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
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.