Fran Tarkenton"The Scrambler"
I was the only kid in junior high with one. My father had driven me 103 miles to the West Acres shopping center in Fargo, N.D. so that I could have one. I wore it almost every day. The only days I didn't, my mother had somehow made off with it so that it was drying when it was time to leave for school.
It was a Tarkenton Viking jersey. And as a youngster I emulated every twisting, turning, scramble that Tarkenton made on the field and parlayed that into our neighborhood games. I was the only kid with a Tarkenton jersey so naturally I was made quarterback for all the games.
As a child, Tarkenton enjoyed playing games that he thought up. There was one Tarkenton especially preferred. He would cut out pictures of college and professional football players and form two teams. Then he lined up the players by position and played an imaginary game. Sammy Baugh, the great Washington Redskins quarterback in the 1940's, was one of Tarkenton's favorites. During these games, Tarkenton imagined he was a quarterback too.
Tarkenton was always using his head which became a useful quality for someone not especially big and strong. His father was a Methodist preacher who was very strict. No one smoked, drank alcohol, or cursed in the Tarkenton home. Everyone went to church regularly.
But that did not mean that Tarkenton wasn't allowed to play football. The Tarkentons moved from Richmond, Va., where Tarkenton was born on February 3, 1940, to Washington, D.C. Later they moved to Athens, Ga., where at the age of 11, Tarkenton tried out for his elementary school team. Athens is the site for the University of Georgia, deep in the heart of football country. Just the kind of place a new Slingin' Sammy Baugh could get a initiation.
It seemed only natural that Tarkenton try out for quarterback at Athens High School. Despite being small for his age, he became a starter when he was in the 9th grade. Two years later as a junior, Tarkenton led Athens to an unbeaten season and a chance to win the Georgia state title against Valdosta
Not only was he the quarterback, but Tarkenton ran back kickoffs too. And on the opening kickoff of the game, he ran it back for a touchdown. Before his teammates could celebrate however, they noticed that a penalty flag had been thrown. The touchdown did not count.
So Tarkenton simply ran back the next kickoff for a touchdown. This time there were no penalty flags. Athens went on to win the state title. Afterward, Tarkenton revealed that he had played the entire season with a separated shoulder. Unfortunately he and his team had a discouraging season his senior year. His confidence was crushed. He enrolled at Georgia, but he wondered if he would even make the freshman team.
Because Athens was his home, Tarkenton felt comfortable in college when many of his fellow freshmen were homesick. His freshman coach, Quinton Lumkin, restored his confidence on the football field. Although the freshmen played only three games, Tarkenton was outstanding and showed head coach Wally Butts he was ready to start for the upperclassmen.
In 1958, Tarkenton's sophomore year, he began the season as the third string quarterback. It seemed he would have to wait his turn. In the opening game against Texas, Georgia was losing in the third quarter, 7-0, and the offense had sputtered to a stop. While coach Butts watched, frustrated, from the sideline, Tarkenton walked over to him and pleaded, "Let me go in. I can move the team."
Butts said nothing. Then Georgia regained possession, and this time Tarkenton did not ask to play again. He just ran onto the field, pretending not to hear Butts yelling at him to get off the field. It was too late for Butts to stop him. Tarkenton went on to move Georgia 95 yards to a touchdown. After the two-point conversion, his team led 8-7.
Coach Butts was angry though. He had not given Tarkenton permission to play. Tarkenton knew he should not have taken matters into his own hands. When Georgia got the football again, Tarkenton was back on the bench. The Bulldogs lost that game, and a young man had learned a valuable lesson. Tarkenton could not expect to become a leader unless he was willing to listen to directions.
Tarkenton had too much talent and intelligence to stay on the bench for long. By the middle of that 1958 season he was the starting quarterback. The next year, he became an All-Southeast Conference selection and led Georgia to a 14-0 victory over Missouri in the Orange Bowl. Life was wonderful off the field as well. Tarkenton met a girl named Elaine at a party on campus. She was a majorette in the band. "I just found the right girl," he told a friend. She would soon become his wife.
Before the start of the 1960 season, Tarkenton's senior year, he was picked as an All-American. Many teams in the NFL had their eye on him. People were no longer saying that he was too small to be a professional quarterback. He was 6-1 and weighed 190.
But exemplary quarterbacks need help too. In his last year at Georgia, Tarkenton didn't get much help. Nor was it the best season he ever had. Georgia slipped to a 6-4 record. Now the scouts weren't so sure. The Minnesota Vikings, a first year team in the NFL, picked Tarkenton in the third round of the NFL draft. "I don't think Coach Butts thinks I can make it in the pros," Tarkenton said. "I'm going to prove them all wrong."
