU. He still appeared to be enjoying himself, taking a photo in a locker room much more opulent than anything he experienced. LSU even hung a replica Tittle jersey in a locker, noteworthy for the un-quarterback-like No. 25 he wore.
It was a nice honor for the man who may be the most famous football player LSU ever produced. Here the name to beat is Billy Cannon. But nationally Tittle, who played professionally for 17 years in Baltimore, San Francisco and New York, who was immortalized in a 1964 picture of him injured, helmetless and bloody after being sacked in Pittsburgh, was probably better known.
How best to honor Tittle at LSU has been the subject of debate for some time, a debate that will now probably be renewed after his death.
There are those who have lobbied for Tittle to have his name put up in lights on Tiger Stadium’s east upper deck façade, like those of Cannon and Tommy Casanova. But both of those men had greater college careers than Tittle did. Cannon of course won the 1959 Heisman Trophy. Casanova remains LSU football’s only three-time All-American. Tittle was an All-Southeastern Conference selection in 1946 and 1947 but was never an All-American.
Still, it can be argued that he had the most successful NFL career of any LSU Tiger. He never won a title as a pro, high school or college player, but he threw for 33,000 yards and 242 NFL touchdowns in an era when the forward pass was not the weapon it is now.
LSU has three men in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Tittle, the late Steve Van Buren (enshrined in 1965) and Jimmy Taylor (1976), the latter the only one still with us. Their names are stamped on a trio of bronze plaques outside the north end of Tiger Stadium, one of many items that commemorate former LSU football greats around Death Valley's perimeter.
It's a tasteful remembrance, but there should be something more visible at Tiger Stadium to honor them: a flag, a banner, perhaps some sort of tribute in the plaza next to the south stands where LSU plans to build an exhibit to honor its bowl victories.
A name as splendid as Yelberton Abraham Tittle should live on at the school he loved, a school to which he brought so much honor.