MINNEAPOLIS -- Since he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986, former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton hasn't made a single trip back to Canton -- not when three of his former teammates (Alan Page, Carl Eller and Ron Yary) were inducted, and not when his former coach Bud Grant was inducted in 1994.
That will change this summer.
Tarkenton will be in Canton on Aug. 8, to watch his center, his confidant and the man whom he calls his best friend finally reach the Hall of Fame. In all likelihood, Tarkenton will be presenting Mick Tingelhoff, the blue-eyed pit bull of a center who started every game for the Vikings from 1962-78 and waited 32 years before he finally got the call to Canton last weekend.
"It will be my pleasure," said Tarkenton, who turned 75 on Tuesday. "I've never been back there since ’86. I'm going back for the first time in a lot of years. I want to be there. Nobody knows him better."
Tingelhoff's wife, Phyllis, wants Tarkenton to do the honors in August, and Tarkenton will certainly have plenty to say about a man who rarely talked about himself but opened up to the quarterback like he would a brother.
The two played together for 12 seasons in Minnesota, rooming together at training camp and on the road. Tingelhoff protected Tarkenton from some of the fiercest defenders in the game -- linebackers such as Dick Butkus, Bill George, Ray Nitschke and Joe Schmitt, and defensive tackles such as Merlin Olsen and Bob Lilly. And after the Vikings' crushing loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the 1975 NFC divisional playoffs -- on the Roger Staubach-to-Drew Pearson touchdown that gave rise to the term "Hail Mary" in football -- Tingelhoff was by Tarkenton's side as he received the most crushing news of his life.
The two men, Vikings tackle Grady Alderman and their wives had rented a Winnebago that day, and waited for the crowd to spill out of the Met Stadium parking lot before they assembled to watch the Oakland Raiders-Cincinnati Bengals playoff game. On the broadcast, announcer Jack Buck broke the news to Tarkenton that his father, Dallas, had died during the Vikings-Cowboys game.
"Nobody said anything to anybody," Tarkenton said. "The game is done, and now we’ve got to deal with that tragedy. We're great friends – Mick and I never were demonstrative, he’s not a demonstrative-type guy -- but I knew his whole DNA, he knew my whole DNA. We had no secrets from each other. We wouldn't call it love, but it was love."
Tarkenton, who lives in Atlanta with his family, still stays in touch with Tingelhoff, though their exchanges are made more difficult by the years of football wounds that have left Tingelhoff in rough shape. Tarkenton largely talks to Phyllis Tingelhoff now, to check on his old friend, and the Tingelhoffs have made trips to Georgia to stay at Tarkenton's lake house over the years.
On Saturday night, the quarterback's phone call to the Tingelhoffs was one he'd been waiting to make for decades.
"Thank God he got in," Tarkenton said. "A lot of people have been pushing for him for years, for him and [defensive tackle] Jim Marshall. Phyllis said, 'I wish it could’ve happened earlier;' I said, 'Phyllis, let’s take what we got.' It’s just great for him, great for his legacy, great for the Minnesota Vikings and great for professional football."