By: Craig Peters
One of the most surprising outcomes in NFL history was joined this month by one of the most improbable results — and Fran Tarkenton is central to both.
Tarkenton came off the bench in the Vikings inaugural game as a 21-year-old rookie and with Minnesota leading by three points. He left the playing field at Metropolitan Stadium after throwing four touchdowns and rushing for another, effectively launching the franchise — and Tarkenton's eventual Hall of Fame career — with a 37-13 win over the Chicago Bears on Sept. 17, 1961.
"There's a picture up there," Tarkenton says, referencing a wall in his office on the 23rd floor of this high-rise office tower in Buckhead, north of Atlanta. "That's [Norm] Van Brocklin in his white shirt and tie, and I'm right next to him. [Running back and 1961 No. 1 overall pick] Tommy Mason's up there and all the players.
"I would say that's the biggest upset in the history of the NFL," Tarkenton continues as he hosts Vikings consultant and friend of 30-plus years Bob Hagan, VEN Senior Producer of Original Content Nate Vaughn and myself on Friday, Nov. 3, two days before Tarkenton's Vikings will visit the Falcons.
"We beat the Rams that year, and we beat the Baltimore Colts. And their quarterback was my hero, John Unitas," Tarkenton said. "We beat them, and I out-threw him."
The prelude to that Vikings-Bears game made the upset even more unexpected, considering …
The 1960 Cowboys, who had preceded the Vikings as an expansion squad, had gone 0-11-1 and been outscored 369 to 177 in the previous season. Although the Cowboys took the eventual NFL Champion Eagles to the wire in a 2-point loss in Week 2, Dallas lost games by 41, 38, 25 and 34 that season.
During Minnesota's first preseason, the Vikings were outscored 116 to 50 over the course of five games (all losses).
The Bears franchise, which helped launch the NFL in 1920 under the guidance of Founder/Owner/Player/Coach George Halas, entered the 1961 season with a record of 325-139-36. Halas was beginning his 34th season on the sidelines.
Minnesota was being coached by Van Brocklin, who had led the Eagles to the 1960 NFL Championship and earned MVP honors at quarterback less than a calendar year earlier.
History in the making
The Vikings nearly didn't land Tarkenton.
In 1961, while the United States was involved in "The Space Race," the NFL was in its second year of competition from the upstart American Football League. Both leagues held drafts and engaged in bidding wars for top prospects.
After starring at the University of Georgia (and Athens High School), Tarkenton was drafted by the Vikings with their third-round pick, as well as by the Boston Patriots in the fifth round of the AFL Draft. Although the Patriots offered a $17,500 contract with a $5,000 bonus, Tarkenton, who already was savvy in the business world, was slightly leery of the AFL and accepted a $12,500 contract with a $3,000 bonus from the Vikings.
"I'm not very smart, I guess, because I took the lesser offer," he quipped before elaborating.
"I didn't know who the Boston Patriots were. They had played one year, and I didn't know who the Minnesota Vikings were, but I knew they were the NFL," Tarkenton said. "And so that's how I became a Viking. And thank God I didn't sign with the Patriots."
Though it wasn't smooth sailing all the way. Tarkenton said Van Brocklin was "just brilliant" when it came to football, but there's plenty of documentation of his volatility.
"After we'd gone 0-5 [in the preseason with veteran George Shaw starting at quarterback], Van Brocklin said to me, 'Kid,' — you can hear Van Brocklin's irascible gravel in Tarkenton's retelling — 'I'm going to start you this week.'
"I said, 'You are?'
"Are you up to it?"
"I said, 'Hell yeah, I'm up to it, let's go! But I want to come to your house every night this week, and we'll look at the films," Tarkenton recalled.
So Tarkenton studied, peppering the nine-time Pro Bowler with questions about the Bears team and scheme.
"We called our own plays," Tarkenton said. "We didn't have a coach in our ear who read the defense, so I told him, 'I want you to coach me how I have got to call the plays, the audibles, why this against this defense, why that against that defense.'
"He taught me well, and I was so prepared, ready to go, ready to play," Tarkenton added. "I get to the stadium and he says, 'Kid,' — more gravel — 'I have to play George Shaw because he's a veteran. And, you know, I've got to give him a chance.'
"Well, I didn't really understand that, but that's the way it was," Tarkenton said.
It wasn't the way things stayed.
By the second quarter, Tarkenton had entered his first NFL game, and he threw his first career touchdown before halftime.
"He put me in, and you know how scared I was? Not at all," Tarkenton answered his own question. "I was prepared. When you prepare, you're not scared."
He finished 17-of-23 passing for 250 yards with four touchdowns (on his way to an NFL record 342 when he retired in 1978) and a passer rating of 148.6. He rushed four times for 11 yards, which included his first of 32 rushing touchdowns.
