I am no more superstitious than the next man (the next man happens to hail from the Cameroons and is crouched on his hams shrinking his uncle's head over a slow fire).
Y.A. Tittle may never have made a voodoo doll to ruin Otto Graham's passing arm, but he was as superstitious as the next quarterback. He wore the same pair of leather shoulder pads throughout his 17 seasons in the NFL; he sat in the same seat in the back of the team bus; he stuck to high-top shoes when just about everyone else in the pros had changed to low ones. "I had all kinds of little rituals that were sort of stupid," he says.
Tittle hasn't needed so many mystical rituals to become a successful insurance broker in San Francisco. But they help explain his fascination with totems, fetishes and folk art from around the world.
Tittle's wife, Minnette, is a trustee of the Folk Art International, a nonprofit foundation that plans to start a folk art museum in the Bay Area. She got Tittle interested in folklore and primitive art. "Minnette loves to travel and pick up these huge statues," Tittle says. "I just follow her around with a checkbook."
Their first expedition on behalf of the museum was to New Guinea, in 1979. "Y.A. was reluctant to go when he heard there might be liver flukes in the river," says fellow trustee Ray Handley, a San Francisco developer. "His idea of folk art was to go home to Texas and buy baskets. But tell Minnette you're going where savages eat Texans for breakfast, and she's ready to go."
Since then, the Tittles have ventured into remote parts of China, Tibet and Mexico and the hills and hollows of North Carolina. And along the way they've picked up enough artifacts to make even Claude Levi-Strauss envious. Most of the collection is stored in two huge warehouses on the Bay. The Tittle cache includes an Indonesian circumcision chair; a 35-foot Asian cedar dugout canoe from New Guinea carved in the shape of a crocodile; ceremonial rain-dance and death masks from the Guerrero province of Mexico; and Appalachian brooms, quilts and dough bowls. There's even a chiefs staff that's supposed to make you invisible, which Tittle might have found useful in the 1961 championship game, which his New York Giants lost 37-0 to Green Bay.
Of all the Tittle treasure hunts, the one to New Guinea was his favorite. He saw the famed Asaro Mudmen, who he says looked not unlike his former teammates after three quarters in a steady rain. But the customs of the New Guinean Highlanders differed from those found on any football field, where the pigskin is only incidental to human sacrifice. In New Guinea, the humans roast the whole pig in honor of their ancestral ghosts, and warriors disdain helmets and face masks in favor of feather headdresses and nose plugs fashioned from the hollow bones of the cassowary.
Tittle was on hand for several "paybacks," a form of Highland retribution in which members of warring tribes avenge the wrongs done to them by taking the same action against their enemy, be it stealing a pig, or even committing a murder—burning huts in these cases. But Tittle was undaunted. "I had more fear looking across the line of scrimmage and seeing Ray Nitschke inches from my nose," he says.
While visiting one village. Tittle played catch with the children, using a tennis ball. The chief joined in. Tittle sharpened up his tosses. He worried that if the ball hit the chief in the head, there might be trouble. Tittle didn't want to be sacked, even by a vegetarian tribe. He aimed more carefully than when he used to throw to Del Shofner. "I didn't want to embarrass the chief before his people," Tittle says. The chief clapped his hands around the ball, and the village cheered. "That was one ball Y.A. really wanted to be caught," says Minnette.
"What New Guinea needs is a nonviolent sport," Tittle says reflectively. "Rather than having tribal wars and putting on all that paint and running across the hills and getting mad at each other, maybe they could put on a colorful uniform and play baseball."
Not football? The former NFL potentate shakes his head sagely. "No," he says, "football should be broken to a country later."