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Sport Magazine, November 1974

A Tale Of One City's Two Quarterbacks

By David Israel

The story of Virgil Carter and Bobby Douglass has never been told, except a few thousand times. It is the classic story of love and hate, of good and evil. It is the story of Cain and Abel, in cleats.

Not since Joe Namath and Fran Tarkenton paraded their egos concurrently on opposite sides of New York has one city contained two athletes so similar in their responsibilities, so different in their images.

Quarterback Virgil Carter of the Chicago Fire is the man every mother wants her son to become. Quarterback Bobby Douglass of the Chicago Bears is the man every mother wants her daughter to beware.

It is December, 1969, a cold, miserable Sunday at Chicago's Wrigley Field. It has been a cold, miserable season for the Bears, who go into the game with a 1-11 record. They have been going through quarterbacks the way Charlie Finley goes through managers. Last week, they gave another quarterback on their list his first full shot of the season. The Bears lost, of course, but he passed for more than 300 yards. Today, coach Jim Dooley tells him, he has earned another full shot. He is going to play the full game.

But Virgil Carter plays only half the game, and afterward, he is not happy. He expresses his unhappiness to the press. He calls Jim Dooley a liar. Then he criticizes the quarterback coach, Sid Luckman. And then he takes his best shot: He criticizes a legend; he criticizes the man who built and owns the Bears; he criticizes George Halas. And he crams all his criticism into one word- a mild obscenity and an unforgettable indictment.

Baby-faced, soft-spoken, highly-educated, well-liked Virgil Carter calls George Halas "chickenshit." A million frustrated Chicagoans cheer.

The next Tuesday, Carter is fined $1,000 and suspended. The next season, Carter is no longer a Chicago Bear.

That one little outburst established Virgil Carter's enduring position as a maligned hero in Chicago.

It is November, 1973, a cold, miserable Sunday in Chicago's Soldier Field. The Bears are moving toward the end of another cold, miserable, losing season. In the second quarter, against the Detroit Lions, Bobby Douglass, the Bears' starting quarterback since 1971, scrambles on a broken pass play. He picks up six yards. Then he is hit by two Lions. He goes down near the sidelines, hard. After the collision, the two Lions get up. But Douglass stays down. He twists in pain, reaching for his left knee.

Finally, Douglass is helped up, and as he is guided toward the bench, a cheer comes out of the stands. It is not the customary cheer of appreciation for a courageous athlete. It is a cheer of joy, of jubilation, of victory. The football fans of Chicago are expressing their pleasure that Bobby Douglass is hurt.

Those cruel cheers symbolized Bobby Douglass' enduring position as a maligned villain in Chicago.

Now it is 1974, and the World Football League is struggling to provide a major league alternative to the National Football League. In a year or two, once the mass of big name NFL defectors shows up, the WFL should be a viable alternative. But right now it's big league in only a few ways: The teams fly on chartered jets, national TV shows off the product once a week and Virg Carter plays for the Chicago Fire.

The Fire has been a winning team since the start of the first WFL season, and Carter is the main reason. More than that, with the White Sox, the Cubs and the Bears eliminated from their pennant races by early summer, Carter is the hottest sports property in Chicago. In fact, he's bigger than sports; he's as close as you can get to being Robert Redford if you live and work in Chicago.

Carter's appeal is simple: He is immensely likable. He is immensely likable despite the fact that he is perfect. He has always been perfect. Growing up in Sacramento, California, Virg was polite, kind, loyal, brave, trustworthy in sum, impossible. When teachers needed to send someone on an errand, he always went. He probably volunteered. His homework was always in on time. He got straight A's. He never missed church.

From Sacramento, Virg went on to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He was the starting quarterback for three years, and in his senior year, he led the collegiate nation in total yardage. And he didn't even go to school on a football scholarship. He went on an academic scholarship. He was too smart for a football scholarship. And he was too small. Even today, at 29, he doesn't look as big as the six-foot-one, 185 pounds everyone gives him credit for. Carter graduated from BYU with straight A's- a 4.0 average- and was named the outstanding senior in the college of Physical Sciences and Engineering. That's physical SCIENCES, not physical education. Later, while he was playing pro football, Carter picked up a master's degree from Northwestern, and now he's considering going back to get his Ph.D.

