With the season upon us again my mind drifted back to my first year of NFL football. I had just arrived in New York and settled into a walk-up apartment in Brooklyn. After finding a job and a place to live I decided to watch this new game. I didn’t have television so went to the Irish bar below the apartment to watch the away games. Home games were blacked out in the New York area. The Irish bartenders couldn’t explain the game to me as they only had been in Brooklyn for two years. They too were puzzled why grown men wore protective helmets, shoulder pads and gloves when playing the game. In Ireland, where they played European football (soccer), rugby and Gaelic football, vicious tackling around the legs and a “good old punch-up” were the part of the game that attracted the spectators. Nor did we understand the stop-start nature of NFL games and the need for specialist teams for offense, defense, and kick-off/punt returns. In rugby each player learned to play offense and defense, substitutes were only used if a player was carried off the field and taken to hospital. If a player was hurt but could still walk then they continued to play. There was no “acting” or “diving” to earn a penalty, as we now see in soccer. If you went down it was for a good reason like concussion or a broken leg, even then the game didn’t stop. The battle continued until fulltime and the stretcher bearers went out under the cover of darkness to retrieve the wounded.
I grew up playing rugby at a school where there was no other choice for a winter sport. After high school I continued to play until a knee injury ended my brief career. Playing football wasn’t a full time job in those days as it only paid about $20/game. Players had a job during the week and played football at the weekend. Training was twice each week after work to improve our game skills. Fitness and strengthening exercises were our own responsibility. We didn’t work out at a gym, just ran 10-15 miles with a lot of hill work every morning before work and strengthened our upper bodies by hauling logs for the fire and throwing rocks at the neighbor’s cat. We didn’t have fancy uniforms because we had to buy our own. We didn’t have a complex playbook to memorize so focused on the basics of the game – running with the ball to score or tackling someone on the other team so he didn’t score. We could remember all that so didn’t need a book. Our coach Billy was a retired international rugby player with a simple approach to the game. One thing he told us was to run down field after the first kick-off to find our opposite number, who hopefully was watching the flight of the ball, and smash him onto the ground while he wasn’t looking. His theory was the referee would be watching the play and therefore would not see the crash tackles; and the opponent would be so shaken that for the next 79 minutes he would be watching us and not the ball. As this practice spread among the other teams the first few minutes of the game were the most interesting. My Irish bartender friends understood this tactic.
New York had only one NFL team, the Giants who played their home games at Yankee Stadium. Season ticket holders filled the stadium for every home game and as I didn’t know anyone with tickets the only way to follow the game was through television. For home games a few friends and I drove to a motel in Connecticut, outside the blacked out zone, rented a room for the afternoon and sat in front of a small screen drinking beer all afternoon. When it was dark we drove back to New York on the icy roads fighting with the Sunday night traffic. Charlie Conerly, the quarterback for the Giants, was MVP in 1959 but the Giants lost to the Baltimore Colts in the Championship Game. Forty-year old Conerly retired in 1961 and was replaced by a “young” quarterback from the San Francisco 49ers. Yelberton Abraham (Y.A.) Tittle was 35 years old when he joined the New York Giants and immediately won over the fans with his courage and ability. I became a fan of Y.A. and admired him for getting back up and continuing to play after being sacked, covered in mud, bruised, battered and often bleeding from the head. With Y.A. every game seemed to play out as a drama.
Y.A. was born in Marshall, Texas, went to L.S.U. and joined the Baltimore Colts of the All America Football Conference. He played for the San Francisco 49ers for ten years before being traded to the Giants. In his first year Y.A. only threw 17 touchdown passes for the season and the Giants were smashed by the Green Bay Packers in the 1961 Championship game. In his second year Y.A. threw 33 TD’s but the Packers beat the Giants again in the Championship game. My interest in the NFL continued to rise along with my admiration for Y.A.. But I still couldn’t get a ticket to a home game.
I thought 1963 could be the year that the Giants would win the NFL Championship. Frank Gifford was back with the team, Rosey Brown, Sam Huff, Andy Robustelli and Alex Webster were at their peak and Y.A. was playing better. I was getting tired of driving to Connecticut or Montauk Point to watch the home games so asked around school if anyone knew how I could get a ticket to a game. A friend introduced me to a young doctor at the hospital near the school who had a scheme to get us into Yankee Stadium and seats on the side line. There were only five home games left in the season so we went to work on the plan for the final game, ten days before Christmas. Halfway through the season the Giants had won five games and lost two, one of the losses was to the Steelers 31-0 at Pittsburgh. The final game of the season was to be played at Yankee Stadium against Pittsburgh so it promised to be a bruising game. Y.A. had thrown 33 touchdown passes in the season before the final game, equaling his record from the previous year. With one game to go surely he could set a new record in that game and I would be there to congratulate him.
