Some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL today are dual-threat stars who can win games with their arm and their legs.
If the pocket collapses leaving no time to pass the ball, these quarterbacks can take off and pick up crucial yardage on the run.
This type of quarterback has become the new standard in the league and every new crop of draft eligible signal-callers are judged on whether they can run and throw.
Of course, this wasn’t always the case.
In the golden days of the NFL, quarterbacks were expected to pass the ball and run only if their life depended on it.
Head coaches were known to scold their QB if they ran to get a first down or even a touchdown.
That’s what made Fran Tarkenton such a pain.
That Mahomes scramble was classic Fran Tarkenton. pic.twitter.com/jAuzXcjuSB
— Addicted to Helmets (@addicted2helmet) January 30, 2022
Tarkenton could throw the ball forever, but he also had no problem tucking and running.
His coaches would get furious whenever he did so, but Tarkenton paid them no mind.
By the time he ended his NFL career after 18 seasons, Tarkenton was entrenched in the top ten rushing quarterbacks in league history.
This is the story of Fran Tarkenton.
Francis Asbury Tarkenton was born on February 3, 1940 in Richmond, Virginia.
— Tommy Kramer (@Kramer9Tommy) February 3, 2021
He was the son of a Methodist preacher and the family eventually moved to Athens, Georgia in 1951.
A fan of “Slingin’” Sammy Baugh of the Washington Redskins, Tarkenton was a natural for the position and started for the Athens High School (later renamed Clarke Central High School) football team.
As a junior, he led the team to a state title in 1955.
Tarkenton was outstanding again during his senior year and became an all-state player in the sport.
He was also named all-state in basketball and baseball.
“He was a better pitcher than football player,” Don Rhodes, a homeroom classmate and baseball teammate, said. “He had a fastball that nobody could hit.”
What also set Tarkenton apart from his peers was his leadership ability and willingness to go the extra mile to bring out the best in his teammates.
“It wasn’t his athletic ability that got him where he was at,” Rhodes said. “It was his leadership ability. He could make you play twice as good as what you thought you could play with just his attitude and his push. He’d say, we’re gonna do it this time boys. And he would do it.”
With graduation looming, Tarkenton was recruited by both Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia.
Tech was by far the better of the two schools at the time and University of Georgia already had two young quarterbacks.
Locals told Tarkenton he should attend Georgia Tech so he didn’t have to sit for long and he would also be with a winning program.
However, at the suggestion of his Little League coach, Tarkenton chose to become a Bulldog.
A Bold Move
Arriving on the Georgia campus in 1957, Tarkenton wanted to make a name for himself.
Since freshmen weren’t allowed to play on the varsity team at the time, Tarkenton entrenched himself as the quarterback on the freshman team.
His leadership and poise were on full display as Tarkenton led the Bullpups to impressive wins over the frosh squads from Clemson, Auburn, and Georgia Tech.
In 1958, Tarkenton was stuck on the bench behind Charlie Britt.
However, during the first game of the ‘58 season, Tarkenton made a bold move that signaled the start of something special in Athens.
The Bulldogs were playing the Texas Longhorns and the Georgia defense had just made a stop late in the game.
After the Longhorns punted, Tarkenton noticed that Britt was taking his time getting to the field.
Without hesitation, Tarkenton grabbed his helmet and raced onto the field to the huddled Georgia players.
Needless to say, his teammates were surprised to see him there.
“My teammates said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I told them I was there to win the game,” said Tarkenton in 2021.
Coach Wally Butts didn’t pull Tarkenton out of the game and the sophomore quarterback led the Bulldogs on a 95-yard drive for a touchdown.
FWIW #UGA Fact of the Day#UGAvsTexas 60 years ago: In his 1st game as a Bulldog during UGA’s 1st game of 1958 vs. Texas in Austin, for what turned out to be his 1st and only possession of the game, QB Fran Tarkenton drove UGA 95 yards in 21 plays to a TD & subsequent 2-pt play: pic.twitter.com/73KXj80Uoo
— Patrick Garbin (@patrickgarbin) December 14, 2018
Then, as the kicking team was coming on to kick the extra point, Tarkenton waved them off so he could go for a two-point conversion.
