The successful life of football player Fran Tarkenton

Published 4:51 pm Thursday, February 6, 2020

It was another octogenarian party for a good friend and what a time it was. A smattering of superstars showed up, along with some who knew him in adolescence, some from high school and college, some from all walks of life, and the many who accompanied his extraordinary celebrity—from Hollywood to network television to the National Football League.

Francis Asbury Tarkenton who grew up in Athens on the other side of the tracks, learned about the cruel and cut-throat business world and the liberal social mores of a fast-moving society that became eager to see him perform on the football field and just as eager to write big checks to hear him speak. Those of us familiar with his life’s story saw his leadership acumen surface in the 1959 Auburn game. Underdog Georgia had taken the lead 7-6 when Tarkenton’s rival at quarterback, Charlie Britt, backed into Bobby Walden’s punt, literally blocking the kick for Auburn which turned the miscue into a 13-7 lead.

Tarkenton was on the sideline when the Bulldogs gained possession following the fumble. Coach Wallace Butts, who held contempt for Tarkenton’s lack of physical confrontation (his canny quarterback was too smart for that), nonetheless, believed Tarkenton was the best quarterback for a crisis moment. Britt, noted more for his defensive astuteness, came off the field. The drive began at the Auburn 35-yard line. Tarkenton came with two quick passes to Don Soberdash, fullback-out-of-the-backfield over the middle, for 16 and nine yards which moved the ball just inside the Auburn 10-yard line. This is when drama gripped Sanford Stadium and the record attendance of 54,000.

All of a sudden, it became excruciating. The Bulldogs were faced with a 4th down and 13, (following a three-yard loss on a halfback pass attempt and two incompletions) winner-take-all moment. Calm, collected and without a shadow of a doubt, the “Kid from Nantahala” used his forefinger in the grass, drew up a play and confidently barked out instructions. The Bulldog quarterback moves under measured control to his right and you see the Auburn defense begin to flow to its left. “Not to worry” was surely the collective thinking of everybody wearing blue: “We will bottle this guy up before he can do any damage.”

Suddenly the kid from Nantahala, pulls up, looks to his left and throws across his body (uncommon for quarterbacks of that era) to a wide-open Bill Herron who gathers in the soft toss for one of the most celebrated touchdown passes in Georgia history. Following Durward Pennington’s kick for the extra point, the chapel bell soon would be pealing out victory for the Southeastern Conference champions.

That afternoon has become the centerpiece of Tarkenton’s fabled career in which he played 18 years in the National Football League, the most ever for a Bulldog position player. For years, he held the NFL record for pass attempts (6,467), completions (3,686), total passing yards (47,003) touchdowns (342) and rushing yards, gained by a quarterback (3,674).

Along the way, he cavorted with Hollywood celebrities, vacationed in Acapulco with Tonight Show host, Johnny Carson, frequented the executive offices of the major corporations of the country and learned to appreciate a vintage Chateau LaTour. When he played for the Giants, he interacted with the power-broker CEO’s of Wall Street, who were Giants fans and enjoyed having him in their company. When Fran, Y. A. Tittle and Joe Walton were not working on a concept of moving the ball via the short pass, a system, which he considers the forerunner of the West Coast offense, Tarkenton spent his down time, talking business with the elite CEO’s of America.

There has never been a time when he backed away from the fundamental view that the best way to win in football is the long-held notion that you must be fluent at running the football and stopping the run. When the pocket around him collapsed, however, he was not content to take a drive killing sack. He scrambled for opportunity and more often than not, found one.

I mean nobody ever hit Tarkenton. Everybody wanted to. About the only time you could get a shot at him was when he was sitting down on the bench. Tarkenton set the standard (for a mobile quarterback). He had eyes in the back of his head. He made you play his game. He would wear defensive linemen out. He was a magnificent football player.”

Tarkenton’s after-football life has had him functioning as an entrepreneur as robust as the French wines he enjoys. All his life, he has fought to be the leader. He always had to be No 1. It was in his DNA. There has been but one thing that has gnawed at him and continues to this day and that was not winning one of the three Super Bowls in which he played. In the mid-eighties, I took a video crew to his Atlanta office, to videotape his career story, from the Athens Y days to his NFL. When I asked if it really bothered him that he does not have a Super Bowl ring, striking that raw nerve, he almost leaped out of his chair. I reminded him about the fact some great players never even played in the Super Bowl, that Ted Williams never won a World Series. “(I have heard those who say that I had a great career and that I should be happy)…and I wish I could. But, I’ll tell you I can’t. It absolutely bothers me, and I have not been able to live it down

“The sad part about it is, that I don’t have a tomorrow. I can’t go out there at age 46 to try to win again. I have thought about that many times. I have had dreams of going back and playing at 42, 43 and 46… in the back of my mind, I still think I could and if someone would give me the chance, I could. And that’s sick, but that is how much it bothers me. And it will till the day I die. I’ll never get over losing those three Super Bowls.”

The “Kid from Nantahala” has experienced signature success in life and he has enjoyed the trappings of his celebrity. Now that he is playing the back nine of life, his legion of friends and admirers believe he should forget about any Super Bowls lost. Sonny Jurgenson said it best. The Kid from Nantahala” has nothing to complain about.