Van Brocklin was born in Parade, Dewey County, South Dakota to Mack and Ethel Van Brocklin and grew up in Walnut Creek, California. He played high school football at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California.
Van Brocklin served in the United States Navy from 1943 through 1945.
Van Brocklin led the Oregon Ducks to a 16-5 record as a starter, including tying with Cal for the 1948 title of the Pacific Coast Conference, forerunner of the Pac-10. Oregon did not go to the Rose Bowl, however, because Cal was voted by the other schools to represent the PCC in the game. Among the Cal voters was the University of Washington, which elevated the intensity of the Oregon-Washington rivalry. Oregon received an invitation to play SMU in the 1949 Cotton Bowl Classic, which they accepted. It was the first time that a Pacific Coast team played in a major bowl game other than the Rose Bowl. SMU won 20–13. That season, Van Brocklin was honored with an All-America selectionand finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Coincidentally, the Heisman Trophy winner that year was SMU running back Doak Walker. Both Walker and Van Brocklin got Outstanding Player recognition for their performance in the Cotton Bowl Classic.
Van Brocklin left Oregon for the NFL with one remaining year of college eligibility. At that time, a player wasn't allowed to join the NFL until four years after graduating from high school. Though he had only been at the University of Oregon for three years, he was eligible due to his time in the Navy during World War II.
Van Brocklin was drafted in the fourth round (37th overall) of the 1949 NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Rams. He joined a team that already had a star quarterback, Bob Waterfield. Beginning in 1950, new Rams coach Joe Stydahar solved his problem by platooning Waterfield and Van Brocklin. The 1950 Rams scored an (at that time) NFL record 466 points (38.8 per game - which is still a record) with a high octane passing attack featuring Tom Fears and Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch. Fears led the league and set a new NFL record with 84 receptions. Van Brocklin and Waterfield finished 1-2 in passer rating as well. They were defeated by the Cleveland Browns in the 1950 title game, 30-28.
In 1951, Van Brocklin and Waterfield again split quarterbacking duties and the Rams again won the West. That year, Hirsch set an NFL record with 1,495 receiving yards and tied Don Hutson's record of 17 touchdown receptions. This time, the Rams won the title rematch against Cleveland, 24-17. Waterfield (9-24, 125 yards) took most of the snaps, but Van Brocklin (4-6, 128 yards) threw the game winner of 73 yards to Fears. This was the last Rams championship until 1999. Also in 1951, on September 28, Van Brocklin threw for 554 yards, breaking Johnny Lujack's single-game record of 468, a mark that still stands more than a half-century later.
From 1952 to 1957, Van Brocklin continued to quarterback the Rams, leading them to the title game again in 1955. In that game, the Browns defeated the Rams 38-14 while Van Brocklin threw six interceptions.
In 1958, Van Brocklin joined the Philadelphia Eagles under famed head coach, Buck Shaw. Shaw gave Van Brocklin total control of the Eagle offense. Steadily, Van Brocklin improved the Eagles' attack. In the 1960 NFL Championship Game, throwing to his favorite receiver, 5' 9", 176 pound Tommy McDonald, Van Brocklin quarterbacked the Eagles to victory against the Green Bay Packers. In a game dominated by defense, he led a fourth quarter comeback resulting in a final score of 17-13.
During his twelve-year career, Van Brocklin played on two championship teams in the National Football League: the 1951 Los Angeles Rams and the 1960 Philadelphia Eagles. Following the latter triumph, he retired. As it turned out, his Eagles team would be the only team to defeat the Packers in a playoff game during Vince Lombardi's tenure as Green Bay's head coach. Van Brocklin led the NFL in passing three times and in punting twice. On nine occasions, he was selected to the Pro Bowl.
Van Brocklin cut his ties with the Eagles after his belief that the team had reneged on an agreement to name him head coach to replace the retiring Buck Shaw. On January 18, 1961, he accepted the head coaching position for the expansion Minnesota Vikings and over the next six years Van Brocklin compiled a record of 29-51-4. The tenure was highlighted by his contentious relationship with quarterback Fran Tarkenton. Van Brocklin was displeased with Tarkenton's penchant for scrambling, preferring that he stay in the pocket. The feud culminated with Van Brocklin's resignation on February 11, 1967. Tarkenton was traded to the New York Giants shortly after Van Brocklin's departure, but reacquired by Van Brocklin's successor, Bud Grant, in 1972.
During his first year off the field in over two decades, Van Brocklin served as a commentator on 1967 NFL broadcasts for CBS.
On October 1, 1968, he took over as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, replacing Norb Hecker, who had started the season with three defeats, extending the team losing streak to ten games. Over the next seven seasons, Van Brocklin had mixed results, putting together a 37-49-3 mark. He led the team to its first winning season in 1971 with a 7-6-1 record, then challenged for a playoff spot two years later with a 9-5 mark. However, after winning just two of his first eight games in 1974, he was fired.
Following his dismissal, Van Brocklin returned to his pecan farm in Social Circle, Georgia. His only connections to football during this era were as a running backs coach for Georgia Tech in 1979, and as a college football broadcaster.
Van Brocklin suffered a number of illnesses, including a brain tumor. After it was removed, he told the press, "It was a brain transplant. They gave me a sportswriter's brain, to make sure I got one that hadn't been used." He died on May 2, 1983, the day after suffering a stroke.
Van Brocklin was posthumously elected to the University of Oregon Athletics Hall of Fame in 1992