The trees that stretch for miles and miles, surrounding the sprawl of Buckhead and nearby Atlanta skyline, still are greener than any other color. The sun works its way around Tarkenton's office as he winds through Vikings history — moments he's enriched personally — and offers assessments of the current squad.
Earlier that week, Kirk Cousins had been lost for the season to an Achilles injury — after playing some of the best football of his career.
Cousins has been a guest of Tarkenton in this space to ask the Hall of Famer plenty of questions, similar to the way Tarkenton soaked up information decades ago during offseason visits with Sid Luckman, Otto Graham, Unitas and Y.A. Tittle.
Might as well learn from four Hall of Famers on the way to joining their busts in Canton.
Tarkenton remains known for his zig-zagging and whirling scrambles, but he also held every major passing record in the NFL when he retired in 1978.
"When you block for Fran Tarkenton, you really have to be on the go," center Mick Tingelhoff said during an interview early in his Hall of Fame career. "You have to maintain contact with your man all the time because when Fran passes you, he'll probably be back again."
Tarkenton spoke on Tingelhoff's behalf during his friend's 2015 enshrinement shortly after that video clip played.
It was hardly the first time Tarkenton had handled public speaking duties and impressed a crowd. After all, he had transcended from sports into pop culture and business.
Back in Minnesota on this Week 9 Friday, the Vikings were in a scramble drill of their own.
Rookie Jaren Hall prepared to make his first career start in place of Cousins with quarterbacks coach Chris O'Hara, and newly acquired backup Joshua Dobbs was working extra hours with Vikings assistant quarterbacks coach Grant Udinski for a just-in-case appearance.
The team traveled to Atlanta Saturday, and Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell invited Tarkenton to speak to the current Vikings ahead of facing the Falcons in a potentially pivotal NFC game.
Tarkenton brought the game ball he received from Minnesota's Inaugural Game and made an impression on the current team, which prevailed 31-28 the following day in utterly improbable fashion.
Hall started and looked like the moment wasn't too big for him. He completed five of six passes, guiding Minnesota down the field and into scoring range on his second NFL possession. But his day ended when he suffered a concussion while scrambling to the 1-yard line on third-and-goal.
The Vikings kicked a field goal to tie the game at 3 with 2:20 remaining in the first quarter.
After Atlanta punted and pinned the Vikings at their own 7-yard line early in the second quarter, Minnesota turned to Dobbs, who was sacked in the end zone for a safety on his third snap.
Dobbs' seventh snap for his new team ended with a fumble during a strip sack. The Falcons returned the ball to the Minnesota 1 where Josh Oliver's hustle forced Lorenzo Carter out of bounds. Minnesota's defense limited the Falcons to their third field goal of the day.
Dobbs led a touchdown drive on his next opportunity, converting a third-and-11 with a deep pass to Jordan Addison and picking up a third-and-10 with an 11-yard scramble.
The Falcons, led by former Vikings backup Taylor Heinicke (he never played a regular-season game for Minnesota but also has been a guest at Tarkenton's office), built a 21-13 lead that Dobbs and the Vikings erased in the third quarter with a tying 18-yard touchdown run by Dobbs and 2-point conversion pass to Trishton Jackson.
Minnesota added a field goal but was unable to supplement that lead early in the fourth quarter and found itself down — but not out — after a 79-yard touchdown drive by the Falcons that lasted 6:58 and put Atlanta up 28-24 with 2:08 remaining.
The Vikings advanced to the Atlanta 34 and faced fourth-and-7 with 52 seconds remaining. Dobbs escaped the grasp and zoomed for a gain of 22. He found Brandon Powell for the winning score with 22 seconds remaining — a truly special finish for Dobbs, who grew up north of Atlanta in Alpharetta and watched plenty of Michael Vick and Matt Ryan highlights during his youth.
In one drive, Dobbs embodied the best of Vick (elusiveness) and Ryan (2-minute drill mastery) while channeling Tarkenton and implementing tips from O'Connell speaking into his helmet's headset — a memorable debut with Dobbs' family in attendance. He gave his jersey to his mom. She and Dobbs' father have been to every game, even the ones the former NASA intern had a near zero chance of playing in during his college and pro career.
O'Connell led Vikings teammates in creating a celebratory gauntlet for Dobbs to cruise through upon his return to the locker room and presented him a game ball.
Between winning his first Vikings start the following week against New Orleans and opening last week's game at Denver, we asked Dobbs about Tarkenton speaking to the team in Atlanta. He grinned widely.
"It was absolutely legendary. He talked about how he's Fran Tarkenton and called his own plays during his career," Dobbs said. "Shoot, he installed the no-huddle and up-tempo passing offense that you see around the NFL. Just hearing his story, hearing his enthusiasm, Fran brought the energy, and we definitely used it on that Sunday.
"It was really cool having him there, just seeing how different the footballs were then to what they are now was pretty night and day, but Fran's a legend," Dobbs added. "We all know the type of player he was, and his energy is electric, so it was pretty cool to have a comparable story to his first time coming in a game."