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DEAR NORM: I CANNOT RETURN
Fran Tarkenton
July 31, 1967
Tarkenton masters his art, and the Vikings at last seem championship bound. Then Fran and Coach Norm Van Brocklin drift apart and leave the team on successive days
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July 31, 1967

Dear Norm: I Cannot Return

Tarkenton masters his art, and the Vikings at last seem championship bound. Then Fran and Coach Norm Van Brocklin drift apart and leave the team on successive days

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In some ways a pro quarterback's second year is the hardest. He has picked up a little learning, just enough to place himself in mortal peril. He hasn't matured yet—and he won't for two or three more years—but he goes around saying to himself, "Oh, boy, I've got it! I'm a veteran!" So he goes out there on the field with his head held high and his shoulders squared and gets knocked on his backside, and his team loses 47-7.

Let's not beat around the bush: we had a lousy second year at Minnesota, the worst year in the team's history, and I've got to take the blame. I'm not trying to beat my breast and say mea culpa and oh what a poor old martyr am I. Not at all. Every pro football player takes defeat very hard, and I'm no exception. Every pro football player can look back on each loss and see where there was some little thing he could have done that might have changed the direction of the whole game.

This is especially true of quarterbacks and especially true of me. I can show you the game film of every loss in the Minnesota Vikings' history and point out key mistakes I made. And if you don't thoroughly understand the nature of the pro game, you're likely to sit there and watch the films and say, "Yeah, but look at the mistakes the other guys on your team made. Look how many points your defensive team let in!" And my answer to that may sound corny, but it is nevertheless true: that pro football is a team game in every respect, and when one part of the team is having a bad day the other part of the team is supposed to step in and pick them up. If the defensive team allows 50 points, my job is to get 51. I know the defensive players feel the same way about their job. If I can't put more than seven points on the scoreboard for our team, then it's their job to hold the other team to six. From a strictly objective, dispassionate point of view, there might be holes in this logic; but football isn't played from a strictly objective, dispassionate point of view. It is a highly emotional affair, and every player feels personally guilty about every loss.

Viewed entirely from my spot at quarterback, I had to feel like the world's biggest failure in that 1962 season. I'd spent the whole off season reading all the gaudy newspaper stuff about me, and I was too young to put this in perspective, and I became convinced that we were going to wreck the rest of the league in our second season in existence. Then we went out and won a grand total of two games—that's right, two games!—and tied one and lost 11. Our offense wasn't completely inept—we lost games like 39-31 to the Steelers and 31-30 to the Bears in successive weeks—but some of the figures can be deceptive. For example, although I completed less than 50% of my passes (49.5%) for the first and only time in my career, which looks bad, I did throw 22 touchdown passes, which looks good, till you realize that many of these were desperation passes thrown when we were out of the ball game. A desperate team is going to score home runs, but not much else.

In some ways, becoming a mature pro quarterback is like joining a fraternity—there's a certain amount of hazing you just have to go through. Mine started in that miserable second year. I remember one game when I was having a bad day and the fans began to ride me. First there was this low undercurrent of boos, and then, for the first time in my pro career, I began to hear things like, "Get him out of there!" and, "We want McCormick! We want McCormick!" ( John McCormick was the backup quarterback; George Shaw hadn't made the team that year). So pretty soon Van Brocklin took me out, and I don't blame him. He put in McCormick, not in response to the crowd but in response to the fact that I was playing like Edna St. Vincent Millay out there.

That's a lonesome walk to the sidelines, especially when thousands of people are cheering your replacement. It was the first time I'd ever been taken out of a pro game solely because of incompetence, and I wanted to find a place to hide. As I got to the sidelines, old Hugh McElhenny came out and put his arm around me in front of everybody. "Well, kid," he said, "you've arrived! You're now an NFL quarterback. They've booed you and you've been replaced. Welcome to the club!"

That was the first time I was ever booed with any degree of unanimity, but later on it happened plenty of times, and I just had to learn to let it bounce right off me, to keep reminding myself that every quarterback gets booed. I've heard Unitas booed, Bill Wade, John Brodie, Charley Johnson. We're all booed, sometimes even when we deserve it. This is part of the life of a quarterback. And don't kid yourself: you hear it! Those cool characters who go around saying they don't hear the booing or the cheering are trying to kid somebody, maybe themselves. You hear boos and you hear cheers. There's nothing that animates me like a live crowd, a very enthusiastic crowd. The whole place is alive, full of electricity, and you feel that force coming down out of the stands and enveloping you. For the most part, the fans up at Minnesota were on the restrained side. They're wonderful fans, wonderful people, but they didn't generate the electricity that crackles around you in stadiums like Dallas, Baltimore, New York, Atlanta, Green Bay and a few other places.

A quarterback can feel this current, even when it's going against him, and he's got to understand it and put it to his own good use. He can't be oversensitive. He's got to realize that everybody in those stands is a quarterback. There are no middle linebackers in attendance, no flankers. They're all quarterbacks, even the old ladies. I'm the same way myself. When I'm watching a football game I'm the superquarterback in the sky.

But in 1962 I was only 22 years old, a fresh kid from Athens, Ga., and I didn't fully understand why all the fans didn't love me and my work. I had to have some sense knocked into me. In fact, in the last game of that worst-ever season I had a lot of sense knocked into me. I was skipping down the sidelines past several pursuing Baltimore Colts when suddenly I was all alone in a dark room, naked and afraid and looking for the light switch. Wendell Harris, a 190-pound defensive back who'll be my teammate at New York this season, had given me the old clothesline and knocked me out. It's a funny thing: I have been knocked out twice in my career, and both times it was by one of those defensive backs, the only guys in the pro game who are smaller than I am. The other one was Dave Whitsell of the Bears, and he nailed me in 1963, the Bears' championship year, when they were rolling over everybody in sight. On the third play of the game I tucked the ball under my arm and took off on a run, and while I was looking sideways at several other players Whitsell clotheslined me at full speed, and I mean I was really out! They carried me off the field, and I came to by slow stages. In the first stage, I sat up and took a place on the bench, even though I was still unconscious. In the second stage, I conversed with my teammates, and to this day I don't remember a word I said. I didn't actually come to until there were only four minutes left in the first half. It was like waking up from a dream, feeling myself sitting on the bench, hearing myself talking to my buddies, and not even knowing where I was. President Kennedy had been assassinated the week before, and that was the first thing that hit my mind as I groped my way out of the fog. I needed some fixed point, something to relate to, so I ran over to the team doctor, Dr. Don Lannin, and I said, "Didn't the President get killed? Didn't the President get killed?" I hoped he'd say no, and then I'd know I was in a dream and when I woke up President Kennedy would still be alive. But he said "Yes, he did, Fran," and then I realized where I was and who I was.

In that third year of the new franchise we won five games and we did a lot of things better, but I was still immature. It wasn't till the next year that I felt that I was beginning to be a genuine, bona fide professional quarterback, able to react properly to the pressures of the game. That's the dominating factor about pro football, the pressure, and you can't stay around if you can't handle it.

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