(EDITOR'S NOTE: To access the Fran Tarkenton interview, click on the following attachment: Ep 72: Remembering Mick Tingelhoff With HOFer Fran Tarkenton | Spreaker)
Expansion franchises normally have forgettable debuts, struggling for weeks – sometimes, months – before winning. But there was nothing normal about the 1961 Minnesota Vikings.
Two weeks after dropping a preseason game vs. Chicago, they opened their first season on Sept. 17, 1961 – 60 years ago Friday – with a stunning 37-13 defeat of … you guessed it ... the Bears, a victory that Hall-of-Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton called “the greatest upset in the history of the National Football League.”
I don’t know about that. There are plenty of people in and around the 1968 Baltimore Colts and New York Jets who would disagree. Nevertheless, it was a shocker that featured a 21-year-old rookie quarterback who didn't start but who finished with four touchdown passes, a fifth rushing and a staggering 148.6 rating.
Fran Tarkenton, take a bow.
Unusual? You bet. But it was more than that. It was historic. Tarkenton became the only NFL player to throw for four TD passes in his debut until Marcus Mariota did it in 2015.
“You remember that?” Tarkenton was asked on the latest “Eye Test for Two” podcast (fullpressradio.com).
“I completed 17 of 21 passes for 237 yards (Pro Football Reference says it was 250),” he answered immediately, “and I did it in three quarters in an era where we didn’t have a lot of offense, right? And we’re playing the greatest team for the first 20-year history of the NFL -- the Chicago Bears.
"They were the standard because their owner (George Halas) was the founder of the National Football League. He was the coach. He was the GM. And he made sure he got all the good players because he set the rules. And I don’t say that in a derogatory manner. That’s just the way it was.”
The Vikings, on the other hand, were the league’s newbies, joining the NFL in 1961 one year after Dallas to comprise a 14-team league. The Cowboys lost their franchise opener a year before, then proceeded to drop 10 of their next 11 to finish 0-11-1.
But Minnesota was different. The Vikings won immediately, shocking a Bears' team that was coached by Halas, included Billy Wade, Rick Casares and Mike Ditka and would wind up 8-6.
The Vikings finished 3-11.
“Their owner was the founder of the National Football League,” Tarkenton said of the Bears. “He was the owner. He was the coach. He was the GM. And he made sure he got all the good players because he set the rules. And I don’t say that in a derogatory manner. That’s just the way it was.
"We were 28-point underdogs. We got beat by them two weeks before in an exhibition game, and those were the days when we played exhibition games. So, I think it was an amazing start.”
It was. No expansion team won the first game of its first season … that is, until the Vikings came along … and no expansion team did it again until the 2002 Houston Texans.
“That’s an historic game that doesn’t get much play,” said Tarkenton, “but it was a proud, proud moment to start a franchise that had a great history -- even though we haven’t won a Super Bowl. But we played in four of the first 11 from Day One. The franchise was built from Day One. That was a great day.”
No kidding. Tarkenton wasn’t the starter that afternoon. Veteran George Shaw was. But coach Norm Van Brocklin lifted him early, summoning Tarkenton from the bench, and the rest you know. He produced one of the most memorable rookie performances in league history.
“I know one thing,” Tarkenton said. “I was prepared to play. I knew exactly what I was going to do. I knew all their defenses. I knew all the audibles. I went to Van Brocklin’s house for three nights that week and got him to mentor me and coach me up. And he did. Without him, I couldn’t have done all that.
“They blitzed 80 percent of the time, so I had to call audibles. I called audibles every time they were in a certain defense because I understood the deal. Van Brocklin was the guy who had all the experience and the skills, and he taught me. He was my mentor.
“It was a monumental game, and I don’t think there’s any question: The greatest upset in the history of the National Football League.”
It was one of them. Let's just leave it at that.