The seed for what Fran Tarkenton likes to call the greatest upset in NFL history was planted three weeks earlier when upstart Vikings coach Norm Van Brocklin, fresh off the playing field as league MVP with the Eagles in 1960, ticked off George Halas, Bears owner, coach, league founder and an instrumental figure in awarding Minneapolis its expansion team in 1961.
Per NFL rules, Van Brocklin was supposed to deliver to Halas the game films of his team's first three exhibition games before the Vikings and Bears played a fourth exhibition game in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Sept. 2. Van Brocklin didn't, and Halas went public with the slight.
A 42-year veteran of the 42-year-old league, Halas mocked the 34-year-old Van Brocklin and his Vikings, saying sarcastically that he looked forward to seeing what "that rough-and-tough football team has been doing." Halas then snickered when the Bears whipped the Vikings 30-7 in front of 12,000 fans.
"We got destroyed," said Tarkenton, the Hall of Fame quarterback who was a 21-year-old rookie from Georgia at the time.
Fifteen days later, on Sept. 17, 1961 — 60 years ago Friday — the Bears visited Metropolitan Stadium, the $8.5 million Bloomington prairie home of the Vikings and Twins, for the first regular-season game in Vikings history. A more curious than boisterous crowd of 32,326 fans — about 9,000 below capacity — showed up to see how the NFL's entertainment value would stack up to a wildly popular Gophers football team coming off the 1960 national championship.
Vikings 37, Bears 13.
Tarkenton didn't start, but he sure finished. Replacing George Shaw with the Vikings leading 3-0 in the first quarter, Tarkenton couldn't have started his record-setting career faster than this: 17-of-23 passing for 250 yards ("which was like 500 yards in 1961," said Tarkenton) and four touchdowns, no interceptions, a rushing touchdown and a 148.6 passer rating that stood as the second-highest in his 13 seasons as a Viking.
"I was a freak of nature," said Tarkenton, the league's first scrambling quarterback. "It was almost sacrilegious for a quarterback to run."
Halas was irate, cussing out his players and later telling reporters that he'd never seen so many things go wrong in one game. When Tarkenton wasn't weaving through Chicago's lumbering defenders, the Vikings defense was dominating with four interceptions and a fumble recovery.
"I do remember Halas stomping around and throwing a clipboard down," laughed Jim Marshall, whose streak of 270 consecutive starts as Vikings right defensive end began that day and didn't end until he retired in 1979. "One time, he almost threw down that famous hat of his. Yeah, he was kind of angry that day."
The Vikings would lose their next seven games and cap a 3-11 season with a 52-35 loss to the Bears in Chicago. But, for one perfect storm of an afternoon 60 years ago, the Vikings rejoiced in what remains the best of 61 season openers, and counting.
Tarkenton was lost
The expansion Vikings reported to training camp at Bemidji State University on July 7, 1961. A seven-week grind would include five exhibition games, the first four on the road.
The opener was Aug. 5 at Howard Wood Field, about 197 miles southwest of Minneapolis in Sioux Falls, S.D. A sparse crowd of 4,954 showed up to watch the Dallas Cowboys — 0-11-1 in their first NFL season the year before — rout the Vikings 38-13.
The Vikings would go 0-5 in exhibition games. Tarkenton, a third-round draft pick, admits he was so confused heading into the exhibition finale that he asked Rams veteran quarterback and fellow Georgia Bulldog Zeke Bratkowski if he could meet with him and pick his brain. The two had dinner the night before the Vikings and Rams played the exhibition finale at Met Stadium on Sept. 10.
"I said, 'Zeke, I'm just not comfortable out there. I don't get it,'" Tarkenton said. "He said, 'Be patient. It will open up and it will slow down. Just keep watching film and working at it."
Not long after that, Van Brocklin told Tarkenton he would start against the Bears the following week. Every night that week, they watched film together at Van Brocklin's house.
"The Bears blitzed 80 percent of the time," Tarkenton said. "Van Brocklin wasn't my favorite person, as people know. But he was a great quarterback and really understood the passing game.
"He drilled into me all the audibles and things to watch for. I knew it would work if I got the chance."
The morning of the game, Van Brocklin changed his mind and started Shaw, the first overall pick of the Colts in 1955. Unfortunately for him, he broke his leg in 1956, opening the door for Johnny Unitas and sending Shaw to the Giants.