Remarkably, he was successful with that try as well.
“If I didn’t make that move at that time, I might never have played college football. That moment was transformational for my life,” Tarkenton added.
Georgia still lost the game 13-8 and Tarkenton was back on the bench for the remainder of the year.
However, the Bulldog faithful liked the moxie Tarkenton showed that day and were vocal in their desire to see more.
Tarkenton Leads the Bulldogs to the Orange Bowl
Butts was still pretty cranky with Tarkenton in 1959 due to the stunt he pulled against Texas.
Tarkenton was listed as the second-team quarterback that year, but he ended up playing a majority of the snaps.
“Officially, the whole year of ’59 I was the second-team quarterback,” Tarkenton said in 2017. “But on our team, I played 90 percent of the offense and 10 percent of the defense, and Charlie played 10 percent of the offense and that’s how it worked out.”
For the first time in over a decade, Georgia had a very good year.
That season, they only lost once on the way to a 9-1 record, an SEC title, and a berth in the Orange Bowl on January 1, 1960.
In the huddle, Fran Tarkenton designed the play that would win @FootballUGA the 1959 SEC Championship.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) September 4, 2018
The Bulldogs then blanked number 18th ranked Missouri 14-0, making them Orange Bowl champions.
Georgia’s ten wins were the best by the program since 1946.
Tarkenton was named as a first-team All-SEC selection for the year while only passing for 736 yards, six touchdowns, and six interceptions.
Unfortunately, Georgia came back down to earth in 1960, posting a 6-4 record.
Tarkenton still had a good year, however, passing for 1,189 yards, seven touchdowns, and 12 picks.
He was voted as a first-team All-SEC selection again after the year.
Drafted by Two Leagues
Coming out of Georgia, Tarkenton was well liked by scouts from both the NFL and the AFL.
In the 1961 NFL Draft, he was selected with the 29th overall pick in the third round by the expansion Minnesota Vikings.
Tarkenton was also selected with the 34th overall pick in the fifth round of the AFL Draft by the Boston Patriots.
He chose to go to Minnesota and, just like he did at Georgia, Tarkenton began his pro career on the bench.
That didn’t last long.
In the season’s first game against the mighty Chicago Bears, the Vikings were losing and Tarkenton was sent in to replace George Shaw.
Despite not having played for a championship since 1956, the Bears were still formidable.
Only two weeks before, Minnesota had lost to Chicago 30-7 in their fourth preseason game.
However, when Tarkenton was summoned to play, he went on a tear.
Not backing down to a rugged Bears defense, Tarkenton proceeded to throw for 250 yards and four touchdowns while running for another score.
#OnThisDay in 1961, the great @Fran_Tarkenton came off the bench to lead the @Vikings to a come-from-behind victory against the Bears. He threw 4 TD passes and ran for another, becoming the first player in #NFL history to pass for 4 TDs in their first NFL game! #PFRPAFamily #Skol pic.twitter.com/TkomWOzjri
— PFRPA (@ThePFRPA) September 17, 2018
He was the only NFL quarterback in history to pass for four touchdowns in his first start, something that would not be accomplished again until 2015.
The 37-13 blowout win shocked the NFL establishment.
No expansion team had won their first game in the league and the feat would not be matched until 2002.
“We were 28-point underdogs,” said Tarkenton in 2021. “We got beat by them two weeks before in an exhibition game, and those were the days when we played exhibition games. So, I think it was an amazing start.”
“It was a monumental game, and I don’t think there’s any question: The greatest upset in the history of the National Football League,” added Tarkenton.
The feel good moment didn’t last long as the Vikings lost their next seven games and 11 of their 13 remaining contests.
For the season, Tarkenton passed for 1,997 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions.
He would come in second to Chicago’s Mike Ditka for the NFL Rookie of the Year award.
Vikings Struggle While Tarkenton Excels
As an expansion team, the Vikings continued to struggle for the next several years.
Thankfully, Tarkenton provided a steady hand and started all but three games the next five seasons.
