In the crowded Viking media chambers Wednesday Christian Ponder was presented to his public as the team’s new starting quarterback. He revealed a fresh and attractive personality, bright and mature for his 23 years, and ready to roll. He spoke warmly of his demoted predecessor, Donovan McNabb, and sounded primed to start his first National Football League game Sunday, against the best pro football team in America.
A thousand miles away in Atlanta, the quarterback who threw four touchdown passes in his first professional game 51 years ago, in the Vikings debut, offered congratulations and some battle-earned advice.
The first-year quarterback of that medieval time was Francis Tarkenton, now in pro football’s Hall of Fame and fresh from the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal, advocating dynamic incentives for small business. Why should anybody be surprised that Francis is now carrying his wisdom as a small business guru into the highest precincts of corporate America? The day isn’t long enough to accommodate Francis’ energies and advice.
He was in back in Atlanta Wednesday excited about Ponder’s possibilities, although he hasn’t seen him play.
“Every football guy I’ve talked to in the South [Ponder played at Florida State] will tell you this guy deserved being picked on the first round of the draft and can make it big in the NFL,” he said.
So how should Ponder approach Sunday and the Green Bay Packers?
“He has to know who he is, his strengths, what he can do and not be hesitant to assert those even though the Packers are good and are bound to come after him hard,” he said. “I know I wouldn’t want Clay Matthews [the Packers blitzing linebacker] hounding me, for sure.”
But the Vikings, he said, aren’t dog meat despite their ghastly start. “They’ve got quality players, veterans. And now a new quarterback. Donovan McNabb [who was lifted as the starter with the Vikings standing 1-5 in the NFL North] is a class act and will help the kid. You can bet on that.
“One thing for sure: Ponder can’t be overawed by the Packers, or by the occasion or the crowd’s expectations. He has to know who he is and the things he does best and what he can do. The rookie’s first start business can’t make him tentative.”
Tarkenton on Van Brocklin
Well, all right. But what was there in this finger-snapping, chesty quarterback of 51 years ago, signed for only $12,500 as the Vikings third-round draft choice (Ponder’s take will run into the millions) that got him ready and combative in his first game in professional football?
“I sucked in all of the information I could. Norm Van Brocklin was the coach. I know there were stories about our feuds later, but his football IQ was astronomical. He snarled and cursed and insulted, but he taught. I don’t know anybody who knew more about quarterbacking. I gobbled up everything I could.”
In fact Tarkenton and Van Brocklin had so little mutual love that they resigned from the Vikings almost simultaneously after six years, largely blaming each other because they couldn’t stand each other. Tarkenton went to the New York Giants, returned to the Vikings years later in the Bud Grant years and played in three Super Bowls.Van Brocklin later coached Atlanta, where he died. They never truly reconciled, although they both lived in Atlanta.
“But for all those enmities,” Tarkenton said, “I’ll remember Van Brocklin as an absolute genius as an offensive coach and the guy who really taught me practically all he knew about quarterbacking and especially about coming up with the right audible [changing a play at the line] against changing defenses.
“It’s something where Christian Ponder has to become an expert, something that becomes instinctive to him. He’s got to trust himself in those situations, because the bench can’t do it all. The game today is too fast for that.”
Tarkenton can be irresistible talking football. In fact, start the conversation and prepare for an avalanche. With luck you won’t miss dinner. He’ll go for hours, and if you want affirmation consult Harry Peter (Bud) Grant, who will tell you that nobody was smarter and not many were as tough as Tarkenton. He often played injured but rarely let on because the pass rushers were carnivorous in those days and he didn’t want to give them any encouragement of fresh blood.
The sport’s hanging juries dismissed him some time ago as a quarterback who deserved the same peerage with Joe Montana, John Elway, Jim Kelly, Terry Bradshaw, Dan Marino et al, among the great quarterbacks. Bud Grant thinks differently, and he knew Tarkenton better.
Models for Ponder
“The thing about today’s football — and this is something you can watch as Christian Ponder develops,” Tarkenton said, “is that the quarterback who’s more likely to win is the quarterback who knows this game inside out, works at knowing it and trusts himself.
“The models for Ponder beginning his career are guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning,” he said. “It’s not just that their right up there, the best. It’s why they’re the best. Yes, they can throw. Yes, they’re leaders. But they’re leaders because they know the game inside and out, what audible will work, and they do it in a split-second.
“The no-huddle offense is getting more important every year, and the quarterback has got to know what calls to make, what change to make while the defense his shifting, and then all of a sudden you’ll see a receiver running free, or the tight end make the right cut, and the ball is there, and it’s another first down or it’s in the end zone. That’s what puts Brady and Manning [when he comes back] ahead of the rest.
“From what I’ve heard, Ponder has the head and the ability to go in that direction. But that’s a long way off, and as a guy who played a long time, it’s good to know that not only his coaches will be helping him develop but a good guy like Donovan McNabb. It’s just good to see.”
So, all right, Francis, try to remember that day in Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, surrounded by the cornfields. You’re looking at the Chicago Bears, and the huge and malicious Doug Atkins, and middle linebacker Bill George and Joe Fortunato, who want to take your head off in your first game. And still you threw four touchdown passes and the Vikings won big in their first game ever because you look and sound sort of cocky but mostly because you’re a quarterback. And sometime later a kid at a Boy Scout rally where you spoke asked you what you were thinking when you were scrambling 25 yards behind line of scrimmage and Fortunato, Atkins and Bill George all were chasing you?
“I was thinking,” he said, “how bad it would be for me if they ever caught up.”
So happy trails Sunday and thereafter, Christian Ponder. But work on those audibles.