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People ask me if, after all these years, I still think about it. The answer is always instantaneous and emphatic: All the time!
It was December 28, 1975, and the Dallas Cowboys had come to the "Old Met." The Vikings were heavily favored to win the game, coming off a spectacular NFC-best 12-2 season. But it was not to be. Our 17-14 loss knocked us out of the playoffs, ended one of our greatest seasons, and I believe changed the history of the National Football League forever.
It's reasonable to suppose that I am haunted by the infamous Roger Staubach "Hail Mary" completion to Drew Pearson in the game's final seconds. Or by the previous play, when Pearson caught the fourth-and-17 pass, which was ruled a first down even though the receiver should have been called out of bounds.
But the moment of the game that torments me is something else entirely.
Staubach, a friend and a wonderful person, had a marvelous collegiate and National Football League career. He is a Heisman Trophy winner from the Naval Academy and a Pro Football Hall of Famer who led the Cowboys to four Super Bowl appearances and two championships. He was a great NFL quarterback, and certainly in my top three asthe best that ever played the game.
Drew Pearson was one of the premier receivers in the game. Named to the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 1970s, he scored 50 touchdowns in his career with Dallas.
If Staubach had finished his career with one less touchdown pass and Pearson had caught one less in his outstanding seasons with the Cowboys, it wouldn't have diminished their legacies, but it would have lifted a powerful regret for me. The play that still bothers me came when the Vikings last had the ball. It was late in the game and we were midfield, with a third down and 3 or 4. With a first down, the game is over, Dallas does not get the ball back, Staubauch doesn't throw the Hail Mary pass, and the Vikings advance to the NFC Championship game, and beyond.
In the fall of 2008, I was watching television at my lake home and happened to turn on the NFL Network. I rarely watch old NFL game replays, but this one immediately caught my attention. It was that fateful playoff game. And for the first time since the events of the game unfolded more than 30 years ago, I watched the entire game.
I had never watched a replay of it, never looked at the game films, and had no intention of ever doing so. I don't know why, but that day I watched the whole game. The emotions of the day were rekindled immediately. I knew the outcome wouldn't be different, yet I watched. The results remained the same, as did the hurt of losing.
The 1975 Minnesota Vikings were our best team. We had great players and superior coaches. We could run the ball, throw the ball, and score points. Our defense was exceptional. We had everything going for us that year and particularly in that Dallas game.
We had finished the regular season 12-2, losing only to the Washington Redskins 31-30 in Week 11, and to the Detroit Lions 17-10 on the second-to-last week of the season. We had won the first 10 games that year including routing the Browns 42-10, winning 28-3 against the Chicago Bears, and defeating our hated rivals, the Green Bay Packers, 28-17 and 24-3. We wrapped up the regular season by beating the Buffalo Bills 35-13 and were extremely confident going into the playoffs against the Cowboys.
I knew we were going to win, and I remained convinced of it until the very end. I still have a hard time accepting the outcome. And the reality is, if we had won the game, it likely would have lived in my memories as just another victory among many others. Instead, it was the worst day of my life.
To add insult to injury, a new term, Hail Mary, entered football's lexicon. And in every game that followed, from Pop Warner to the NFL, a desperation pass thrown toward the end zone at the end of the half or final seconds of the game is a Hail Mary, and a lingering reminder of that fateful December afternoon in 1975.
As the game ventured into the final quarter, we clearly had things under control. We had a 14-10 lead and showed no signs of relinquishing it. Our defense had been terrific all day. Late in the game, we had a third-down-and-short. If we can convert on this play, we run down the clock and win.
Dallas called a timeout; I think their last for the game. I went over to the sideline to talk to Jerry Burns, our offensive coordinator. We needed to come up with a play to keep the ball and control the ending of the game.
Before another word about the moment in one of the most important football games of my life, I would be greatly remiss if I didn't say something about Jerry Burns. I love Jerry Burns! He is the funniest man I have ever known and a brilliant, exceptional football coach and offensive coordinator. We worked closely together and made a great team. We always listened to each other and constantly brainstormed our knowledge and passion for the game. He had a keen understanding of the game and I loved planning game strategies with him.
If asked, I can just imagine Jerry saying, "Fran and I got along great. I always gave him everything he wanted." Now, I would differ with Burnsie on that, and to say we worked well together would not do the relationship justice. It was more than that; I truly loved Jerry Burns!
