Football

The surprising connection between a former Wake sheriff and NFL great YA Tittle

In this 1964 photo, New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle kneels after being sacked by John Baker of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tittle, the Hall of Fame quarterback and 1963 NFL Most Valuable Player, has died. He was 90.
In this 1964 photo, New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle kneels after being sacked by John Baker of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tittle, the Hall of Fame quarterback and 1963 NFL Most Valuable Player, has died. He was 90. AP

Hundreds of photos were taken of quarterback Y.A Tittle during his Hall of Fame career in the NFL.

One is iconic: A dazed Tittle on his knees in the end zone, helmet off, blood trickling from his balding head.

Tittle died Sunday night at 90 and the photo will forever reflect an aging athlete nearing the end of his career, alone, bowed, defeated.

Few may realize that the photo, taken by the late Morris Berman, has a Raleigh connection. John Baker was a fierce NFL defensive lineman before returning to Raleigh to become the Wake County Sheriff and it was Baker who left Tittle down and dazed.

Baker, who died in 2007 at 72, was playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers in September 1964 when he flattened Tittle during a game against Tittle’s New York Giants in Pittsburgh. Tittle, then 37, later said he suffered a broken sternum and a concussion when he was slammed to the turf.

In an interview with the News & Observer’s Ned Barnett, Baker explained the play this way:

“The only thing I say to people was, ‘I was doing my job.’ There was nothing illegal about it. Being a defensive end, a defensive lineman, my primary responsibility was to get the quarterback.”

“Your primary duty is to get that passer, that quarterback. And when you get him, you try to make sure he is not ready for the next play,”

At 6-6 and 279 pounds, Baker had a penchant for getting to the quarterback. The former N.C. Central star played in the NFL for 11 years.

But Baker, in the interview, noted he wasn’t the only player from Raleigh involved in the play. The Giants were attempting to set up a screen pass and the offensive tackle allowed Baker room to freely rush Tittle as he set up to block for the screen.

“So what was I going to do? Just stand there and do nothing?” Baker said. “You give me a clear shot at the quarterback, and that’s what I’ve been wanting all the time, I’m going to take advantage of it. And when I did, I just went into him full force and hit him.

“He just threw the ball up. The defensive tackle, Chuck Hinton, who also was from Raleigh, intercepted it and went in for a touchdown. For me, that was the beautiful part of the whole play. Hinton intercepted and went in for a touchdown, and we beat the Giants that year.”

Hinton, a defensive lineman who also played at N.C. Central before a nine-year NFL career, died in 1999.

Tittle, a college star at LSU, began his NFL career with the Baltimore Colts and then played for the San Francisco 49ers. His final four seasons were with the Giants, who were beaten in the NFL title game by Green Bay in 1961 and ’62.

Tittle was named NFL MVP in 1963, named to seven Pro Bowls and the first NFL player to make the cover of Sports Illustrated. When he retired, he held several NFL records including career passing yards and career passing touchdowns.

Tittle’s last year was 1964. He later said it took a long time to get over Baker’s hit.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2008, Tittle said, “That was the end of the road. It was the end of my dream.”

Chip Alexander: 919-829-8945, @ice_chip

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