The Vikings were a collection of rookies, free agents, and veterans not wanted by other teams. Norm Van Brocklin, who had been an excellent quarterback in his day, was the coach. He chose George Shaw, a veteran who had taken plenty of poundings, as his first-string signal caller. "Look, Tarkenton," Van Brocklin told the rookie, "we want to bring you along slowly."
On the Tuesday before the opening game of the 1961 season, though, Van Brocklin was wavering. "I think I'll start you," he told Tarkenton. By Friday he had changed his mind again. It didn't matter though, Tarkenton was primed.
George Shaw started the first game the Vikings ever played, but he didn't last for long. Early in the first quarter Tarkenton, number 10, trotted onto the field to face the savage Chicago Bears' defense. Minnesota was playing at home, and the Viking fans feared the rookie would get his lumps.
Instead he led the Vikings to an amazing 37-13 victory. Tarkenton was brilliant as he artfully dodged the Bears' defensive front four all afternoon. Just when it looked as if he would be tackled, he would squirm out of the grasp of the defense. In those days a quarterback was expected to stay in the protective pocket formed by his blockers, but Tarkenton repeatedly left the pocket and frustrated the Bears.
It was that way all season as Tarkenton scampered here and there, confounding his opponents with a mixture of passes and runs. He finished eighth in the NFL in passing and threw 18 touchdown passes. And because of his running ability, he rushed for 308 yards and five touchdowns. The Vikings only won three games, but they were an exciting team that gained respect from their competitors.
Unfortunately the Vikings did not improve in 1962. Their record, in fact, was 2-11-1, worse than their first year. And the fans who had warmed to the gutsy little quarterback from Georgia during the previous cold Minnesota winter were now turning against Tarkenton. The young man could not quite understand it.
There was one game in which the fans began to chant for John McCormick, Tarkenton's understudy. Norm Van Brocklin sent in McCormick. As Tarkenton walked to the sidelines, he felt embarrassed and alone. Hugh McElhenny, the veteran running back, put his arm around Tarkenton and consoled him. "You've made it now, kid," he said. "They've booed you and you've been replaced. You're an NFL quarterback."
It was a tough year of breaks for Tarkenton. In a game against the Baltimore Colts, he was knocked unconscious by defensive back Wendell Harris. It took a while for Tarkenton to regain his senses.
That did not stop Tarkenton from running the ball, however. He continued to bewilder the opposition with his unorthodox style. In the 1963 season he led the Vikings to five victories, but in 1964 the team was maturing and seemed ready to challenge Baltimore and Green Bay for the Western Conference title.
The Vikings were playing the Packers, and Tarkenton, already had begun to be called "The Scrambler." Late in the game the Vikings trailed, 23-21, and the situation seemed hopeless. There was less than a minute left, fourth down and 22 yards to go. In the huddle, Tarkenton told his teammates: "We've got to do something drastic. All you receivers run down field twenty-five yards. I'll scramble around until I find one of you open."
It was the first time Tarkenton actually called a scramble. And it worked. He ran around and threw a desperation pass that Gordie Smith caught for a first down in Green Bay territory. Shortly afterward, Fred Cox kicked a field goal to give Minnesota a 24-23 victory. The Vikings won eight games that season and tied for second in the conference.
Now the Vikings were contenders. The experts picked them to win the Western title, but they finished only 7-7 in 1965 and the first hints of a falling out between Van Brocklin and Tarkenton began to surface.
The coach was an old-fashioned type who had never gotten accustomed to Tarkenton's scrambling. But as long as the Vikings won, Van Brocklin would not try to make his quarterback change. For his part, Tarkenton was headstrong and stubborn. He felt he knew how to run the offense better than his coach.
In 1966 the Vikings landed with a thud. They won only four games. Van Brocklin threatened to quit and Tarkenton asked to be traded. The two tried to settle their differences and even hugged and vowed to make the Vikings champions. But during the off-season Tarkenton realized this was wishful thinking.
So Tarkenton wrote a letter to the Vikings' board of directors requesting a trade. And they accommodated him. He was traded to the New York Giants for three number one draft choices. He was going to the big city.
Could the son of a preacher live the fast life in New York? Tarkenton could. With his easy manner and pleasant personality, he adjusted easily. New York suited him fine. He went to the fancy restaurants, he dressed in the latest styles, and he compared notes with Joe Namath, the playboy quarterback of the New York Jets.
On the field, however, nothing had changed. The Giants had won only one game in 1966 and their prospects were not good, but with Tarkenton at quarterback, they won seven games in 1967 and rekindled the fans' hopes. They won seven games again the following year before dropping to a 6-8 record in 1969. Still disappointing for team with a great past, but at least Tarkenton had made the Giants respectable again.
The high point of Tarkenton's New York experience came in 1970, when he led the Giants to their best season in seven years. On the final Sunday they fought for a playoff berth in a game against the Rams.
