Fran Tarkenton, inducted in 1986 to professional football’s Hall of Fame as one of the game’s greatest quarterbacks, first became known as a standout high school and college quarterback in Athens. He led the Athens High School Trojans to a state championship in 1955 and the University of Georgia Bulldogs to the Southeastern Conference (SEC) title in 1959. He went on to an eighteen-year, record-setting career with the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants of the National Football League (NFL).
Francis Asbury Tarkenton was born on February 3, 1940, in Richmond, Virginia. He moved to Georgia with his family when he was eleven years old. In a distinguished high school career in Athens, Tarkenton earned all-state honors in football, basketball, and baseball. In 1957 he enrolled at the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens, and the hometown player was named an All-SEC freshman after leading that year’s Georgia freshman team to an undefeated season.
Tarkenton was an All-SEC sophomore team selection in 1958 and was an integral player in the Georgia Bulldogs’ SEC championship in 1959. His potent offensive unit that year drew the nicknames “Tarkenton’s Raiders” and “Tarkenton’s Music Makers.” He led the SEC in passing completions and set a conference record for completion percentage in 1959, earning him All-SEC quarterback honors. He also led the Bulldogs to an Orange Bowl victory over Missouri on New Year’s Day, 1960.
In 1960, his senior season, Tarkenton was the captain of the Georgia squad, led the conference in total offense and in passing, and was named an All-American. He was also selected as an Academic All-American, reflecting a strong performance in the classroom to match his athletic achievements.
Tarkenton was chosen in the third round (twenty-ninth overall) of the 1961 NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings. Foreshadowing an illustrious professional career, he threw four touchdown passes in the first game of his first season in the NFL. Tarkenton played for the Vikings until a surprising trade sent him to the New York Giants in 1967. He returned to the Vikings, again in a trade, in 1972.
Tarkenton, who wore uniform number 10, marked his career as an accurate passer and an elusive runner. He threw for more than 1,000 yards in each of his eighteen professional seasons—an NFL record. Tarkenton reached that 1,000-yard mark in 1977 despite breaking his leg in a game against the Cincinnati Bengals and missing the last five games of that season. He led the Vikings to the Super Bowl in 1973, 1974, and 1976. He was named NFL All-Pro in 1973 and 1975 and was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection. Tarkenton was the league’s Player of the Year in 1975.
When he retired after the 1978 season at the age of thirty-nine, Tarkenton held lifetime NFL records for passing attempts (6,467), passing completions (3,686), passing yards (47,003), and touchdowns (342). He also ran for 3,674 yards and 32 touchdowns on the ground. The Vikings’ head coach, Bud Grant, called Tarkenton “the greatest quarterback to ever play the game.” He holds passing records for the Vikings in all but two categories.
Tarkenton has remained active since his retirement from football. He lives in Atlanta, where he has had a successful business career. He has written books, including What Losing Taught Me about Winning (1997); has hosted the TV programs That’s Incredible! and Monday Night Football (both in the early 1980s); and is a sought-after motivational speaker. He was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1977, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986, and the University of Georgia’s Circle of Honor (the highest award a Bulldog athlete can receive) in 2001.