October 04, 1976 12:00 PM

At 36 and in his 16th year as a professional quarterback, Francis Asbury Tarkenton of the Minnesota Vikings is ancient as football players go. And go he does, with the enthusiasm of a rookie. During fall practice, Tarkenton puts himself through a p.t. routine that is worse than boot camp. He stretches, flexes, runs 50- and 75-yard wind sprints and grunts through 200 sit-ups. Off-season he gets up at dawn to ride an exercise bicycle three miles and ends most days on his knees in the attic, throwing 100 to 150 footballs into a mattress to keep his arm limber.

This frenzy of fitness has paid off. At a lean 180 pounds, Fran Tarkenton is a supple, nearly indestructible scrambler who has never missed a game because of an injury. But Tarkenton has done more than just survive. Volumes of statistics support the argument that he may be the greatest quarterback in pro history.

As of last week he had run for more yardage (3,654) than any other quarterback and led in attempted passes (5,291) and in completions (2,973). And this year, assuming his right arm doesn’t fall off, he should take the lead in passing yardage—the record is 40,239 (by Baltimore’s Johnny Unitas) and Fran is at 39,355.

Strangely enough, despite these numbers, Tarkenton has been called “a loser.” He has never quarterbacked a winning team in the Super Bowl. The Vikings lost to Miami in 1974 and to Pittsburgh in 1975, and last December were smothered in the pre-Super Bowl play-offs. When Tarkenton quarter-backed the New York Giants for five years his performance was often impressive, but he was also sometimes blamed for the team’s mediocre record.

This year he is determined to change that image. “The incredible thing about Fran,” says Viking head coach Bud Grant, a taciturn man not given to hyperbole, “is that he hasn’t reached his peak. He’ll play for at least two or three more years.” Don Meredith, the quarterback turned broadcaster, agrees. “He’s smart enough to protect himself against those big linemen. He hasn’t submitted himself to the brutal punishment we usually take.”

On the five-acre lawn that surrounds his 12-room house in suburban Minneapolis (he owns an equally lavish spread in Atlanta where the family lives off-season), Fran likes to work out with son Matthew, 7, and daughters Angela, 12, and Melissa, 6. He has a reputation for unabashed domesticity. His wife, Elaine, describes the Tarkentons’ idea of the perfect evening: “Francis will sit there in front of the fireplace and smoke a pipe and we’ll be together.” He met Elaine at the University of Georgia, where she was a drum majorette and he was an All-America quarterback. He cut in on her at a fraternity dance, took her to church next morning, and they were married three years later in 1960. The date for Sunday worship was not just to impress Elaine. Tarkenton, the son of a Methodist minister, is named for the first Methodist bishop in the U.S. His upbringing was so sheltered that he was 18 and in college before he saw his first movie.

Now that Angela is growing up, Tarkenton often jogs with her in the morning—”It gives us a chance to talk privately,” he says. At least once a year he takes each child along on a business trip. He tries to insulate his family from football. “It’s hard enough to raise kids without putting that extra burden on them,” he says. “I make a living and so do other parents. Period.”

Tarkenton has his post-football life neatly mapped out. He will settle in Atlanta and devote full time to the company, Behavioral Systems, Inc., he started four years ago. It trains executives to deal more effectively with their employees, has a staff of 70, including eight psychologists, and grosses $2 million a year. Among its clients are Westinghouse, 3M and General Motors. Tarkenton’s salary from the Vikings, estimated at $300,000, probably accounts for only a third of his total income. He also appears on camera for NBC-TV sports.

Still, he’s not ready to hang it up yet. Off the field as on, he is the Viking team leader who likes to march his troops into a pizza joint at the end of training camp practice. “I love all this,” he says. “The camaraderie, the jokes, the good and bad times.”

The records seem less important to Tarkenton. “Those trophies I’ve got in the basement don’t mean anything to me,” he says. “Hell, that’s all stuff I did before. I want to do as well today. I live for today.”

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