During that span he passed for over 2,000 yards each season and played in two Pro Bowls after the 1964 and ‘65 seasons.
Furthermore, Tarkenton was the MVP of the ‘64 Pro Bowl.
By 1966, Tarkenton had been given a nickname, “Scrambler.”
— NFL (@NFL) October 26, 2019
The lack of consistent blocking for Minnesota meant that their quarterback had to run for yardage a good portion of the time.
Tarkenton didn’t mind though.
“I scramble because I’m good at it, because I can twist and dodge those big pass rushers better than most guys, and we get a lot of touchdowns that way,” said Tarkenton.
Tarkenton only rushed for 219 total yards while playing at Georgia.
After his first six years in the league, he had rushed for 1,893 total yards.
Minnesota coach Norm Van Brocklin was a traditionalist who didn’t think his quarterback should waste time by running.
It didn’t matter to Van Brocklin that the Vikings didn’t have a strong line.
— Ed White (@edwhiteart) November 5, 2021
At one point, the coach quipped that Tarkenton must have thought he was “pretty cute” to run around so much.
Van Brocklin was still upset with Tarkenton in 1964 when he shared another opinion about his signal-caller to the media.
“…with Tarkenton, you need to have an exceptionally good third-and-forty offense,” said Van Brocklin.
However, the coach stuck with Tarkenton primarily because he had no better options.
Tarkenton is Traded to New York
Despite the fact that Tarkenton was one of the league’s best quarterbacks, the Vikings shockingly traded him to the New York Giants in March of 1967.
The hope was that Tarkenton would help New York get out of their losing ways and back to a championship.
Regrettably for Giants fans, that never happened.
For the next five years, the most New York won was nine games in 1970. The franchise missed the postseason each year.
Tarkenton was still solid, making the Pro Bowl his first four years in New York while passing for over 2,000 yards each year including a then career-best 3,088 yards in 1967.
— NFL Classic! (@79_nfl) March 24, 2021
Tarkenton also rushed for 1,126 total yards and beat his former team in the first game of the 1969 season.
Minnesota was ahead 23-10 in the fourth quarter of the contest before Tarkenton rallied New York to a 24-23 win.
Return to Minnesota
While Tarkenton was toiling away in New York, the Vikings were finally finding their way.
Beginning in 1968, the team began to appear in the playoffs, led by the stoic Bud Grant who had replaced Van Brocklin in 1967.
In 1969, Minnesota had a then franchise-best 12-2 record and advanced to Super Bowl IV to play the Kansas City Chiefs.
Super Bowl IV. Love the action in this shot. Chiefs upset the Vikes pic.twitter.com/JUl3Sl3W5i
— Sports Days Past (@SportsDaysPast) October 2, 2019
However, the Chiefs overpowered the Vikings that day 23-7.
Three years later, the Vikings and Tarkenton were back in the news when the team made a trade for their former quarterback to return.
“We made this trade,” said Giants coach Alex Webster, “not only to strengthen our team for next year but for the future. We figured it was better to do that than to stay with last year’s team.”
For his part, Tarkenton was excited to get back to Minnesota.
“I’m just delighted. I really am excited about playing in Minnesota again. I’ve got so many friends up there that I started out with. It’s a championship team,” said Tarkenton.
Tarkenton and Minnesota Return to the Super Bowl
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for Tarkenton.
After a 7-7 season in 1972, the team embarked on a stretch of good football.
In 1973, the Vikings were 12-2 and went to Super Bowl VIII where they lost to the Miami Dolphins 24-7.
Minnesota’s only score came when Tarkenton ran for a four-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The following year, Minnesota was 10-6 and advanced to Super Bowl IX against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The game was a defensive slugfest between Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain and Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters.
Ultimately, it was the Steel Curtain that controlled the outcome by holding Minnesota to six points and picking off Tarkenton three times on the way to a 16-6 victory.
