He throws footballs at a mattress in his attic, he eats chili before a game, he says what he thinks, and a lot of people do not like the fact that he sometimes runs into remote corners of neighboring states before he connects on another touchdown pass for the Minnesota Vikings. But Fran Tarkenton is, and Fran Tarkenton does, and whether any of the oldtimers are going to be able to stomach it or not, Fran Tarkenton is on the verge of proving that he might be the greatest professional quarterback who ever drew back an arm.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Baugh. Graham. Unitas. All that stuff. But Fran Tarkenton looks better right now in his 15th season than ever before. His Vikings are the only undefeated team in the NFL, and he is getting ready in the next 15 or 20 minutes to break every meaningful record available to a passer. And he still hasn't come close to being seriously injured, despite those journeys into the unknown. Also, he hasn't always benefited from brilliant receivers, and he calls his own plays, and he can see the whole field better than anyone, and he has an amazing touch, and he can throw long and short and medium, and he's a leader, and he doesn't panic, and he can make things happen. But mainly he is going to own all these passing records, and the critics can just shut up.
The fact is, whether you like a scrambler or not, and whether or not you like a guy who throws a lot to his backs, and whether you don't accept a guy who has "never won the big one," Fran Tarkenton is going to become the alltime, lifetime career passer, and you will be able to look it up.
One not so unimportant by-product of what Tarkenton is up to these days is the effect all this is having on the Vikings. When last seen, out there in Green Bay, Wis., they were 7-0 with the best and most confident club Coach Bud Grant has put together, and looking very much like one of the Super Bowl entries. It might be early for talk of this nature, but who else in the National Conference do you want to get excited about?
Last Sunday the Vikings went into what figured to be their usual physical battle with the Packers, and all Tarkenton did was have the best day he has had all year, and by doing so, kept the Vikings rolling along with a 28-17 victory. Tarkenton did it like this: he hit the first seven passes he threw, he hit 11 of the first 12, 16 of the first 18, and so on like that to finish up with 24 completions out of 30 attempts, for 285 yards and three touchdowns.
It all goes back to his toys in the attic. "In the off-season," Fran says, "I get on my knees and throw 20 or 30 balls a day at a mattress." But you don't scramble on your knees, Fran. "I scramble to keep from getting tackled." But people don't like for you to scramble, Fran. "People like Johnny Unitas," he says.
It isn't easy to get Tarkenton to talk about Tarkenton until he has talked about the Vikings, who have only become a consistently fine team since he escaped from the New York Giant penal colony and returned to them. First, therefore, we must hear about the Vikings.
It may come as a surprise to most people, but the Vikings have subtly turned into a young team. There are still antiques around, like the defensive ends Carl Eller and Jim Marshall and the linebackers Roy Winston and Wally Hilgenberg, a safety, Paul Krause, and the center, Mick Tingelhoff. Their continued presence is what keeps the average age of the squad at 26.5 years, which is not high compared to, say, the Washington Redskins.
But look who is gone—Gary Larsen, Milt Sunde, Grady Alderman, Bill Brown, Oscar Reed and Mike Eischeid, all of them retired, waived, traded or simply not signed. Meanwhile, the new Vikings are being raved about by the older Vikings, and some of them are causing their elders to perform with a vigor defying their years.
The youth of the Vikings centers around five or six guys. In the backfield, for example, there is the combination of Brent McClanahan-Ed Marinaro to go along with Chuck Foreman. McClanahan, once he learns to stop trying to run over stadium portals, will be what Dave Osborn was, only swifter, and Marinaro is a fine receiver. Foreman, of course, is the first breakaway threat in Minnesota since the emigrants.