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Later on I learned that they were spotting the audibles by the expression on my face and the sound of my voice. And also by dead giveaways such as this one: I checked off to a play that would send the tight end out for a short pass, and I turned my head toward him as I called it so he'd be sure not to miss the call! Wasn't that brilliant? By the time that poor tight end got out there to take the pass, the four defensive backs, two assistant coaches and the lady who runs the Coke stand had him surrounded.
That game against the Bears marked the only time in my life that I was ever sort of hoping that the coach would take me out. But Van Brocklin wouldn't do it. Evidently he wanted to sec how I would react under fire. Well, I reacted poorly. I simply didn't know enough about pro quarterbacking, especially against a cute defense like Chicago's. It was a massacre. I was stepped on, tackled around the head, cut on the face, clotheslined and elbowed till I was just one continuous bruise. From the knee down, my right leg was swollen to twice its size, and I still have a knot on it that stands out nearly an inch.
Worst of all, the Bears had beaten me mentally. I was completely down. I came away wondering if there was the slightest possibility that I could ever amount to anything in the National Football League, if I really had a chance at all. I looked around me at the fellows on our own ball club and I felt awful at not measuring up, and I began to think that maybe pro football players were just a different animal from me. I don't know why I didn't think of quitting right then and there, but I honestly didn't. Maybe I just couldn't believe that things could stay this black.
And then came the last game of the exhibition season against Los Angeles, and the whole erratic pattern of my rookie year continued: my graph went from Death Valley to the top of Mount Whitney in a single game. I didn't even get into the game till the third quarter, when we were losing by three touchdowns, but once I got in there everything just went bam! bam! bam! right down the field, every play a jewel. We scored two touchdowns and came within a few yards of winning the game, and I was saying to myself, "See, boy? It's not so hard after all! You can do it! You belong here!"
There was one play when we cut McElhenny loose and he ran for about 50 yards and came back to the huddle with his tongue hanging out like a chow dog in Bessemer, Ala. "Kid," he said in the huddle, "don't call my play this time. I'm tired!" Well, what was I going to do about that? Here's a guy who has always been a legend to me, a face on a bubble-gum card, and right in front of all the other players he tells me not to call his number. Do you let him have his way, or do you run him again? I ran him again, and he made another nice gain, and he looked daggers at me. But later on we laughed about it, and I found out that he had gone to Van Brocklin and told him the whole story and said, "When that kid called my play the second time I knew we had a quarterback!"
After that game Van Brocklin took me aside and told me I had won the starting job against the Bears in the first regular-season game the Minnesota Vikings would ever play. I was going to be the charter quarterback. I was shocked, and I was thrilled to death. That night my wife Elaine and I went over to the Van Brocklin house and had dinner with him and Gloria, and I was up on cloud 64, listening to one of the greatest quarterbacks in pro history talk to me as though I were a peer, one great quarterback to another. "Look at this house, Peach," Van Brocklin said, and he showed Elaine and me through the rooms and around the grounds of his beautiful home in the suburbs of Minneapolis. "Pro football has done all this for me. We've got this nice home, we've got two cars in the garage, and if you work hard you can have the same."
We rolled some films of the Bears' games and talked over some strategy, and around midnight Elaine and I went home. I had plenty to think about: preparing to take the newest franchise in pro football into battle against one of the oldest, getting ready to play against the team that had maimed me just two weeks before. But in the glow of being accepted as a starting quarterback in the National Football League I slept the sleep of a baby. A few days later, on Friday before the game, Van Brocklin took me aside and said, "Francis, I'm not gonna start you Sunday. I feel I owe it to George Shaw to give him a crack at it. He didn't have a good exhibition season, but that isn't what counts. We haven't lost any regular-season games with him, and I've got to let him play till we do."
At first I was really hurt, really flabbergasted. I felt that I had competed with George for the first-string quarterback job and I had won the decision. But later I got to thinking how George was a six-year NFL veteran and how the Vikings had given away their first-draft choice to get him and how he deserved a chance to show what he could do when the games counted. I realized all that, but it didn't keep me from severe internal bleeding, mostly around the pride area.
I never studied so hard for anything in my life as I did for that Bear game. I knew I wasn't starting, but I also knew I had every chance of getting into the game, and I wanted to atone for that awful performance against the Bears in the exhibition season. In that game I hadn't known what to expect, but for the regular-season opener I learned the Bear defenses thoroughly, how to recognize them instantly and, most important, how to attack each defense. And Van Brocklin came up with a brilliant game plan. His idea was to have a few plays to run against each defense, based on the inherent weakness in each defense. Then, after we had beaten each of their radical defensive setups, they would stop being so cute and settle down to a pretty honest defense, at which time we would also settle into a pretty honest offense. In other words, we would be just as cute as they were, and when they stopped being cute, we'd stop being cute. Of course, the whole plan was based on our quarterback's being able to read the Chicago defense in the first place.
Well, George Shaw started, and we kicked a field goal and missed one. On the third series of downs Van Brocklin sent me in. I hadn't called two plays before I realized the value of study, of poring over scouting reports and squinting at movies and working up probability charts till your eyeballs ached. Two weeks before, in the exhibition game, I would look at the Bears' defensive alignment and it would be as incomprehensible to me as Sanskrit. But now, after studying the Bears night and day for a week, I would charge up to the line of scrimmage and recognize what they were up to. Well, not every time, no. There's not a quarterback in the league, even today, who can read the Bears any too clearly. But I did sniff out their defenses well enough so that they soon found it unprofitable to use most of their trickier stuff, and, just as Van Brocklin had predicted, they settled into an honest defense. But by then it was too late. It was just one of those days when I couldn't miss. I thought I was Sammy Baugh out there! Everything fell into place, all the lessons of the past two months. The stats showed 17 completions in 23 attempts for 250 yards. I completed four touchdown passes, I ran for another touchdown and we beat the Bears 37-13. We were tied for first place in the National Football League, and I had the game ball from my professional debut.