Del Shofner, one of pro football’s most brilliant pass receivers of his time, who combined with Y.A. Tittle to help propel the New York Giants to three consecutive league championship games in the early 1960s, died on Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 85.
His death was announced by his daughter Laurie Shofner Corwin, who said her father had died of natural causes. Shofner lived in Bradbury, Calif., but was for most of his life a resident of San Marino, Calif.
A tall, slim Texas native who could outrun and outmaneuver most any defensive back, Shofner revived his career in New York after the Los Angeles Rams had given up on him when he was only 26 years old. He went on to be named by the Pro Football Hall of Fame to the N.F.L’s all-decade team for the 1960s and was a five-time Pro Bowl player.
“We called him ‘Slim’ or ‘Blade,’ and when I think of him I think of Clint Eastwood,” Sam Huff, the Giants’ Hall of Fame middle linebacker, recalled in his memoir “Tough Stuff” (1988). “Lean and mean out on that field, great speed and better moves, with legs strong enough to break tackles and leap into the air.”
As Claude Crabb, a Washington Redskins defensive back, once put it: “If he has a pattern of any kind, it’s his weaving motion. It drives you crazy watching him dip in and dip out as he moves downfield. He’s so fast that if you make the wrong move you can’t recover.”
The Giants obtained Shofner and Tittle, his fellow Texan, two weeks apart. They got Tittle, the San Francisco 49ers’ star quarterback of the 1950s, in mid-August 1961 when he was 34 years old, sending the lineman Lou Cordileone to San Francisco in what became one of pro football’s most one-sided deals. They obtained Shofner from the Rams for two high draft picks after the newly arrived Tittle, whose 49ers had frequently faced the Rams, raved about him to the Giants’ owner, Wellington Mara.
The acquisition of Shofner and Tittle gave the Giants a long-range passing threat in an offense already featuring Kyle Role, Alex Webster and the aging quarterback Charlie Conerly in the backfield (with Frank Gifford to return in 1962 from his hit by the Philadelphia Eagles’ Chuck Bednarik in a 1960 game). Having won three conference titles and an N.F.L. championship in the second half of the 1950s, the Giants also had a new coach in Allie Sherman and were about to embark on Chapter 2 of their glory years.
The Tittle-to-Shofner long-distance passing plays thrilled Giants fans. Shofner, 6 feet 3 inches and 185 pounds or so and adept at going up over the outstretched arms of defenders, caught 68 passes, a single-season Giants record at the time, in 1961. When Tittle threw seven touchdown passes against the Redskins in an October 1962 game, Shofner, who snared one of them, had 11 receptions, tying Gifford’s single-game club mark, and he amassed 269 yards on pass receptions, still a Giants record.
He was the first Giant to gain at least 1,000 yards in receptions in a season, exceeding that milestone in each of his first three years with them.
The Giants went to the N.F.L. championship game in 1961, ’62 and ’63, but lost twice to the Green Bay Packers and then to the Chicago Bears. Shofner caught 32 touchdown passes while racking up more than 3,400 yards in that span.
“I was awfully sad to go,” he said of his trade from the Rams to the Giants, as he was quoted by Jim Baker and Bernard M. Corbett in their oral history “The Most Memorable Games in Giants History” (2010). “It took me probably a couple of months before I realized how lucky I was.”
Delbert Martin Shofner was born on Dec. 11, 1934, in Center, Texas. He played halfback at Baylor, starred as a sprinter and was named most valuable player in the 1957 Sugar Bowl game for his 54-yard run setting up a touchdown in a 13-7 upset of unbeaten Tennessee.
The Rams selected Shofner in the first round of the 1957 draft. After playing at defensive back, he was switched to split end in 1958 and gained a league-leading 1,097 yards in pass receptions. He had another fine season in 1959 but caught only 12 passes in 1960, when he battled ulcers and a leg injury, prompting the Rams to ship him to the Giants.
Awesome as it was, the Tittle-to-Shofner combination thrived for only three seasons. Tittle, whose leveling by a Pittsburgh Steelers lineman in a 1964 game was captured in a memorable photo, retired after that season. Shofner’s ulcers and leg injuries limited his play in his last four years as a Giant. He retired following the 1967 season with 349 career receptions for 51 touchdowns and nearly 6,500 yards.
He later owned a business selling ingredients for animal feed.
Shofner lived in San Marino for more than 50 years. His wife, Carol Shofner, died in September 2015.
He is survived by three children, Ms. Corwin, Stacey Shofner Gates and David Shofner, as well as five grandchildren.
Tittle became a celebrity in New York — the balding, often-battered warrior who found a second life in football and was later elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Shofner could not match Tittle’s charisma. But the Texan known as Slim, along with his teammate Charlie Conerly, graced billboards and magazines throughout the country. They were among the figures chosen to model as that American advertising icon of their day, the Marlboro Man.
Michael Levenson contributed reporting.