When I came to the sideline during the game to discuss that third-down play, Burnsie felt that a running play was our best chance to keep possession. I was convinced we should try a rollout to the right side and that I could run for the first down, or at the very least have a great opportunity to toss a short pass to Chuck Forman for the necessary yardage. My self-assurance was enough to convince Jerry, and I went back into the game, confident that we had made the right play call, and that the play would work. There is no question that I was in a position to make the right play call, and most importantly make the play work. Jerry Burns always believed in me and he felt that the quarterback had to run the play, and needed to be confident in the play working.
Unfortunately, Dallas had the play read, almost as though they had been a part of the sideline discussion. Dallas defensive back Charlie Waters burst through the line and the play completely collapsed. We had no chance.
And that one decision I made at that precise moment at the most crucial time in the game, that's what haunts me! There is absolutely no doubt in my mind the decision cost us the game, and an eventual Super Bowl victory, with our greatest team. I should have gone with Burnsie's running play. It hurts to relive it. I have never told that story before.
I mentioned early on that I truly believe that game on December 28, 1975, against the Cowboys changed National Football League history. It certainly changed history for the Minnesota Vikings. If we had won, we may well have gone on to win the Super Bowl. And who knows what it would have meant beyond that. I certainly think that greats like Jim Marshall and Mick Tingelhoff would have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
We dominated the league in the 1970s. We did it as much as Pittsburgh, the 49ers, or the Miami Dolphins of that era. But I didn't realize then, as I do today, how important it is to win the Super Bowl. We did well, but we never won that last one, so we will never be associated with those great teams of the past.
* * *
The ending of the game and unfair turnabout were deeply upsetting for the players, the coaches, and the fans. It really took a toll on all of us. I had been badgered for interviews by the media after the game and refused. It was not time to do television or radio interviews; it was time to leave the stadium and be with my family.
Grady Alderman and Mick Tingelhoff, my closest friends on the team, and our families had gathered in the parking lot after the game. We had planned to celebrate our win by watching the second game of the day's playoff doubleheader on television and tailgating in a van we had rented.
The mood was already somber when legendary announcer Jack Buck reported on the live broadcast, "We would like to express our condolences to the Tarkenton family for the unexpected death of Fran's father, Dallas Tarkenton, who died this afternoon of a heart attack." I was stunned. It was the first I had heard the news. Reported on national television, in the parking lot at Metropolitan Stadium, I learned of my father's death. I found out at the same time as the rest of the country.
My father was my heart and soul. It was as tough for me as anything could possibly have been. He was filling in as pastor at a small church near Savannah, Georgia, and was at home watching the game with my mom and my older brother, Dallas. I had last spoken to him on Christmas Day a few days before. I was told it was sometime around the middle of the game that he suffered a massive heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. We believe he died before reaching the emergency room.
I deeply loved my father. He was such a decent human being and I was so proud of him. He was not an astute follower of the game of football. He had no clue whether a football was blown up or stuffed but he watched the games because I was playing, and he always supported everything I did. He reveled in my success because he was proud of my accomplishments. And I was proud of my own accomplishments on the field, more than anything because it made him proud. Nothing was more important to me than that. He meant so much to me.
I have always felt that my father knew how much I loved him, and I never felt that I missed an opportunity to express my feelings and thoughts to him. He will always have a presence with me. He was always there for me and he still is today.
* * *
It took a long time to get anyone from the Minnesota Vikings into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Eventually, 1 got in, along with Alan Page, Bud Grant, Carl Eller, Paul Krause, and Ron Yary, among others. But what about Jim Marshall and Mick Tingelhoff? Of all my teammates over the years, I believe Jim and Mick belong in the Hall of Fame more than any of the rest of us.
Jim Marshall never missed a game. He was a great player and dynamic leader. He played in 282 consecutive games! Mick was the Vikings center for 17 years. He was All-Pro for seven consecutive seasons. He was the long snapper on punts, field goals, and extra points. Those Super Bowl losses have deprived the Vikings of so much glory and, without a doubt in my mind, they have kept two of the sport's greatest players from entering the Hall of Fame.
I had an amazing career in the National Football League as the quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings, the New York Giants, and the Vikings again. I played with great players and magnificent coaches. I loved everything about the game and what I did for a living. But that day, that game, and the results have left me with lifelong regrets.
