A Football Giant and His Hero-Worshipping Daughter

Football star Y.A. Tittle in 1950

Football star Y.A. Tittle in 1950. Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Getty Images

In honor of the new National Football League season, I've dug into the archives for an interview that is, at least ostensibly, about football. One thing I have learned about interviewing people is that an interview often turns out to be about something other than, or greater than, what the producer and I thought it would be about.

This particular interview promised to be about football and heroism but turned out to be about fathers and daughters. As a father of two daughters, both of whom possess talents far beyond my own, I am still delighted to hear Y.A. Tittle, the great New York Giants quarterback of my youth, and his daughter Dianne Tittle de Laet. She is a charming aesthete and classicist, a harpist and poet who saw in her father heroics worthy of the ancient epics. The two of them reminded me that (a) children assimilate the gifts of their parents in unusual ways and (b) some people play football for money so that their kids can play the harp for personal fulfillment.

And I have learned that there is an unwritten last chapter to the book. Although Giants and Heroes: A Daughter’s Memories of Y.A. Tittle is now out of print, de Laet uses the proceeds from the book to fund five scholarships for deserving high school students in the United States and abroad – athletes, artists, and others in need. Information is at aretepoetics.com (arete is the Greek word for virtue). "The book didn't end with the book," de Laet says. "It's been like a football on the bounce."

Robert Siegel: As we approach this season of bowl games and pro football playoffs, some thoughts now about football, the way it used to be played, before sophisticated coaching staffs with wireless telephones moved players around the field like chess pieces. The quarterback used to call the plays. In the 1940s, Y.A. Tittle, a young star quarterback at Louisiana State University, made a seemingly brilliant call against Texas A&M.

Y.A. Tittle: In those days, you could not get any kind of coaching from the sideline. If you received any information, a hand signal or any of that nature, you would get a 15-yard penalty. If a receiver came into the game and brought in a play and told you what to do, it was a 15-yard penalty. The referee would actually stick his head in the huddle to make sure he wouldn't talk to you. But we sort of cheated a little bit. The water boy would come in with the jugs of water. Inside of my jug, which would be a different color, it might be fourth down and one, so I'd open up the jug and it would say, as an example, "punt." Then I would go in the huddle and call a punt. When we were playing Texas A&M, the score is 6 to nothing and about a minute to go and we're behind. So I call time- out and here came Lang, the water boy. I opened up my little top and it said "punt." I said why would we punt with less than a minute to go and we're behind? Well, [the water boy] had forgot to take the top off from the time before. But still, I was going to follow orders like I'm supposed to do. So I got in the huddle and called a quick kick and, of course, we had a revolution in the huddle with 10 other ball players saying I had to be the stupidest guy in the world. With 50 seconds left in the game and behind, we're gonna kick the ball away. But I did it and the ball went dead on the one-yard line. And then the first down: Texas A&M ran off tackle, fumbled, we covered it and then I threw a winning touchdown pass with about 20 seconds to go to Jim Cason and we won 7 to 6. The papers came out the next day and said it was the most brilliant call that any 18-year-old quarterback had ever made in the history of the game. Coach Moore said Y.A. knew we could never win without a break and he took the chance and did it. The only reason we did it because I got our illegal signals mixed up.

Robert Siegel: Y.A. Tittle tells that story in a book about him by his daughter. I talked with the two of them on NPR's All Things Considered.

There’s a famous photo of Y.A. Tittle in 1964, his last year as quarterback with the New York Giants. Tittle was 38. Football had broken his bones, age and asthma had stolen his wind. On his knees on the turf, helmet off, bloodied and exhausted, the erstwhile boy wonder out of east Texas was at the end of a brilliant career. Y.A. — Yelberton Abraham — Tittle had come to New York just three years before. He was the oldest quarterback in the game and the best: a man who could throw a football with stunning accuracy. The Bald Eagle, as they called him, broke passing records and took his team to three championship games and to three defeats. Many saw Tittle as a mythic figure — no one more so than his daughter Dianne, who has put that photograph on the back cover of her book, Giants and Heroes: A Daughter’s Memories of Y.A. Tittle. Dianne Tittle De Laet seems an improbable offspring of the great quarterback — she is a poet, a harpist, a woman who sets classic verse to music.

Dianne Tittle de Laet: I just gave a performance last week at Stanford of the lyrics of Sappho and some selections from Eurypides' "Trojan Women." That’s the program I did the first, and it's the one I think I love the most.

Siegel: Yes, uh, Mr. Tittle?

Tittle: I was just thinking, Mr. Siegel, don't you think that maybe the doctors got mixed up and we got the wrong baby in the hospital, 40-some-odd years ago? My daughter is a harpist and a poet, and talking about Sappho. The only Sappho I ever heard of was a linebacker for the Packers, or something like that.

