It’s one of the most iconic photos in sports history: a bloodied, helmetless Y.A. Tittle kneeling dejectedly on the field at old Pitt Stadium after throwing an interception in a September, 1964 New York Giants loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tittle, who suffered a concussion and a cracked sternum on the play but didn’t miss a game in what would be his last season, was so moved by the picture he put it on the back cover of his 2009 autobiography. True grit. You don’t quit.
The NFL’s meteoric rise in popularity has been fueled by our fascination with the courage of these modern day gladiators. Which is exactly why Jay Cutler is Chicago’s new whipping boy.
Imagine how his disappearing act would have played in the Bay Area. I was at the Meadowlands in 1987 watching Joe Montana get lifted into an ambulance on a stretcher after being knocked out cold by nose tackle Jim Burt in the 49ers’ worst-ever playoff loss 49-3 to the Giants.
Four years later, in a 15-13 loss to those same Giants at Candlestick Park in the NFC Championship, Super Joe took another vicious hit. The blindside blow from Leonard Marshall left Montana gasping for air with cracked ribs, a bruised sternum and a broken throwing hand. Montana would never start another game for the 49ers.
Steve Young was equally brazen, shaking off a series of concussions before one last devastating blow to the head ended his career in 1999, when Arizona Cardinals safety Aeneas Williams blew past Lawrence Phillips and blasted Young to the Arizona turf.
Aaron Rodgers played with a partially torn ACL for four years before secretly having reconstructive surgery following his sophomore season at Cal. Rodgers, who used to wear a No. 16 Montana T-shirt under his jersey, told me at the time he didn’t want people to think he was using the knee problem as an excuse for his less-than-stellar play.
Fully healthy in 2004, Rodgers led the Golden Bears to a 10-2 mark while completing an NCAA-record 26 straight passes against Oregon State and USC. Spitting blood after taking an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit from Julius Peppers in Sunday’s NFC Championship game, Rodgers took a standing eight count and kept fighting.
Now consider Cutler standing of the sideline with a grade-two MCL left knee sprain. Sure, he led the NFL by being sacked 52 times and missed only one start in four years, but there are defining moments in every career, and in the most important game of his life, he appeared indifferent about not playing. No ice pack. No crutches. No limp. Apparently no pain-blocking shot, and then no more?
Compare Cutler’s stunning exit to the ultimate competitor, Ronnie Lott. After getting hurt in the 49ers’ playoff-clinching win over the Cowboys in the final game of the 1985 regular season, Lott faced a terrible dilemma. Continue to have his play compromised by a damaged digit, or have the mangled tip of his left pinkie cut off. Ronnie played nine more seasons with an equal number of fingers. Many Bears fans in the Windy City are giving Cutler the one-finger salute, and it ain’t with a pinkie.
KGO (810 AM) Sports Director Rich Walcoff can be heard weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on the KGO morning news. He can be reached at RichWalcoff@gmail.com.