Tarkenton, Fran(cis) Asbury

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TARKENTON, Fran(cis) Asbury

(b. 3 February 1940 in Richmond, Virginia), professional football Hall of Fame quarterback who played eighteen seasons in the National Football League (NFL) and helped promote the passing style and a wide-open game that shocked traditionalists while attracting new fans.

Tarkenton was the son of Dallas Tarkenton, a Methodist minister, and Frances Tarkenton; Fran's middle name, Asbury, was that of a pioneer of American Methodism. At age five Tarkenton moved with his parents and brother to Washington, D.C., and at age ten he was playing end for the Merrick Boys Club football team. The Washington Redskins quarterback at the time, "Slingin'" Sammy Baugh, was a favorite of Tarkenton's. In 1951 the family moved to Athens, Georgia, home of the University of Georgia Bulldogs of the Southeastern Conference, who under Coach Wallace Butts had established a winning tradition in the 1940s with such greats as Frank Sinkwich, recipient of the Heisman Trophy in 1942, and Charley Trippi. Tarkenton quarterbacked the local Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) team, moved on to lead the Athens High School Trojans, and was named All-State quarterback.

In the fall of 1957 Tarkenton enrolled at the University of Georgia, where he excelled at academics while playing three varsity seasons. In 1959, his sophomore year and first year on the varsity team, Georgia won its first Southeastern Conference championship since 1948 with Tarkenton, at six feet and 185 pounds, calling the signals in an 8–1 season capped by a 14–0 win over the University of Missouri in the Orange Bowl. He graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor's degree in business. He and his wife, Elaine Merrell, raised three children.

Tarkenton was a third-round draft choice, twenty-ninth selection overall, of the Minnesota Vikings, an NFL expansion team, under new coach Norm Van Brocklin. Tarkenton came into the Vikings first game, against the powerful Chicago Bears, and proceeded to have the best rookie game ever played by a quarterback. He threw for four touchdowns and ran for a fifth, going seventeen for thirty-three as the Vikings shocked Chicago, 37–13. However, the Vikings proceeded to lose their next seven games, finishing their first season in the league with a 3–11 record, but having found its field general. Tarkenton narrowly lost the voting for NFL Rookie of the Year to Mike Ditka of the Bears. The 1962 Vikings regressed to 2–11–1, but in 1963 they improved to 5–9. By that time Tarkenton was well on his way to establishing the image and reputation that gained him the nickname "Scrambler."

The Vikings lack of a strong offensive line to protect Tarkenton forced him to scramble out of the pocket to avoid getting sacked. But Van Brocklin soon expressed his unhappiness with the degree to which Tarkenton scrambled around, cracking that Tarkenton must think it was "pretty cute" to run around so much. In 1964 Van Brocklin opined that "with Tarkenton, you need to have an exceptionally good third-and-forty offense." But the tradition-minded coach stuck with his quarterback, and that year the Vikings attained their first winning season, 8–5–1. Tarkenton had his best season yet, completing 171 of 306 attempts for 2,506 yards and 22 touchdowns, and was rated the second-best passer in the league behind the Green Bay Packers Bart Starr. Tarkenton was named the outstanding back in the 1965 Pro Bowl game. "Frantic Francis," who was allowed to call his own plays, was willing to go way, way back behind the line of scrimmage, weave around, and then make his way to the edge of the sideline, always looking for an open receiver. If the pass option was not there, Tarkenton would run. His mobility, fearlessness, and inventiveness made it work.

However, the Vikings declined to 7–7 in the 1965 season, and in 1966 Van Brocklin benched his established starter as Minnesota sunk further to a 4–9–1 record. On 10 February 1967 Tarkenton wrote Van Brocklin a letter of "resignation." The coach himself resigned the next day, and on 7 March Tarkenton was traded to the New York Giants, who had finished last in 1966, in return for some high draft choices. In six years with the Vikings, Tarkenton had thrown 113 touchdown passes and completed 53.9 percent of his passes; as a running quarterback he had averaged 6.5 yards per rush in 293 carries and had run for 15 touchdowns. Tarkenton piled up more yardage in his five seasons with the Giants, but the team was only 33–37 overall from 1967 through 1971. Returning to Minnesota for the 1972 season, Tarkenton proved that there were such things as second acts and that sequels could in fact be better.

In Tarkenton's seven remaining seasons with the Vikings, the Purple and Gold won six National Football Conference (NFC) titles and played in three Super Bowls in a four-year period under head coach Bud Grant. In 1975 Tarkenton was named NFL Player of the Year and won the Jim Thorpe Trophy for Most Valuable Player. He also led the NFC in passing, benefiting from the standout receivers Ahmad Rashad and Sammy White. Running back Chuck Foreman, who achieved the first of three consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons, was the third-option short receiver. The defense was led by a stellar front four known as the "Purple People Eaters." The Vikings were very good but not quite good enough; in their first appearance in the NFL's ultimate spectacle they lost Super Bowl VIII to the Miami Dolphins, 24–7, on 13 January 1974; on 1 January 1975 they lost their second consecutive Super Bowl, this time to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 16–6; their third and final Super Bowl loss of the twentieth century came on 9 January 1977 in Super Bowl XI to the Oakland Raiders, 32–14. Tarkenton excelled in none of these games. He played two more years, retiring after the 1978 season as the holder of every major passing record: 6,467 attempts, 3,686 completions, 342 passing touchdowns, and 47,003 yards gained in the air. In addition, his scrambling and mobility are attested in his 3,674 yards gained on the ground and his 32 rushing touchdowns.

Before retiring, Tarkenton began working in the off-season in various business capacities as a management consultant and motivational speaker, and while continuing this work he also was a television sports commentator and general program host. In his time Tarkenton was the greatest passing quarterback in the NFL. He opened up the game with his crowd-pleasing scrambling, a precursor to the West Coast offense. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987.

Tarkenton's books about his career are No Time for Losing (1967); Broken Patterns: The Education of a Quarterback (1971); and Tarkenton (1976), cowritten with Jim Klobucher. His career as a Viking is considered at length in Jim Klobucher, Knights and Knaves of Autumn: 40 Years of Pro Football and the Minnesota Vikings (2000).

Lawson Bowling