On Oct. 28, 1962, New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle equaled the National Football League (NFL) record for touchdown passes in a single game by throwing seven against the Washington Redskins.
But “The Bald Eagle,” as Tittle was fondly known, was not the first Texan to join one of pro football’s most exclusive fraternities. Ten years earlier, Adrian Burk had also pulled off the same amazing feat.
Born in Mexia, Adrian Matthew Burk played his high school ball at tiny Joinerville in the East Texas county of Rusk. Despite the small size of his Friday night stage, he showed sufficient promise for the head coach at Baylor to invest a scholarship in him.
Sadly for Burk, he arrived at Waco in the middle of the Bears’ epic championship drought. Baylor had last won a Southwest Conference title in 1924 and would not claim another until 1974.
Burk did, however, play on a pair of better-than-average Baylor squads. As the starting signal-caller in 1948, he led the Baptists to a 5-3-2 record and a 20-7 victory over Wake Forest in the Dixie Bowl, their first post-season appearance. The next season, Baylor improved to an 8-2 record and he was selected All-SWC quarterback.
Taken in the first round of the NFL draft by the Colts, Burk bided his time in Baltimore before being traded to the Philadelphia. In 1954, his fourth year with the Eagles, he split quarterback duties with Bobby Thomason until an October afternoon.
When Burk connected on one TD pass in the first period and two more in the second, the Eagles coach decided to let him stay in the game. It was only after he ran his total to six in the fourth quarter that Thomason took his place.
The clock was ticking down, when the Eagles publicity director discovered Burk needed just one more touchdown pass to tie Sid Luckman’s record set in 1943. The Baylor grad grabbed his helmet, ran back on the field and a few plays later earned his place in the archives of professional football.
Burk retired after the 1956 season, returned to his alma mater for a law degree and later became an NFL referee. As a member of the officiating crew working the Oakland-Pittsburg playoff game in 1971, he was the first to signal a touchdown after Franco Harris’ “immaculate reception.”
Texas’ loss was LSU’s gain, when Yelberton Abraham Tittle, Jr., the blue-chip prospect who led Marshall to the state finals, chose the Tigers over UT.
Despite his decision to attend an out-of-state school, the two-time All-Southeast Conference quarterback still realized a boyhood dream of playing in Dallas on New Year’s Day. The temperature never got out of the twenties at the 1947 Cotton Bowl, the coldest ever held, as LSU and Arkansas battled to a scoreless draw in a snowstorm.
Even though the Detroit Lions used their first-round draft pick for Y.A., he signed with the Baltimore Colts of the short-lived All-American Football Conference in 1948. He came out of the gate with guns blazing passing for 2,799 yards and winning “Rookie of the Year” honors.
But Baltimore’s first professional football franchise folded for financial reasons after consecutive 1-11 seasons. Everyone on the defunct team’s roster was allowed to enter the 1951 NFL draft, and the San Francisco 49ers jumped at the chance to take Tittle.
After a two-year struggle, he finally beat out Frankie Albert for the job of starting quarterback. The next season the 49ers introduced their “Million Dollar Backfield” with four future members of the Hall of Fame: Tittle at QB, fullbacks John Henry Johnson and Joe Perry and halfback Hugh McElhenny. But an NFL championship somehow exceeded their high-priced grasp, and much of the blame was pinned on the prematurely bald Texan in spite of his impressive numbers.
So in August 1961, San Francisco traded Tittle to the New York Giants in the firm belief that at age 34 he was past his prime. Rather than retire, which he had seriously considered during the off-season, he vowed to prove the 49ers wrong.
Tittle did that and a lot more. Under his never-say-die leadership, the Giants won the Eastern Division three straight seasons. And even though they came up short in championship bouts with the Packers (1961 and 1962) and the Bears (1963), Y.A. ensured his immortality as one of the greatest passers in the history of the sport. His record of 36 touchdown passes in 1963, his next-to-last season, stood for more than two decades.
Nothing says more about Y.A. Tittle, the man and the football legend, than the Nov. 20, 1964 photograph taken of him kneeling with a bloody face after a vicious tackle knocked off his helmet. This picture hangs in the lobby of the National Press Photographers Association headquarters next to the Iwo Jima flag-raising and the “Hindenburg” disaster.
What this photo does not show is Tittle rising to his feet and finishing the game.