This story, by Dick Gordon, appeared under the headline “Acclaim at last for Tarky; Hailed as No. 1 NFC player” in the Jan. 31, 1976, issue of The Sporting News. Twin Cities icon Fran Tarkenton earned the honor just weeks after his Vikings, 12-2 during the regular season, lost in the waning seconds to the Cowboys on the Roger Staubach-to-Drew Pearson “Hail Mary.”
TWIN CITIES — At long last, recognition as a great quarterback has come to Francis Asbury Tarkenton. And his reaction amounts to a “so what?”
For 14 seasons of avoiding enemy blitzes and completing passes for the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants, he never made All-Pro. In both 1973 and ’74, while leading the Vikings to back-to-back National Conference championships and Super Bowl appearances, he never even gained a spot on the All-Conference selections.
But this — the 15th campaign for the highly successful Atlanta business executive — is different. He finally received the ultimate in recognition by being named The Sporting News NFC Player of the Year. He will receive a Bulova Accuquartz watch, emblematic of the honor voted him by TSN pro football writers.
“That’s very nice. I’m very pleased,” he said.
Wasn’t it especially gratifying to be honored now after so many years of being bypassed?
“No,” he answered and sounded as if he meant it. “I was never depressed in those other years,
“So I’m not impressed now when the same people select me for these honors.
“Recognition is not what I play for. I can’t control what others think. The only person I have to satisfy is myself. I do what I can do. And at the end of the season, it’s nice if I think I’ve done some thing to help.
“But MVP is not appropriate in football. It’s a figment of the press’ imagination. One man never makes a team successful.”
That’s what the man said after another banner campaign in which he rose above Johnny Unitas as the league’s all-time pass-master, with 291 touchdown passes, 2,931 completions and 5,225 aerial attempts.
Tarkenton previously admitted that such records, especially the one for TD passes, would make him feel he had accomplished something. But his remarks after he finally broke the barrier with two short end-zone passes to Chuck Foreman in the regular season windup at Buffalo were typically Tarkenton.
“The biggest thing,” he said then, “was to have Jim Marshall, Mick Tingelhoff, Don Lannin (the team doctor), Carl Eller and all the Old Guard walk up and say, ‘Francis, we’re glad to see it.’ Boy, that matters.”
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If you know Tarkenton, you realize that his present position of softpedaling records and other honors stems from the years of disillusionment when Norm Van Brocklin and others said he never would be a winner and when he was compared — unfavorably — with the more orthodox Unitases and Bart Starrs.
“To hell with it and to hell with them (the critics),” he once said. “A quarterback has to play it the way that is best for the team he’s with, and what he has in his body and his head to work with.”
Bud Grant, the coach who asked Jim Finks, then Vikings general manager, to swallow his pride and bring Tarkenton back from the Giants, long ago thought the way Francis played it was just what his offense needed.
Grant and Tarky were tabbed football’s odd couple when they first came together on the same team in 1972. It was a bum guess. Today Grant’s usually restrained enthusiasm hardly can be contained when discussing Tarkenton.
“I never saw a quarterback who could do it so many ways, and who worked so hard at it,” he said. “He will be known as the greatest quarterback by the time he finishes. I don’t know if anybody else will be close.”
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And no one is likely ever to get close to him statistically. Remember, those records he recently broke were in his 15th season, compared with 17 for Johnny U. And last season, the mature veteran seemed as nimble as ever.
Starr was among those who marveled at the old head roaring around on the young legs. Tarkenton hit 64 percent of his passes, with 273 completions for 2,994 yards and 25 touchdowns while adding another 108 rushing yards on 16 scrambles to daylight.
Tarkenton won’t say it was his greatest season. “I don’t rate them,” he said, although in the past he has mentioned 1970, when he led a nondescript Giant team to a 9-5 record.
But because his name went into the record books, probably forever, 1975 always will be remembered as a landmark year. No matter how he feels about media selections, he richly deserved to be The Sporting News Player of the Year.
The Vikings were just eight points from a perfect season during the 14-game schedule, with Tark’s play-calling and passing prime reasons for the 12 victories.
And although he and the offense did not have its best day against Dallas in the playoff, the fourth-quarter 80-yard touchdown march he directed was a masterpiece, a pressure achievement that will never get its due because of the Staubach-Pearson miracle which followed.
After a holding penalty, the Vikings had a second down and 13 when Tarkenton hit Foreman for 16 key yards. Three more passes convinced the Cowboys to tighten their air defense at their own 30. Tarkenton thereupon called four straight running plays, including a reverse to Brent McClanahan on which he threw a vital block.
The 11-play drive consumed more than six minutes and gave Minneapolis à 14-10 lead that missed by 24 seconds and one play of being a victory.
For those who saw it, Tarkenton’s ability to suddenly ignite a sluggish attack provided further evidence that The Sporting News made the right choice.