"Van Brocklin gave up a No. 1 pick in 1962 to get George," Tarkenton said. "He said he had to give George the first crack. It didn't work out, so he sent me in and there you go."
Receiver Jerry Reichow remembers running onto the field next to Tarkenton that first time.
"I played with Van Brocklin in Philadelphia and he had just traded for me that week," Reichow said. "I had hopes of maybe playing quarterback in Minnesota because I had been a backup in my career. I wasn't high on George Shaw, and I didn't even know who Tarkenton was."
That changed quickly. After Bob Schnelker caught Tarkenton's first touchdown pass, Reichow grabbed the second one for a 29-yard score.
"You looked at Fran and said, 'Good Lord' because no one had ever seen anything like it," Reichow said. "You'd run your pattern and you'd look back and say, 'Well, I guess he's not going to throw it yet.' Then you'd run across the field and, 'Nope, still not throwing it.' I'd run about a mile waiting for him to throw it, but he'd finally spot you and throw a very, very easy ball to catch.
"So after that first game, I said, 'Well, looks like I'm sticking with wide receiver.'"
Reichow became Tarkenton's favorite target, catching 50 passes for 859 yards and 11 touchdowns. Reichow was released before the 1965 season and spent more than five decades in the Vikings' scouting department.
Van Brocklin's Hall of Fame playing career lasted 12 seasons with the Rams (1949-57) and Eagles (1958-60). He won NFL titles with both teams and in 1951 set a record for passing yards in a game (554) that stands to this day. A month after winning MVP and handing Vince Lombardi his only NFL title game loss, Van Brocklin left the Eagles for the Vikings coaching job when Philadelphia wouldn't name him coach Buck Shaw's successor.
Many called him "The Dutchman." Vikings players called him something else.
"Stormin' Norman," Hall of Fame center Mick Tingelhoff told the Star Tribune in 2015. "Every other word was a cuss word. Always yelling and calling us girls and all that stuff."
Van Brocklin was famously hot-headed, mean-spirited and volatile. He liked to drink hard and was known to lead with his fists on occasion. His practices were ruthless.
"He was brutal," said Marshall, who came to the Vikings via trade from the Browns. "I was used to Paul Brown, a sophisticated coach. Van Brocklin basically punished us. He'd run us until we could run no more."
Players say they were always on the lookout for Stormin' Norman's next eruption.
"One time in a game, an official made a call Van Brocklin didn't like," Marshall said. "Van Brocklin is running up the sideline trying to get the official's attention so he could complain."
It wasn't working. Van Brocklin needed something to throw at the official.
"Norm always had a pocketful of coins," Marshall said. "When he couldn't get that official's attention, he took that pocketful of change and threw it at the official."
Van Brocklin and Tarkenton never did hit it off. In a 2015 interview with the Star Tribune, Tarkenton said of the late Van Brocklin, "God bless his soul, but he was a dysfunctional human being, totally dysfunctional."
Finally, Tarkenton demanded a trade after the 1966 season. General Manager Jim Finks agreed to it but thought Tarkenton would change his mind later when Van Brocklin announced he was quitting with a 29-51-4 record and no playoff appearances.
"I said, 'Ain't going to do it, Finksie,'" Tarkenton said. "I'm not going to have Van Brocklin's blood on my hands."
Tarkenton was traded to the Giants. Five years later, Finks brought him back via trade.
"Van Brocklin just didn't like Fran and called him the most vile things you could think of," Marshall said. "Van Brocklin was the classic pocket passer."
Said Tarkenton, "Norm was a great quarterback and a brilliant offensive mind. He just didn't have the mentality you need to be a great leader or a great head coach. It just wasn't in his bag, which is why he wasn't successful in Minnesota and later on in Atlanta."
There is, however, an ever-lasting black-and-white photo from the home locker room after that 37-13 win that came 60 years ago Friday. Everyone is smiling. And smack dab in the middle, shoulder to shoulder, are Tarkenton and Van Brocklin.
Meanwhile, over in the visitors locker room, a founding father of the NFL was breathing fire.
"It's funny because Halas basically was the reason Minnesota has an NFL team," Reichow said. "It kind of backfired on him. That day, for sure."
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