I arrived early at the hospital to have my leg put in plaster so it would set before the game and to be fitted with a gown over warm clothes. Getting the gowns, IDs and wheelchair was easy and a small financial incentive lined up an ambulance to drop us off at Yankee Stadium before the game. The Giants allowed a small number of wheelchair patients from the hospital into Yankee Stadium and set them up near the sideline to watch the game. Usually the players walked over to greet the patients. It was darn near freezing cold when we arrived at the gate and presented our entry tickets. We were let through and met by someone from the Giants’ office who escorted us onto the field and found a place near the side line. I was warm under the hospital blankets but my doctor friend, standing beside the wheelchair, complained endlessly about the bitter cold. The hot chocolate brought to us by the Giants’ office was enriched by the rum from a small bottle hidden beneath the blankets. Yankee Stadium was full with over 63,000 people, mostly Giants fans, and the noise was deafening. I didn’t know how the players could hear the calls because the doctor and I were forced to shout to each other to be heard above the crowd. The Giants were first to score from a field goal and then Y.A. threw a great touchdown pass to Del Shofner followed by another to Joe Morrison. The crowd went wild and the Steelers fought back with a field goal and a touchdown.
At half time some of the players from the specialist teams came over to say “Hi!” but Y.A. and the others stayed away. The game was tight. Halfway through the 3rd quarter Y.A. was sacked just in front of us on a third down play. As he was leaving the field he walked close to my wheelchair looking dazed and shaken. I called out to him with a few words of encouragement but they were lost in the noise from the crowd. He didn’t even look at the young fan in the wheelchair with a broken leg. Y.A. had other things to think about.
On his return to the field Y.A. threw a touchdown pass to Joe Morrison and then Morrison scored another touchdown from the one yard line. Pittsburgh came back with a touchdown but the Giants defensive team held them to 17 points. The Giants scored a late field goal and easily won the game 33-17. The crowd roared for several minutes as the Giants had clinched the Eastern Conference title with the win over Pittsburgh. The Giants celebrated the win and Y.A. was engulfed by players, coaches and their assistants. He had thrown 36 TD’s and 14 interceptions during his finest season with the Giants, won the league’s MVP award but didn’t come near the wheelchair patient on the sideline.
It took a long time to leave Yankee Stadium after the game and it was dark and cold as the doctor struggled with the wheelchair through the crowd heading for the 161st Street subway station. We had decided to find our own way back to the hospital where he could remove the plaster cast from my leg. The crowd was too big for us so we decided to go to an Irish bar to wait for the crowd to get away. The bar was full of happy Giants fans but they found room for the wheelchair and a cold, tired doctor. He had been standing all afternoon. Some even bought us drinks from the bar as we happily joined in the celebrations. It was late at night before the happy fans began to head for the subway. I thought it was time for us to go and looked around for my doctor friend. He wasn’t among the thinning crowd so I thought he had gone to the bathroom to prepare for the subway ride. Something I wasn’t able to do. There were few fans left when I wheeled the chair over to the bar and asked the bartender if my doctor was in the bathroom. The bartender replied with a smile: “Oh! he left some time ago with an attractive young lady he met at the bar.”
The Giants went on to the NFL Championship game and lost to the Chicago Bears 14-10 at Wrigley Field. The 1964 season was not a good one for the Giants or Y.A.. The Giants won 2 games, lost 10 and drew 2. Y.A. threw only 10 touchdown passes during the season and 22 interceptions. He was 38 years old and retired at the end of the season. While 1964 will be remembered as the worst year for the New York Giants, it also will be remembered for a sickening tackle on Y. A Tittle that convinced me helmets and pads were a good idea. On September 20, 1964 the Giants were in Pittsburgh to play the Steelers. They were ahead in the game when Y.A. dropped back to pass but he didn’t see Pittsburgh’s 280 pound end, John Baker, coming at him from the side. Baker sacked Y.A. and the ball was gathered by a Steeler defensive tackle who ran it into the end zone for a touchdown. The Steeler’s went on to win the game 27-24 and Y.A. suffered a concussion, cracked sternum and damaged rib cage muscles. As Y.A. kneeled down on the field, with blood running from his bald head, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photographer named Morris Berman captured the career-ending moment with a brilliant photograph. I watched that game on television and still have a copy of the photograph, which appeared in Sports Illustrated, as a momento of the day I almost met Y.A.