ATLANTA - When you think of the Minnesota Vikings and Super Bowls, you likely think of Fran Tarkenton.
He still thinks about it too. A lot.
With the Super Bowl headed to Minnesota, we wondered what the Hall of Famer thought of the big game here in the Bold North. So we flew to Atlanta to ask him.
In a tall office building in the deep south of Atlanta is a treasure trove of football history. The halls of the Tarkenton Companies are lined with pictures, awards and trophies and behind every one of them is a story. A story Fran Tarkenton remembers with vivid detail. We ask him about the trophy he won in the Pro Bowl.
“Don Shula is our coach, and he’s Johnny Unitas’ coach, and we practice all week and come Friday Shula says to me, 'You know, I’m going to have to start John and I hope you understand you’ll play every other quarter, second and fourth quarter.' I said, 'Sure, you gotta start Johnny Unitas, he’s Johnny Unitas, he’s iconic.' I said, 'but if you want to win the game, you better start me.' I happen to have a good day and I get the trophy. I’m not a big trophy guy, but this one has been right here in the center of my universe for me. It’s my favorite trophy and the story kind of helps it out a bit,” Tarkenton says with a laugh.
At 77, Fran still shows up to the office every day because that’s just how he’s wired.
"I've got to work. I don't need to work at 77 but I've got to work because it keeps me going,” he says.
Fran’s life in business didn’t start after he retired from football. He started working as a kid and certainly worked the entire time he played in the pros.
"When I went to pro football I made $12,500 with the Vikings, and that was it, and so I had an off-season job with Wilson Truck Systems. We were based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and my job was to knock on the doors of shipping clerks in the Dakotas and Minnesota to get them to ship their good from the Dakotas, through the Twin Cities to Chicago and back. They paid me $600 to do so. And then I supplemented that by making speeches in every church in St. Paul and Minneapolis and around for $25 a night,” recalls Tarkenton.
"By the time I finished football I've already started my own businesses and I was well on my way to being a self-employed entrepreneur," he says.
Fran did everything from starting a technology company to a failed fast-food restaurant called Scramblers Village. He's had more success than failure, but it's those failures he says, that have made him who he is today.
"I don't know if I had won all three Super Bowls that I played in, I probably wouldn't have been as good a businessman as I've been. Because I have an edge. I never feel I've got it figured out."
He even wrote about it. In his book The Power of Failure, Fran talks about business and those three Super Bowls.
“I cannot tell you how catastrophic they were to me. And I have not let them go and I don't want to let them go,” he says.
“I remember the three Super Bowls, but I'll tell you the game I remember the most, where we didn't get to the Super Bowl. We were playing the Dallas Cowboys in a playoff game. It was arguably our best team."
It was 1975. The old Met Stadium. All the Vikings had to do was run out the clock. Fran called an option play and he was stopped in his tracks by the Dallas defense.
“If I had that one play over in my life and maybe made a different call, to maybe give me a better chance, to give us a better chance, then I'd like to take that one back."
Vikings fans know the rest of the story all too well.
Roger Staubach, with 32 seconds left on the clock, throws what would become known as a "Hail Mary" pass.
But what you don't know is this.
“Now, I am devastated. I cannot talk. The world stopped. I go in the locker room. I go out with Grady Alderman and Mick Tingelhoff, my best buddies and their wives, and we get in a Winnebago. "We had on (the radio) the second game, whoever's playing I don't know, but Jack Buck was the announcer. I'm sitting there with my buddies mourning our loss and Jack Buck says they announce the death of my father. He was watching our game and had a heart attack in Savannah, Georgia and died. Yep. Yep."
That is how Fran Tarkenton learned his father had passed away. On the radio. After a terrible loss on the field.
"So, I go from that to my father who was 62 years old, my best buddy, and he died watching us play,” he says.
That and those three Super Bowls pushed him harder in life.
"I carry that motivation with me. It's on this shoulder. So, if I ever get thinking I'm good or smart or great, I only have to dial that up. Those disappointments, those four disappointments, and it gets me back to reality. And I don't have the disease that I think I know it all and I have all the answers because I didn't then and I don't now,” he says.
Don't get Fran wrong. He knows he's lived a blessed life. But Super Bowls? Well, they're just hard for him.
"I've had a lot of pressure to go back for the Super Bowl and I've thought about it and I haven't made a final decision. But, Super Bowls are painful for me. They're not happy occasions for me. I watch the games but I watch them by myself."
But what if, and just hear us out here, what if the Vikings make it to the big game?
"If they make the Super Bowl? It would be hard to stay away from. That would be hard to stay away from,” says Tarkenton. “I'd be pulling so hard for them to win. Would that erase all the pain I've had? No. Would it give me a great sense of joy? Yes."
A great sense of joy because even after all these years Fran still bleeds purple.
“It's the greatest thing that could have happened in my career. To be drafted by the Minnesota Vikings. To play there for those first six struggling years, but to come back, the gift to come back and play on all those great teams in the 70's. For those great players and Bud and Burnsy, made my life. And even though I live down here in the deep south of Atlanta, my heart rests in Minnesota."