The Vikings-Bears rivalry dates to the first game in Vikings history in September 1961, which Minnesota won 37-13 at Metropolitan Stadium. On Monday night they will play their 111th game against each other, with the Vikings holding a 57-51-2 series edge.
But in 1961, no expansion franchise had ever won the first game of their inaugural season. The Vikings were led by coach Norm Van Brocklin, and faced the great George Halas, who did everything imaginable for the Bears.
And while the Vikings won that first contest, they finished 3-11 that year.
Quarterback Fran Tarkenton, who was a rookie and didn’t start against the Bears, remembers every detail of the game. He recently recalled what he said was the greatest upset in Vikings history, and maybe one of the greatest upsets in NFL history.
“It was 1961. We were a new expansion team. No new expansion team had ever won [an opening] game in their first season,” Tarkenton said. “The Dallas Cowboys came in the year before we did in 1960. Tom Landry, Hall of Fame coach, Don Meredith, a great quarterback, and they played 12 games and didn’t win a game [going 0-11-1; the NFL initiated a 14-game schedule in 1961].
“Here we’re playing the opening game against the Chicago Bears. We’d lost five exhibition games already, the Bears had beaten us, drummed us like [30-7] two weeks before in an exhibition game in, of all places, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Now we would play the Bears [again]. We were 28-point underdogs.”
Tarkenton explained why the Vikings were such big underdogs and why expansion teams had a hard time winning games.
“Now I’m going to tell you how we got our players,” he said. “Every team in the league had 40-player squads. They got to [keep] their 34 top players; nobody has 34 top players. … We got to pick three of the bottom six [from each of the other 13 teams] and then a regular [college] draft. That’s why these teams couldn’t win their first year, that’s what we had to play with.
“We made a trade with the Browns one week before the season started. We got [six] players that all made our team. We only gave them a [1962 second- and 11th-round] draft choice, because these people were getting cut. One of the players we got was [defensive end] Jim Marshall. He had played one year with the Cleveland Browns and got an illness and he played that first game [with the Vikings] at 215 pounds. We had players starting who didn’t even go through training camp with us.”
The Bears were run by one of the legendary figures in NFL history in Halas.
“The Bears owner was George Halas, the coach was George Halas, the general manager was George Halas and the founder of the National Football League was George Halas,” Tarkenton said. “In the [1930s and ’40s], the Bears won more championships than all the other teams put together because he sealed the whole deal. He got the best players all those 20 years because he was the founder of the National Football League. He had great players, and we have to play them in that opening game and we had no chance.”
Shaw gets the start
The Vikings drafted Tarkenton in the third round in 1961 from the University of Georgia, but Van Brocklin wasn’t sure whom to start at quarterback in the franchise’s first game and wavered in the days before facing the Bears.
“Van Brocklin told me before the game, ‘Kid, you’re going to start the game,’ ” Tarkenton recalled. “I went and studied film with him every night that week. On the morning of the game, we had another quarterback on the team named George Shaw, who was a veteran quarterback.
“Van Brocklin was going to start him because he had experience and he had traded a  No. 1 draft choice before the season to get him. George was a really nice guy and a good quarterback. But Van Brocklin came to me and he said, ‘I need to start George because he needs the chance,’ and I kind of understood that.”
Van Brocklin also had a connection with Billy Wade, the Bears quarterback.
“[Wade] had been the No. 1 pick [overall in 1952] of the Los Angeles Rams,” Tarkenton said. “He was there when Van Brocklin was there [still playing quarterback] and they still picked him. Van Brocklin was a Hall of Fame quarterback and they still picked Wade and finally traded Van Brocklin to Philadelphia and he won a championship there [in 1960 in his final season]. And then he was our coach, and Bill Wade, who replaced him in Los Angeles, is the quarterback for the Chicago Bears.”
The Vikings got on the board early with a Mike Mercer 12-yard field goal, but Tarkenton recalled that the team wasn’t moving the ball well. That’s when Van Brocklin made the decision to replace Shaw with Tarkenton.
“I went in near the end of the first quarter and it was just one of those days,” he said. “I always played with confidence and that day I completed 17 of 23 passes, no interceptions, 250 yards — that’s like throwing for 500 yards today in that era. I threw for four touchdown passes, ran for another. We beat the Chicago Bears, the Monsters of the Midway, 37-13.”
Tarkenton connected on touchdown passes to Hugh McElhenny, Jerry Reichow, Dave Middleton and Bob Schnelker.
In Tarkenton’s opinion, that game remains one of the most important in his career and one of the greatest victories in Vikings history.
“I will put out there for all of the Vikings Nation fans that that’s the biggest upset in the history of football, when you put all of those things together,” he said. “That started off our rivalry with the Bears and we continue to have it and we’ll play them again on Monday night. That’s a game we need to win to get back on track. We do not need to have two losses in the row.”
‘It was magnificent’
Looking back on that 1961 season, Tarkenton had great memories of not only that first victory but of going on to beat Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts 28-20 and the Los Angeles Rams 42-21.
“That first year we won three games and lost , and that was monumentally great because no other expansion team had won one game [at that time],” he said. “It was magnificent.”
Yes, and so was Tarkenton. He was the first player to throw for four touchdowns in his first game, a feat later equaled in 2015 by the Titans’ Marcus Mariota, but Tarkenton held it alone for 54 years. He finished the season with 1,997 passing yards, 18 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. And he rushed for 308 yards and five scores as he started his Hall of Fame career.
In my opinion, Tarkenton contributed more to the Vikings franchise than any other player in the history of the club.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. firstname.lastname@example.org