The Giants lost, however, and their 9-5 record seemed like a mirage. "Without Tarkenton," said defensive end Fred Dryer, "I don't think we would have won any games."
When the Giants fell to 4-10 in 1971, Tarkenton had sensed that he had outlived his usefulness in New York. He was 32 years old and had never played for a legitimate contender. Once again he was at odds with management, this time disagreeing with Giants coach Alex Webster. In a trade that made both sides happy, Tarkenton was sent back to the Vikings.
But these weren't the old Vikings. The new team had won four division titles in a row. Coach Bud Grant felt that a veteran quarterback like Tarkenton was the key to winning the Super Bowl. Tarkenton was thrilled.
"To be able to able to play on a team like this is fun," he told friends. "I don't care how much money you're making; if you don't win, the game is a drag."
For Tarkenton, however, there would be still another test of his will and confidence. In 1972 the best the Vikings could do was a 7-7 record. Tarkenton kept moving up on the all-time list of quarterbacks, but he had not yet been in the playoffs.
The years of frustration ended in 1973. The Vikings finished with a 12-2 record and won the Central Division title in the National Conference. They defeated the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs to advance to Super Bowl VIII. Tarkenton was on top of the world.
Now no one was making fun of scrambling quarterbacks. In fact, many teams began to draft quarterbacks who could run as well as pass. "People looked down on scrambling quarterbacks when I broke in," Tarkenton said, "but now those who can't scramble are at a disadvantage."
Miami defeated the Vikings, 24-7, in the Super Bowl, but Tarkenton had gotten a taste of the playoffs and promised to be back. He and the Vikings returned the next year to face the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl IX. Once again a magnificent season was spoiled when the powerful Steelers won 16-6. This time Tarkenton was more disappointed. "I wanted to win a championship desperately," he said. "It's probably what I want more than anything in the world. But I don't, I won't kill myself."
In 1975 Tarkenton again led the Vikings to a 12-2 record and was voted Most Valuable Player in the NFL, but Dallas beat the Vikings early in the playoffs. In 1976 their amazing string of successes continued as Tarkenton, now a mature pro of 36, led his team to Super Bowl XI against the Oakland Raiders. People seemed to sense that Tarkenton would not have that many more opportunities to win his championship.
He seemed more on edge than usual during Super Bowl week in Los Angeles. This was the Vikings' fourth appearance in the championship game - their third with Tarkenton. Even though they had had made it to the Super Bowl three times, the Vikings were called losers because they had not won. This time the Vikings promised it would be different. "This team has a new dimension," said coach Grant. "Emotion."
Late in the opening quarter, Minnesota's Fred McNeil did something no other team had done before, he blocked one of Ray Guy's punts. It put the ball on the Oakland 3-yard line. A Minnesota touchdown would put the Vikings ahead for the first time in a Super Bowl game.
But Brent McClanahan fumbled and Oakland then drove 90 yards to set up a field goal by Errol Mann.
From there, the Raiders rolled up 16-0 lead before Tarkenton got off a touchdown pass to Sammy White. It was not enough to change the outcome and Oakland won the game handily, 32-14.
In both 1977 and 1978 the Vikings barely squeezed into the playoffs and were eliminated before getting to the Super Bowl. When 1979 approached, Tarkenton had made up his mind that it was his final season - championship or no championship. "I've played this game since I was eleven years old, he said. "I don't want to hang around for a paycheck. You wake up and you're thirty-nine and you know it's time to move on."
Football was a game for younger men. Tarkenton did not want to become an aging instructor for a promising newcomer. The Vikings finished 7-9 in 1979, but once again, it was not because Tarkenton had failed. During the year, he tutored Tommy Kramer, who became his successor, but Tarkenton never lost his job to him.
When the season ended, he formerly announced his retirement. He went on to manage his own successful business ventures in his hometown of Atlanta, become a television football announcer, and co-host of the series "That's Incredible."
In 18 years my boyhood hero had played more games (257) at his position than anyone else. He had surpassed legends like Johnny Unitas and Sammy Baugh - his boyhood hero - to become the all-time leader in completion's, yardage gained, and touchdown passes. He never won a championship, but Viking coach Bud Grant said, "He is the greatest quarterback ever to play this game."
And for a time in the early 1970s a young boy could be seen in a North Dakota vacant lot, purple #10 jersey standing out as he quarterbacked his neighborhood team to victory. Cherished memories for the Vikings all-time cherished player.
Columnist's note: In May 1996, Tarkenton traveled to San Antonio on a Sunday,
and had a total shoulder replacement surgery on his right shoulder at University
Hospital. Dr. Charlie Rockwood of the Health Science Center in San Antonio TX
performed the surgery. The shoulder replacement was a result of his boyhood
injury, a separated shoulder, which had slowly deteriorated throughout his life.
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