(EDITOR'S NOTE: To access the Fran Tarkenton interview, click on the following attachment: Ep 72: Remembering Mick Tingelhoff With HOFer Fran Tarkenton | Spreaker)
Quick now: Name the center who holds the NFL record for most consecutive starts. If you said the Vikings’ Mick Tingelhoff, with 240, welcome to Mensa.
Tingelhoff passed away last weekend at the age of 81 after a prolonged battle with Alzheimer’s, leaving behind a glittering legacy that included seven All-Pro selections, six Pro Bowls, four Super Bowls, membership in the Vikings' Ring of Honor and a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Oh, almost forgot: There were those 240 consecutive starts, too.
So which of these would you consider his greatest accomplishment?
For an answer, we turned to Tingelhoff’s best friend, confidante and self-described “soul mate,” Hall-of-Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton. Tarkenton teamed with Tingelhoff for 12 years, roomed with him and, decades later, presented him for induction to the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame’s Class of 2015. Few knew him better, and few are more qualified to answer.
“His greatest achievement,” Tarkenton said on the latest “Eye Test for Two” podcast (fullpressradio.com), “was that he helped us win. I mean, he was a great player, a great teammate. We’re a team sport. We need all of them. We need a front office. We need coaches. We need ticket sellers. We need offensive line coaches. We need all the stuff.
“One person doesn’t make a great organization. We need all that. And you need a center who can play and play every week.”
Tingelhoff did just that. From the moment he took over at center in 1962 to his last game 17 years later, he never missed a start and never missed a practice. Coaches often say that it’s not only ability that matters; it’s availability, too. Mick Tingelhoff had both.
“He was just as good as anybody who ever played the position,” said Tarkenton,” and he did it for 17 years straight. Didn’t miss a game. Didn’t miss a practice. Was a great teammate and a great contributor to our success.
"But football is a team sport. I know everybody thinks (Tom) Brady wins it by himself, but the defense last year gave up six points in the Super Bowl in modern-day football where they score 100 points a game. (The Bucs’) defense played pretty good, I guess.”
The Vikings’ defense played “pretty good,” too, during Tingelhoff’s tenure. Known as “The Purple People Eaters,” they were front and center launching the Vikings to four Super Bowls in the game’s first 11 years. OK, so they didn’t win one. But defensive stars Carl Eller, Alan Page and Paul Krause were so accomplished that it didn’t keep them from reaching Canton.
Tingelhoff made it there, too, though much later. He was chosen 37 years after retirement, a wait Tarkenton termed “a disgrace.” But at least he made it, and his Iron Man record was among the considerations that finally, mercifully, pushed him over the top.
But that leads us to this question: How did Tingelhoff do it, and how much pain did he play with? Again, consider Tarkenton an expert witness.
“You’d like me to give you the truth, would you not?” he said.
“I never thought about that,” he said. “I never knew him to be hurt. If he was hurt I never knew. I didn’t see him go out and limp and play … or (I didn’t know if) his shoulder was bad. If it was, he never told me. He just played.
“Everybody played through some pain, but Mick never lost his capacity to hit people with his shoulders and his arms, and he could always run. So I can’t go along with how hurt was, or how much pain he was in. Sometimes that gets overblown in football. I played (in the NFL) for 18 years. I played for four in high school, four in college. I missed five games. We all have soreness and this and that. It’s football. But gosh, if you can get up and walk, you can play. And that’s what he did.
“He was a silent assassin. I saw him take out (Hall-of-Famer) Bob Lilly, who was a great tackle. I saw him take out (Hall-of-Famer) Merlin Olsen, and these guys weighed 280 back then, and Mick weighed 245.
"He was just a silent assassin, and he thought his number-one goal in life was to protect me on the field. But I reminded him he needed to protect me off the field. And he did that, too.”