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In a game with the Colts, Tarkenton completed a screen pass, his first in pro football. In his excitement he forgot Van Brocklin's warning and stopped to watch the play. Billy Ray Smith, one of the Colt defensive tackles, promptly hung him on a clothesline—whipped him across the face with an extended arm.
He was led to the sideline with a bloody nose and only a vague idea of where he was. As he lay down to try to recover his senses, Van Brocklin walked over and looked at him.
"Welcome, kid," he said. "Welcome to the National Football League."
"Right now," says Van Brocklin, "Tarkenton is only this far from being the best." He held up his thumb and forefinger half an inch apart. "All he needs is the experience."
Entering this season, the Vikings as a team are only that same half inch from a championship. This is the soundest, deepest team the Dutchman has had. His only real lack is depth in the offensive and defensive lines and in running backs. The starters are very good starters, but their replacements are not.
He is exceptionally well stocked at quarterback. Behind Tarkenton is Ron Vander Kelen, much the same kind of quarterback and one of the best second quarterbacks in the league. And the Vikings have a rookie from Van Brocklin's alma mater, Oregon, who may be another Van Brocklin in time. He is Bob Berry, a rather small man with poise and an accurate, strong arm. Tarkenton and Vander Kelen are 25: Berry is 22. The Vikings should be solid at the most important position in pro football for years to come.
In Bill Brown and Tommy Mason, Van Brocklin has as good a pair of running backs as any team, including Green Bay and Cleveland. Mason has been a star since his rookie year, but the stubby Brown did not develop until last season.
"He improved 200% in one year," Van Brocklin says. "I can't really understand how he did it, except that he worked hard."
One of Van Brocklin's assistants had another explanation. "Bill was a kid who had to be handled gently," he said. "He didn't react well to being chewed out, so Dutch went the other way. He made it a point to praise Brown."
Whatever the reason, Brown now ranks with Jim Taylor as a fullback. Van Brocklin feels that he is the equal of Jimmy Brown—and a better blocker. Behind Brown is Bill McWatters, who is good but not exceptional.