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A PRO ROOKIE'S UPS AND DOWNS
Fran Tarkenton
July 24, 1967
On a roller-coaster ride of peaks and plunges, a Georgia boy and the Minnesota Vikings blunder together through their first year in the NFL
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July 24, 1967

A Pro Rookie's Ups And Downs

On a roller-coaster ride of peaks and plunges, a Georgia boy and the Minnesota Vikings blunder together through their first year in the NFL

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Well, that was a taste of honey for me and the new ball club. We developed a false sense of well-being. Or I did, anyway. I figured we'd never lose a football game for the rest of our lives, least of all to those rinky-dink Dallas Cowboys that we were playing in our second game. They were only a year older than we were, and we had just beaten the Bears. So we went to Dallas all full of confidence—and lost 21-7. Our team played pretty well. We were on their half-foot line almost at the end of the game when we fumbled. But I, personally, played lousy. Maybe I had read too many of my press clippings, or maybe I had exhausted myself mentally getting ready for the Chicago game. That's what I told myself.

But the real truth was that one thing had caught up with me: I was a rookie, that's all, and I just plain didn't know enough. There was nothing complicated about it. When I look back now and realize how little I knew in that first year in the pros, it scares me to death! It's a wonder I wasn't killed. It's a wonder we beat anybody. But we did. In our ninth game of the season we played Baltimore in Minneapolis and beat them 28-20. And that was the great Baltimore team, the championship team, with Johnny Unitas, Ordell Braase, Gino Marchetti, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, the whole cast of thousands, and all of them in their prime. And then in the 12th game we beat the Rams 42-21 for a grand total of three victories out of 14 games, which is three more than the Cowboys had won in their maiden season the year before. So all in all it wasn't a bad start.

Of course, to be perfectly honest, those victories were just little islands of satisfaction in a wide sea of frustration. After beating Chicago in the opener we lost seven straight, and it got pretty nerve-racking around the locker room. I'd come home at night so upset that I couldn't talk. I knew I could play better, perform better, and yet I wasn't. I just didn't look at myself as a rookie quarterback. After all, I had been a quarterback one place or another for about 10 years, and I figured I should be able to perform like Otto Graham.

It makes me laugh nowadays when I look back on my ignorance. I'd do things like never taking my eyes off my primary receiver. Can you imagine anything so naive? I'd make up my mind I was going to throw to so-and-so and I'd look at nobody else, and by the time I'd release the ball he'd be surrounded. The free safety would always be on him, and sometimes a linebacker or two along with the corner back. So I had to learn (it all seems so elementary now) that the defensive secondary watches the quarterback's eyes, and before you have any chance whatsoever to complete a deep pass you've got to "look" the free safety off, stare at some other point on the field to attract him there, and not throw the ball till your receiver is in nothing worse than a one-on-one situation. I could write a book on the mistakes I made, and it would run to about 600 pages, and it would never repeat the same mistake twice. Like the way I used to drop back one way when I was going to throw a short, flare pass, and drop back an entirely different way on a deep pass. I might just as well have gone into the pocket shouting, "Deep pass! Deep pass!" It was that obvious. I had to learn to make my moves in exactly the same way under all conditions, just as a baseball pitcher must use the same motion whatever he's throwing. I'm not saying I've perfected my moves yet. You're always learning in the pros. But in that first year everybody could tell what I was up to. I was being read by more people than Margaret Mitchell.

And sometimes I thought I would never learn how to conceal my audibles and how to sound exactly the same at the line of scrimmage no matter what type of play I was calling. Those old pros like Joe Schmidt of the Detroit Lions would know what I was going to do before I did it. I think the low point of my intellectual career came in a game against the Lions, with Schmidt, the middle linebacker, calling defensive signals against us. All during the game he was shifting the defenses around to match my calls, and finally there was one play where I checked off three times and Schmidt changed the defense three times and I got so frustrated I just called for time. I felt better later when I learned that Don Meredith of the Cowboys had been caught in a similar predicament against the New York Giants and, instead of calling for time, he just threw his hands in the air and hollered, "Aw—!"

Through all of those agonies I still kept thinking of myself as a fortunate fellow. In the whole history of the pros there have been only three or four quarterbacks who broke into the starting lineups in their first year and stuck. Frank Ryan, the Cleveland Browns' quarterback, has said that I was lucky to get to play right away, and I agree with him. On the other hand, a young quarterback can be broken by the pressure if he doesn't keep a tight emotional hold on himself. I can think of one NFL quarterback who came into the league as a starter, and it ruined him. He had everything, too, and yet he never had a really good year. The strain got him; he lost his confidence. There have been others who broke down in that rookie year under the pressures and the thrusts of playing and losing, playing and losing, week after bloody week. Me, I didn't have enough sense to break down. I figured it was an advantage, in the long run, to play on a new-franchise team. We didn't have the personnel. We didn't have the experience. Very few of my teammates had top ability, and neither did I. But we had the advantage of going through every tough situation together. Nobody got any false idea that it was easy. When it came to the bedrock of pro football, suffering and hurting, making mistakes, taking licks, getting knocked down and jumping up so you could get knocked down again, we Minnesota Vikings led the league.

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