November 2, 2011

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An Interview with Fran Tarkenton

By: Anson Whaley

(Editor’s note:  One lucky reader will WIN an autographed Fran Tarkenton Fathead!  Just leave a comment–along with a legit email address–on this article for your chance.  We’ll randomly select a winner at the end of the week.  Good luck!)

In the past decade, athletic quarterbacks like Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb have gotten a lot of press, but before any of them, there was Fran Tarkenton. In the 1960s and 1970s, Tarkenton was arguably the best quarterback in the NFL. He led the Minnesota Vikings to three Super Bowl appearances over his career, and he retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in completions, yardage, and touchdowns. We recently had a chance to catch up to Fran to ask him about a variety of topics including Tim Tebow, Monday Night Football, and his new fantasy football website FantasyFran.com.

Fathead Blog:  Many younger fans aren’t familiar with the AFL, but you were drafted in both the NFL Draft and the AFL Draft in 1961. Can you explain a bit how that happened and how you ended up signing with the Vikings instead of going to the AFL?

Fran Tarkenton:  There were two separate drafts for the two leagues, and you had to choose which league you were going to play in. I was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings, an expansion franchise, in the NFL, and the Boston Patriots in the AFL draft. Minnesota offered me a $12,500 salary with a $3,500 bonus, while the Patriots offered me $15,000 with a $5,000 bonus. But I chose the Vikings because I had to prove to myself that I could make it in the big league. The NFL was certainly considered the dominant league at that time.

Fathead Blog: Soon after that, you played your first game. Most rookie quarterbacks struggle miserably, but you came out and threw four touchdown passes in your initial contest. We’re seeing a bit of that type of success with Cam Newton this season. How were you able to drastically shorten the adjustment period and become a contributor immediately? What’s the key to succeeding early on as a rookie quarterback?

Fran Tarkenton:  I had a coach who was a former quarterback himself in Norm Van Brocklin (who still holds the single game passing yardage record, and had won the NFL Championship with the Eagles as a player the year before). He was a brilliant offensive mind, and I learned from him. I listened to him, and I worked hard, and I used my brain. I learned and came to understand what I was supposed to be doing, and that helped me succeed right out of the gate.

Fathead Blog You were one of the first scrambling quarterbacks to have major success in the league. As the years have gone on, we’ve seen quite a few others – Randall Cunningham, Michael Vick, and Steve Young, to name a few. Since you retired, who’s been the best you’ve seen?

Fran Tarkenton:  Michael Vick by far. He’s an athletic freak. The way he can just take off and run is amazing, and there’s nobody else really like him. Never in a million years would I expect the fastest player on the field in an NFL game to be a quarterback, but he is. When I scrambled, it was mainly to buy time to throw the ball downfield. Vick recently set the new record for rushing yards by a quarterback, and he’s only 31, because he’s able to pull the ball down and just take off.

Fathead Blog: Along those lines, Broncos’ QB Tim Tebow has been one of the most polarizing players in the league since he was drafted. Have you watched him play? Do you have any thoughts on him yet or is it still too early to tell in your opinion?

Fran Tarkenton:  I think Tim Tebow was a great college quarterback. But I’m not sure that he’ll be able to make it in the NFL. From what I’ve seen from his first few games, his ability to throw the ball is very questionable. Now that doesn’t mean he won’t succeed. He can prove me wrong and improve on his passing skills. He has all the other intangible things that you want from a quarterback, and I know he’s an incredibly hard worker. He’ll do everything he can to succeed, and I’m very curious to watch his career and see if he can do it.

Fathead Blog: Even as a great scrambler, you still were an incredible passer. Your 47,003 yards still rank 6th all-time. After you had some success it was probably easy to sell the idea of being a mobile quarterback, but was it ever difficult trying to convince coaches and other football personnel that it was possible to succeed with your style of play early in your career?

Fran Tarkenton:  All coaches want their quarterbacks to be able to make plays, put points on the board, and make first downs. Those are the measuring sticks. From the first game that I played, I was able to do that, and it’s like anything else: if you produce, you can play, but if you don’t they’ll get rid of you. My style of play drove the establishment nuts at the time, but the results were undeniable. The standard mold for a quarterback at the time was a big guy with a big arm who delivered the ball from the pocket. The scouting report on me was that I was small but slow, which, needless to say, didn’t fit the prototype. But football has always been measured by results, and people eventually learned to accept my style of play.

Fathead Blog: You once played in 71 consecutive games, spanning several seasons. It’s hard to do that at any position, but to do it as a quarterback is even more remarkable, in my opinion, because defenders are trying to knock them out of the game on every single passing play. What do you remember about that streak? Do you recall any of the injuries you played through to keep that streak going?

Fran Tarkenton:  I only missed 5 games my entire career because of injury. That was because I broke my leg against the Bengals in 1976. The other games I missed were because in the early years, we were so far out of the race that late in the season they would put in my backups to get them some playing time. I was able to avoid injury because I never took direct hits outside of the pocket. When I scrambled and ran, I had to learn to avoid big hits, because I got hit a lot early in my career playing for an expansion team. You have to avoid those hits to stay on the field, and I managed to avoid most of the big shots that knock players out of the game.

Fathead Blog: As a former Monday Night commentator, I’m curious about what you think of the current product. It’s obviously a different situation since the average consumer has hundreds of channels to pick from, but the broadcasting crew has changed so much over the years with guys like Dennis Miller, Tony Kornheiser, and Rush Limbaugh having come and gone fairly recently. It’s hard to build up a brand when the key personnel change so frequency. What are your thoughts on the show as it’s evolved over the years?

Fran Tarkenton:  I think Ron Jaworski, Jon Gruden, and Mike Tirico are great. This particular team has been together for a few years now, and I expect this team to stay together for a few more years. They work well together. It’s nice to have stability. Technology has changed so much, and the finished product is so much more polished and professional than when I was a part of Monday Night Football. They’re able to do things now that we couldn’t dream of doing then!

Fathead Blog: After retiring, you’ve had a number of successful ventures. Many athletes throw their names behind things, but you’ve been actively involved in those companies, including the recently launched fantasy football site, FantasyFran.com. Was going into business something you actively had your eye on as a player or did that desire come later?

Fran Tarkenton:  I didn’t wait until after I’d retired from football to go into business. I was starting up and running businesses the whole time I played. I actually got my first license to sell life insurance in 1959 for the Franklin Life Insurance Company. During my career, I did everything from life insurance to starting fast food chains to an industrial janitorial cleaning service!

Currently, I’m running a wide range of businesses, but my main focus is working with small business entrepreneurs and insurance professionals to make sure that they have all the tools they need to succeed. If anyone is interested in seeing what I have been up to, they can visit www.FranTarkenton.com.  FantasyFran.com is something we started doing for fun, because of how much I still love and watch football. We then realized that there was no place on the web for fantasy football players to get advice from people who’d been on the arena themselves! All the former players on the networks only give game analysis, not fantasy football. It’s something unique I could do, and have a lot of fun doing it! For 18 years, football was my profession, and it’s been my hobby ever since then. My outlook on the games and the players is one that I think is unique among all the voices out there.