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Gold Jacket Spotlight: Fran Tarkenton Scrambles into Record Book

Gold Jacket Spotlight: Fran Tarkenton Scrambles into Record Book

05/09/2021
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Fran Tarkenton grew up the son of a Methodist minister.

“I went to church Wednesday night, Friday night, Sunday school Sunday mornings and then (to church) Sunday night,” he told Peyton Manning in an episode of “Peyton’s Places” in 2020. “That’s all I did was go to church.”

Fran didn’t see his first movie till age 18, didn’t drink and certainly never swore.

Opposing linemen let a few choice words fly, however, following their often futile attempts to trap Fran in the backfield for a sack. More often than not, he left them grasping at air as they were gasping for it.

“I always hated Tarkenton. I really did. That little wimp would run around out there for hours and hours and hours, and we had to chase him wherever he went,” Hall of Fame lineman Merlin Olsen told NFL Films with a glint in his eye as the only indication he wasn’t seriously bitter. “Sometimes you’d run 40 yards – back and forth, up and down the field. At the end of a game against Tarkenton, your tongue was right on the ground.”

Fran’s legacy as one of the game’s great quarterbacks and its first true scrambler is remembered this week in the Gold Jacket Spotlight.

“I wasn’t the biggest, strongest or fastest guy,” Fran told NFL Films, so all that scrambling “was borne out of self-preservation.”

Fran’s ability to twist, turn, juke and reset his feet – or throw on the move – were new to the NFL when he entered the league as the third-round draft pick of the expansion Minnesota Vikings in 1961. His skills at avoiding the same kind of direct pounding the game’s pocket passers absorbed resulted in 246 regular-season games played over a record-setting 18-year career. Despite standing only 6 feet tall and weighing no more than 190 pounds, he missed only five games due to injury.

In his first professional game, Fran accounted for all five touchdowns – four passes and a short run – in the 37-13 upset of the Chicago Bears. Only one other quarterback has passed for four touchdowns in his NFL debut (Marcus Mariotta in 2015).

The Vikings struggled that inaugural season, finishing with a 3-11 record, but win No. 2 came in mid-November against a Baltimore Colts team that featured several future Hall of Famers. Fran completed 11 of 18 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown and stung the Colts with 58 yards rushing and a score on 11 carries.

Hall of Fame defensive lineman Gino Marchetti wasn’t impressed, however, saying Fran’s style (and Fran himself) wouldn’t last in the NFL.

Fran survived, and he thrived in Minnesota – just not in his first stint with the Vikings. After six seasons, he was dealt to the New York Giants. He eclipsed 3,000 yards passing for the first time in 1967 and got the Giants to within one game of ending a long playoff drought in 1970, but the team and Fran both regressed in 1971, leaving both ready for a change.

During his absence from Minnesota, the Vikings built one of the league’s best defenses – the Purple People Eaters. The team reached Super Bowl IV but lost and flamed out early in the playoffs in other years. A common thread: Poor quarterback play.

The Vikings addressed the need by sending three players and two high draft choices to the Giants.

Fran responded with several of his best seasons, leading the Vikings to three Super Bowls in four years and six division titles. In 1975, he was named the league’s Most Valuable Player after leading the NFL in several categories and carrying Minnesota to an NFC-best 12-2 record.

Heading to New York to receive his MVP trophy, Fran was asked who he wanted to introduce him. He replied, “Gino Marchetti,” and to his credit, the former skeptic agreed.

When Fran retired after the 1978 season, he held every meaningful passing record, including attempts (6,467), completions (3,686), yards (47,003) and touchdown passes (342). Despite the proliferation of passing over the past several decades, each statistic still ranks no lower than 18th on the all-time list. He also rushed for at least one touchdown in 15 seasons – another NFL record – and ranks sixth in career rushing yards for a quarterback.

In his Enshrinement speech in 1986, Fran said he didn’t really want to be “a scrambler.”

“But if you look up here at some of the past enshrinees, you see Doug Atkins, Deacon Jones and Ray Nitschke, and they were trying to kill me, ladies and gentlemen. And that pocket got crowded, and I wanted to get out, and I did.”

Can we get an “amen”?

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