De Laet: You’re more related than you realize, maybe not to Sappho, but to some of the other characters. Hector, in fact, [was] dragged around the walls of Troy three times. You could say you had experienced a variation on that theme.

Tittle: I know they made a switch at the hospital

Siegel: There’s a passage in your book, Dianne, that begins on page 134. I guess this is when your father was made the second-string quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers [in 1960]. Having been a great chief formation quarterback, he was, I guess made second-string because they went to a shotgun formation.

Siegel: In 1960. And Dianne, you write about that. And I’m wondering if you can read from your book a bit, describing your feelings as a young girl.

De Laet: Let's see. "Personally I felt very lucky when Red Hickey decided to go with a shotgun formation and a younger quarterback because in 1960 I had had a hero in Perseus for nearly half of my life. It happened in kindergarten that I had opened a book before I could read, and found a picture of a man holding a ghastly trophy. Like sports, the picture had its share of violence, but the severed head of the Gorgon was only a part of the picture, and what was even more amazing than beheaded snakes was the peace and contentment of the man leaning on one hip, as if to say that he was not surprised in the least by what had to be the most bizarre and fantastic moment of his life. Because victory, in spite of its strange and sometimes startling shapes, was not only his, but humanity's true element. And so it was that I began to wonder about the hero, and it was a good thing, too, because when the going got tough for my father in 1960, there were a multitude of Greek heroes I had come across in books who had it a lot tougher than he did. These people who faced nine-headed Hydras, clashing rocks, three-headed dogs, were like exotic candles being lit, one by one, inside my own dark and brutal world." Should I continue, or I’ll stop there.

Siegel: Why don't you stop there.

Tittle: Dianne, I want you to read the book to me. I love this. When I read it, it doesn’t come out like that.

Siegel: Well there’s the connection, you see, between the Greek heroes and the ancient world and your career as a quarterback in the National Football League. You still think she was switched at birth, is what I hear.

Tittle: I definitely think so. (Laughs) Anyone who could write these beautiful words like that.

Siegel: You quote Seneca in the book, saying in the morning they throw a man to the lions and bears, at noon they throw them to the spectators. While writing about a game, which, even for me, as a 16-year-old New York Giants fan at the time, was a heartbreaking day to watch the championship game — there was no Super bowl yet — the championship game of the National Football League, between the New York Giants, with Y.A. Tittle at the helm, and the Chicago Bears. And I wonder, Y.A. Tittle, when you think back on that game, what are your memories?

Tittle: I was disappointed because for so many years I'd chased the whale, had never really won the championship game. We'd won our district championship when I was in high school, we went and lost in a crucial game later. We didn't go as far as we could have gone. Going to college, we played in the Cotton Bowl, tied with Arkansas, [we were] a much better football team than Arkansas that year but we caught a snowstorm there. The same thing seemed to follow me all my life, never ever really winning the big game. Dianne's book has been built around this: the quest of really winning, that I never did win. But I did win, really, in the long run because I have four wonderful children and grandchildren, and Dianne has written this book, and she's written it with good taste. She has praised her father while, I think, telling a lot of truth about the people in sports that I played with. And Mr. Siegel, I've loved football ever since the day I played [wearing a Lindbergh-style leather cap stuffed with rags] back in east Texas to the very last day at 38 years old I threw a ball in my last practice with the Giants. I wish I could do it all over again because it was a wonderful experience and a wonderful ride.

Siegel: Do you remember watching that game, Dianne — the 1963 championship?

De Laet: I would say, out of my entire childhood, that is the one thing I remember more than anything, in particular the last 10 minutes or so of the game when my father threw an interception. That game stands out in my mind as sort of perplexing, a riddle as Perseus was for me when I found him in the book. That's why I chose to make this game the subject of my victory ode in a sense. I feel that, at least for me, there was a victory that was shared by my father and maybe me, too, because I think he did show his excellence that day, even though it was the worst day of his career. I came away from that game with something that I needed to keep in mind as I continue to grow and explore my own art, and go and run down the field with my own ball, so to speak.

Siegel: Well, Dianne Tittle de Laet, and Y.A. Tittle, thank you both very much for coming here today.

Tittle: Mr. Siegel, thank you very much.

De Laet: Thank you very much.

Tittle: Can I ask a question?

Siegel: Yes, certainly.

Tittle: Is it at all possible that we could get a copy of the entire interview for ourselves?

Siegel: The entire interview is hard...

Tittle: I’m just fascinated by listening to my own daughter talk. I was just a C-student at LSU sitting next to the smartest girl. I’m listening to you, Dianne, and I’m really impressed.

Siegel: Proud father and retired quarterback Y.A. Tittle. His daughter Dianne Tittle De Laet is the author of Giants and Heroes: A Daughter's Memories of Y.A. Tittle.

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