For some, it's easy to recall the famous Hail Mary play and the game results; for me, it is agony. I know that many Vikings fans have lived with the memory of this game and the monumental loss for more than 30 years. My friend Dick Howell told me a long time ago that the fans would like to hear from me about it. I think that I have now done that. It's not much consolation, but it haunts me as much as anyone.
The outcome of the game and the disappointment it has caused for the organization, players, coaches, and fans seems unfair. And coupled with the death of my dad that very same day, it remains the most devastating day of my life.
Go down to the second garage on the right and cut to the left at the garbage cans. I'll hit you across the middle.
It was alley football, and I played it with my older brother, Dallas, and anyone we could get to play against us. The alleys were narrow; only one car could pass through them at a time. It helped us learn to be quick and how to be accurate with our throws.
It was a long way from Athens High School, the University of Georgia, the Minnesota Vikings, or the New York Giants, but the intensity and the desire to win and be successful was just as strong back then as at any time in my career.
Throwing a forward pass to Dallas on a crossing pattern to the left of the garbage cans past the second garage on the right-it brought a fire to my belly that carried me through almost three decades of football. Every minute of it was special to me, and I wanted to win.
We lived at 4100 5th Street N.W. in Washington, D.C. Narrow alleys stretched behind our neighborhood's houses, and there were garbage cans outside every garage providing further obstruction. I started throwing the football in those alleys with my brother when I was six or seven years old.
Dallas is a couple years older than me and was a wonderful athlete. He was bigger, taller, faster, and smarter than me. He was a phenomenal receiver; I could throw the ball anywhere and he would go up and get it. We beat everyone and I got used to winning.
I was born with an incredible desire and competitive spirit to win. It doesn't matter if it is football, checkers, golf, or anything else-I want to win! And it has always been that way.
I would pretend to be Redskins great Sammy Baugh, and later on, Jack Scarbath, quarterback from the University of Maryland. In fact, Scarbath is the reason that I have always worn No. 10 on my jersey. (It took me 55 years to discover something about that No. 10 that I will reveal later. It is truly an incredible story!)
Scarbath was a great quarterback. I loved the way he played the game. He was an All-American, engineered a perfect 10-0 season, was a Heisman Trophy runner-up, and had a record of 24-4-1 as the Terps' signal caller. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983 and played three years in the National Football League. I really admired him.
Sports, from the time I could first breathe, were a part of my life. It was all I thought about; I had no other interests. I collected bubblegum cards and played in the D.C. alleys, the playgrounds, the yards, and anywhere there was a game to play or a place to practice.
I was born in Richmond, Virginia and my family moved to Washington, D.C., when I was 5 years old. By the time I was 6 years old, I was into neighborhood football, basketball, and baseball. There was always a game somewhere, and I was a part of it.
It didn't take long for me to develop an interest in professional sports. In addition to Scarbath at Maryland, I lived and died with the Washington Redskins and their great quarterback Sammy Baugh, and the Washington Senators baseball team.
Baugh consumed my thoughts as a child, and to this day he remains a hero. Recently, in talking with a friend, I made the decision to visit the legendary NFL giant at his ranch in Texas. I had never met him, but I wanted him to know how important he was to me as a youngster and how I have idolized his on-field greatness throughout my entire life. He was always with me in those alleys as I looked for Dallas to break loose to the left of the garbage cans. Unfortunately, the very day I made the decision to go to Texas was the day that Baugh died at his home. He was 94.
We moved to Athens, Georgia, from Washington, D.C. when I was 10 years old. So there I was, a Yankee in the South. Athens became my home, and was a wonderful place to grow up. My heart and my roots will always remain in the South. For the past many years, I have made Atlanta a home for me and my family. Atlanta is truly a great city, an international city. It has all the major sports teams, the largest airport in the world, and has 5 million people-and it's growing. Every part of the city is unique. My world here in Atlanta centers on my family and my business, and I am proud to say that all my loved ones are within minutes of my work and my home.
But when I first moved to Georgia, I was steadfast about one thing: I wasn't going to change my sports loyalties. So I remained the University of Maryland's biggest fan. And what about Sammy Baugh and the Redskins? Was I going to leave them too? Not a chance! I kept up with Scarbath and Baugh and never lost the faith with my roots.
Excerpted from Every Day Is Game Day by Fran Tarkenton Jim Bruton Copyright © 2009 by Fran Tarkenton with Jim Bruton. Excerpted by permission.
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