What a crazy and tumultuous year it was! Many arenas of public life were rocked, by storms political and literal, by recriminations and distrust, by escalating wars and ethnic conflicts, tarnished by sexual assault revealations, buffeted by the rising nationalist, racist, and toxic rhetoric. I thought we should end the year with a fitting image of exhaustion, resilience, and hope.
Y.A. Tittle, the quarterback for the New York Giants, who died earlier this year showed all those qualities in his last game as a pro footballer. 1964. It was Sept. 20, 1964, and ‘Big John’ Baker – 6-foot-7, 279-pound Pittsburgh Steelers lineman – had ploughed through him. Tittle, suffering from a concussion and bruised ribs, knelt in the end zone, his helmet gone and bleeding from two cuts on his forehead. He looked double his 37 years, many newspapers commented, and he soon retired.
The moment produced one of the most enduring images in sports, a photo which earned a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Adding to the humanity was the background: a handful of fans sitting on the lawn chairs at field level, and mostly empty end-zone bleachers. It encapsulated the agony of defeat so well that it was for the longest time one of only three pictures in the lobby of the National Press Photographers Association headquarters, alongside with the Iwo Jima and the Hindenburg photos.
The photo was above taken by Dozier Mobley covering the Steelers-Giants game for The Associated Press. Another photographer, Morris Berman, took an almost identical image for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but his editor refused to publish it ‘because of its lack of action’. Berman instead entered his photo in a contest later, and it won the 1964 National Headliner award for best sports photograph. Two versions of the photo are frequently mistaken for one another, not least by Tittle, who used the Berman photo and credited it to Mobley in his autobiography, Nothing Comes Easy: My Life in Football.
Mobley remembered that day inside the Pitt Stadium: “But I missed the best shot, we all did. After that picture, we put our cameras down. Then, there he was, looking up at the sky with a terrible grimace. And there was no time to get it.”
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