34 year old Fran Tarkenton is looking at a 22 year old Jack Lambert, 26 year old Ernie Holmes, and a 28 year old Mean Joe. And the defense wasn’t even at their prime yet!!!! pic.twitter.com/va50TtKs0A
— VintageSteelers (@VintageSteelers) March 6, 2021
In 1975, Tarkenton led the NFL in completions and attempts along with 2,994 yards, a league-leading 25 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
Thankfully, with a much improved offensive line, Tarkenton was having to run less and less and rushed for only 108 yards in ‘75.
His stats that year led to Tarkenton being voted league MVP along with the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year award.
Tarkenton was also the recipient of the Bert Bell Award given to the player of the year in the National Football League.
Minnesota’s 12-2 record that season put them on a path back to the Super Bowl.
This time, the Cowboys got in the way and won their Divisional playoff game against Tarkenton and the Vikings.
With time running out in the game and the Vikings ahead, Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach threw a desperation “Hail Mary” pass to receiver Drew Pearson.
Today in 1975, Roger Staubach hits Drew Pearson with his "Hail Mary" as the Cowboys stun the Vikings in the NFC playoffs. Cue Minnesota fans saying he pushed off in 3-2-1 … pic.twitter.com/jiXVnweTFX
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) December 28, 2017
Pearson caught the ball and scored to win the game 17-14 and eliminate Minnesota.
In 1976, the Vikings were 11-2-1 and met the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XI.
Once again, the hearts of Vikings fans were broken when Minnesota lost the game 32-14.
Tarkenton threw for a touchdown during the contest but was also intercepted twice.
That day would mark the last time Minnesota has appeared in the NFL’s biggest game.
The 1977 Vikings took a 9-5 record into the playoffs, beat the LA Rams in the Divisional round then lost to Dallas in the NFC Championship Game.
Tarkenton played lights out football in 1978, his 18th year in the NFL.
He started every game of the season and passed for a career-best 3,468 yards (which led the league), 25 touchdowns and an NFL and career-worst 32 interceptions.
Let’s watch Fran Tarkenton light up NFL defenses like Christmas trees for a couple minutes, shall we? I think I shall. pic.twitter.com/4DvVChCEAx
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) June 11, 2020
Minnesota went 8-7-1 and lost to the Rams again in the Divisional round.
Despite the fact that he could still play at a high level, Tarkenton decided to hang up his cleats after the ‘78 season.
In 18 years, he passed for a total of 47,003 yards, 342 touchdowns, 266 interceptions, and had 3,674 rushing yards and 32 rushing touchdowns.
At the time, Tarkenton’s totals were NFL records.
His passing yards, passing touchdowns, and rushing yards all rank in the top 12 in league history.
Tarkenton is also one of four NFL quarterbacks ever to rush for at least 300 yards in seven different seasons.
Tarkenton played in three Super Bowls, was a nine-time Pro Bowler, a first and second-team All-Pro once each, league MVP, league passing yards, league passing touchdowns, and league passing completion percentage leader one time each, and winner of the Bert Bell Award.
Tarkenton later became a member of the Vikings Ring of Honor, had his number 10 retired by the team, and became a member of Minnesota’s 25th and 40th Anniversary Teams.
Businessman and Author
Tarkenton graduated from Georgia with a degree in business and began using that knowledge while still playing football.
He was astute enough to get in on the ground floor of the computer software business in the early 1970s and founded Tarkenton Software, a program generator company.
Tarkenton did well with his company as well as with a software firm called KnowledgeWare.
However, in 1999, Tarkenton and several other KnowledgeWare executives were fined by the Securities and Exchange Commission for inflating their earnings in 1993-1994.
Although he did not admit to any wrongdoing, Tarkenton still had to pay a $100,000 fine and $54,187 in restitution.
While he made his way through the business minefield, Tarkenton was honored by being voted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1977, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986, the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987, and the Athens, Georgia Hall of Fame in 2000.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) May 15, 2021
Not one to stay idle, Tarkenton has also written several books that include fiction, non-fiction, and business-related titles.
Although he is currently 82 years young, Tarkenton continues to stay active in the business world and runs a small business consulting website (gosmallbiz) and an annuity marketing firm called Tarkenton Financial.