When Fran Tarkenton was a boy growing up in Washington, he learned his scatter-dash touch football on Capitol Hill.

"Sure, I remember," said the Minnesota quarterback. "I got hooked on sports back then, played for my first football team at the Merrick Boys Club in the fifth and sixth grade... Tom Penrod was the coach."

When Tarkenton's dad, a Pentecostal preacher, left Maryland Avenue for Georgia, the 12-year-old thought he had left several things behind forever.

He couldn't be captain of the Peabody School Safety Patrol anymore. "I missed that," he said.

Miss Davis, the sixth-grade teacher, couldn't snap his head off for passing out the milk and graham crackers wrong. "I didn't miss that," he said.

And Tarkenton wasn't going to draw any more freaky football plays in the Stanton Park dirt with a Popsicle stick.

Little did he know that his quarterbacking life would come full circle. These days, Tarkenton might as well be back in the Peabody playground playing touch again. And he loves it.

Out of desperate necessity, the Vikings have turned their offense into the most sophisticated, paradoxical, madcap parody of touch football that the NFL has ever seen.

Last week, for instance, Tarkenton passed 56 times, including four for touchdowns, in a 28-27 win over Philadelphia.

In 14 games so far, Tarkenton, the ringmaster of his own five-receiver aerial circus, has completed 304 passes -- breaking Sonny Jurgensen's NFL season mark of 288.

"That record means absolutely nothing to me," said a laughing Tarkenton, whose completions have amassed 2,921 yards and 21 TDs. "But what it stands for... that may mean as much to me as anything in my career.

"This has been my most difficult and traumatic season. But I also think I've really contributed more this season than I ever have to a team... a more solid, total contribution."

The way that nimble, noble Sir Francis has kept the 8-5-1 Vikings in a firstplace divisional tie with Green Bay has almost mystified him.

"We don't really have a running game... it's 28th in the league -- dead last," he said. "We're overmatched physically on the line of scrimmage every week.

"Our line wasn't deep to start with, then we lost two starters and our top sub. We've got the smallest line in football by far. We couldn't run if we wanted to.

"But," said Tarkenton, enjoying every word, "we lead the league in ball control... and we're doing it by passing. Everybody said it couldn't be done.

"We've run more plays than any team in the league" -- 123 more than their opponents and 47 more than any other team in the league.

"That's helped our defense a lot, too, because we're not the Purple People Eaters anymore."

For Tarkenton, this season has been "the culmination of 26 years of studying the quarterback position, and I've always approached it as a student. Nobody knows QB better than I do."

Tarkenton describes his personally tailored, multi-warhead attack as: various and sundry... surprise and tricks... our wrinkles have wrinkles... if we played head-on honest like Oakland, we'd get killed."

Tarkenton, who holds almost every career NFL passing record, always has seemed like a mischievous, infuriating touch-football quarterback who has slipped into shoulder pads and sneaked into an NFL game.

Whether scrambling far behind the line, dumping homely flare passes to his backs, madly hand-signaling to his wandering receivers, or finally throwing the audacious bomb, Tarkenton always has mixed apparent vulnerability with gristly, brainy indestructability.

Finally, this season, Tarkenton has taken that flamboyant, yet intellectual style, to its apogee -- passing more than 500 times already this year.

"We use a dozen formations with lots of man in motion. Even on a simple rollout we have to do exotic things to keep the pressure off, like pinch down the tight end or have the halfback throw a cut block."

The nastier the necessity, the more Tarkenton mothers his inventions. Stripped of his ground attack and his play-action deceptions, Tarkenton is like a magician who must produce a rabbit without aid of mirrors.

Yet Tarkenton obviously feels that this is the season for which all the others may have been a preamble.

It makes him nervous just to mention how close he came to retiring after he suffered his first major injury -- a broken leg -- last year in his 17th season.

"Not many quarterbacks have played at 38, and less have played well," he said. "I'd had my first knee trouble the year before. I didn't want to get into that walking-wreck situation.I never want to play out the string."

As though rewarding his perseverance, the football fates gave Tarkenton his best group of players at the "skill positions" this year.

Wide receivers Sammy White and Ahmad Rashad, plus runners Ricky Young and Chuck Foreman, already comprise the first foursome of 50-catch receivers in history. Tight end Bob Tucker, with a paltry 39 grabs, may join them.

Tarkenton marshals these interlocking offensive pieces like a Capablanca or Morphy summoning knights, rooks and bishops to the systematic picking apart of a chess defense.

For a quarter century Tarkenton has consolidated all of a quarterback's conceivable weapons into one virtuoso game plan: the rollouts and impromptu scrambles, the flares and screens, as well as the straight dropback meat and potatoes.

However, when Tarkenton looks around him, he sees a younger generation of quarterbacks that dismays him.

"robots," he says disdainfully. "They're told what to do in every situation.

"I came up in the days with Y.A. Tittle, Norm Van Brocklin, Bobby Layne and Johnny Unitas. They were the ones who created mass interest in the NFL by stamping their personalities on the game.

"Hell, now you've got quarterbacks who don't even want to call their own plays. And the coaches just want a 6-foot-4 mechanic in there with a rifle arm.

"The coaches have gotten so timid that they think, "This quarterback can win for me, but he can also beat me quick. I better protect my job and call all the plays.'

"So you end up with whole games being called by ex-linemen who never called a play in their lives. The perfect example is that New York Giant coach who called a handoff with 17 seconds to play," said Tarkenton with a snort, not bothering to say that the handoff was fumbled and Philadelphia ran it back for a game-winning score.

"Greatness comes from learning your disciplines and fundamentals, then going beyond those boundaries into intuition and imagination," said Tarkenton.

"No quarterback can be great once he's lost his freedom of expression. Jeez, the quarterback has to be a leader. You gotta be The Man. What kind of leader can you be if you're waiting for your messenger boy to arrive in the huddle?"

A month ago Tarkenton was given a chance to show what a leader of the old school, the breed of which he and buddy Billy Kilmer are among the last, could do when the snow was falling, the blood was flowing and the clock was ticking.

Tackled by Detroit's Dave Pureifory while running a wishbone-style option play down the line of scrimmage, Tarkenton was smashed to the tundra, three of his top front teeth snapped out.

"I never had another hit like it, never," said Tarkenton. "His whole helmet got up underneath my mask... as I was going down it was a struggle to keep my senses."

Tarkenton went to the locker room at halftime. After the game he would receive three new caps for his teeth and 60 stitches inside his mouth. Three hours of plastic surgery and two hours of dentistry were in store.

But the second half still had to be played; the game had to be won. So Tarkenton came back in.

His first coup in the psychological war was to put his arm around Pureifory within hearing of the other Lions and say, "No hard feelings, Dave. I'm okay already."

Whilst scrambling among three Detroits, Tarkenton threw a long arching jump pass to White for the gamewinning touchdown. Tarkenton never saw it, buried under a thousand pounds of Lion meat that began hitting him while he was still in midair.

Asked now if those lost teeth, those 60 stitches might make him think more about the sanity of retirement, Tarkenton does not talk about a quarterback's freedom of expression or about the subtle boundary between discipline and intuition.

"Hell, no," said dapper, literate Sir Francis in his best Georgia drawl. "I'm a mean little sumbich."