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The very first game in the Minnesota Vikings' history was an exhibition in Sioux Falls, S. Dak. against the Dallas Cowboys, and I didn't play much. George Shaw started at quarterback and I sat on the bench, where a green kid from the University of Georgia belonged, although I didn't believe it at the time. I thought the green kid from Georgia was good enough to start for the Minnesota Vikings or any other professional football team, which shows you how much I knew.
By the start of the fourth quarter of that first exhibition game we hadn't scored a touchdown, and Coach Norm Van Brocklin told me to take over. I ran out there, full of vim and vitality, and bang! we scored on a pass. Boy, this was easy! All these years the quarterbacks of the National Football League had been spreading their propaganda about how tough it was in the NFL, and now I knew it wasn't any tougher than calling a sandlot game on the corner of Broad and Lumpkin streets in my home town of Athens, Ga. We lost the game, but I was elated. I was on a peak. I'd always hoped that I'd be able to make it in the pros, and now I knew there would be no problem.
To my amazement, Van Brocklin started George Shaw in the next game, against the Baltimore Colts at Baltimore. I was under the impression that I had arrived the week before, and here I was still being treated like a rookie. Even Stubby Eason, the equipment manager, didn't understand that I was now an established player. Before the game he came up to me and said, "Rookie, you better take that single face bar off your helmet and put on a double like all the rest of the quarterbacks."
"No," I said, "one bar is plenty for me. I wouldn't be able to see out of a double." I'd played four years of college ball at Georgia with a single face bar, and I didn't need an equipment manager changing my whole way of life at this stage of the game.
Our attack didn't do much in the first quarter against Baltimore, and just after the start of the second quarter Van Brocklin hollered, "O.K., Peach, get in there!" I ran out on the field ready to pick the Colts apart like a chicken. It didn't matter to me that I had collected bubble-gum pictures of some of these very same Baltimore defensive players, that they were recognized stars, that the Colts were the big noise in pro football. I was no amateur myself.
I figured I'd show everybody right off that I wasn't afraid to get into the action, so in the huddle I said, "Open four right, screen right to four," which meant a screen pass to Mel Triplett, the tough runner we got in a trade from the New York Giants. I took the snap from center, dropped back five steps into the pocket and set up, faked to one receiver and then lofted the ball out to Triplett in the right flat. The pass looked like perfection itself; I was standing there admiring its trajectory, its spiral, its pinpoint accuracy, when the lights went out. Billy Ray Smith, the Baltimore tackle, had creased me right across the bridge of the nose, right where the double bar would have been. I was almost completely out. They had to haul me off the field, and they poured me onto the bench the way you'd pour a can of heavy oil, and they put cold towels across my face. I was lying there still wondering what country I was in when Van Brocklin came over and said in that inimitable style of his: "Welcome to the National Football League, kid!"
By half time I'd recovered my wits enough to ask Stubby Eason to put a double bar on my helmet, but I didn't play anymore that day, and I didn't complain about it, either. I stayed on the bench in the next game, too, nursing my sore face and studying the action, trying to figure out how those pro quarterbacks kept from getting cotton-ginned out there.
One thought never entered my mind, believe it or not, and that is that I didn't have the stuff for the NFL. Maybe this just showed that I didn't understand the situation. Here I was, fresh out of college, young and ignorant, and my total pro career consisted of getting lucky on one pass play in the first exhibition game, getting in for one whole play in the second exhibition game and sitting out the third. And yet I never questioned myself or my potential. It is just not part of my philosophy to question myself or to think negatively. I always try to leave that sort of thinking to others.
And don't think there weren't plenty of pro experts who thought negatively about me. The mere fact that I wasn't drafted till the third round tells you something, doesn't it? That really hurt my pride. That told me there were guys around who weren't the least bit impressed by my record at Georgia, where I was an AP All-America in my senior year. I figured I knew my job, and my job was T-formation quarterback, and the pros should be hot after me. When the first two rounds went by and I was still standing there with an empty dance card, I had to reassess my thinking. I knew what was bothering the pro scouts, but I also knew that they were wrong.
The scouts were doubtful about my size and my ability to throw the long ball, which goes to show that even the experts have some funny ideas about professional football skills. Not that I have one of the superstrong arms in the NFL; I don't. But you don't need a superarm, and a lot of the pro scouts still don't realize that. The fact is that the home run is the easiest to throw, from the standpoint of pure muscle. It takes more strain to throw a 20-yard pass down the sidelines than it does a long ball. You have to throw the short ball hard, on a line, whereas the long ball is kind of looped into the air.