Another thing Virg did at BYU was get married. And he even did that according to the code handsome quarterbacks are supposed to live by. He married the BYU homecoming queen.

"You wanna hear a really corny story?" asks Judy Carter. "Well, we met on a football field. I was the homecoming queen, and we played a really big game, against Utah State, and when we won, all the cheerleaders ran on the field and hugged players. I found No. 14. I'd heard about him, but I'd never met him. 'Congratulations,' I said. 'We did it for you,' he said. I mean, is that one of the corny stories of all time. Ours is really a hotsy-totsy All-American story. We met after that, and even though Virg was hesitant because he was a sophomore and I was a junior, we started going out and got married." Perfect.

It was Carter's sheer perfection that made his use of the word "chickenshit" so devastating. Most athletes use stronger language to say hello.

"Virg never even says darn, then one day he says bleep, and it's quoted in every paper in the country," says Judy Carter.

And it was especially quoted in Chicago. Mostly because bleep captured perfectly the public's sentiment towards George Halas and the way he runs his franchise. Chicago is a "What-have-you-done-for-me-late-ly?" kind of town, and lately- like the last decade- Halas has done nothing but raise the ticket prices.

Besides, people in Chicago were taken with Carter from the beginning. In 1967, he spent the whole season on the taxi squad, never played a minute, yet he was noticed. In 1968, he got his shot midway through the season. All of the Bears' quarterbacks had been injured. Carter was called up. He started four games. The Bears won four games. In the fifth game, Carter suffered a fractured ankle. He was done for the year. But he was a hero. He was the undersized kid in the era of the big quarterback.

The next fall, the fans figured, he would get an opportunity early and be perfect again. The opportunity didn't come until the 12th game of the season. And then it only lasted six quarters, before a rookie named Bobby Douglass took over, and Carter popped off. The next fall, 1970, as Bear fans suffered with Jack Concannon and Kent Nix at quarterback, Carter was off in Cincinnati leading the Bengals to the AFC's Central Division championship. He couldn't make it with Halas, but with pro football's other Godfather, Paul Brown, he did just fine. During Carter's four years in Cincinnati, there were problems, mostly injuries, and there were good times, like being the NFL's most accurate passer in 1971 with a 62.2 completion percentage.

Carter missed all of last season after breaking his collarbone with a minute and 40 seconds to go in the exhibition season. When the season was done, Brown traded him to San Diego. Virg departed on good terms. "I couldn't say enough good things about Paul Brown," says Carter. "I think the sun rises and sets on him. Some people can't deal with his honesty. It's unusual in football. But I found it refreshing."

Carter and his broken collarbone spent the fall of 1973 in the mountains of Utah; so did Judy Carter, and the Carters' infant son, Chad. For a time, they lived without a telephone, a television or a clock. "I had to go out to the car to see what time it was," Carter says.

It was time to make a change. Time to gamble. Carter had played out his option while sitting in the mountains of Utah; he was ready to try the World Football League.

So Carter called WFL commissioner Gary Davidson and, soon afterward, Tom Origer, a construction millionaire who owns the Fire, got in touch with Carter. Origer is not a man who got rich by being loose with his change. The Fire payroll is one of the lowest in the league. And they have signed no big-name NFL stars for the future. Just a couple of anonymous linemen.

But Origer is no dummy. He realized the value of Carter in Chicago. He parted with the necessary money, gave in on the necessary contractual demands. And on the day Origer announced last February that Carter was the first big name to jump the NFL, he immediately established his credibility with the Chicago media.

"I knew Virg was perfect for Chicago," Origer says now. "I used to be a Bear fan, and I was damn upset when they got rid of him. I thought he was better than Douglass, Concannon and whoever else they had.

"Chicago fans really relate to him because he was the underdog with the Bears, and he never really got a shot. But now that he's an established quarterback with a good NFL track record, they know he's good. He's our bread and butter."

Carter is now the highest paid football player in Chicago, the only one with a six-figure salary. He can live on steak.

Virgil Carter is in a McDonald's, in suburban Des Plaines, lunching on hamburgers with his wife, his son and his Fire teammate, Dick Evey, for many years a defensive lineman with the Bears. The kid behind the counter recognizes Carter. Judy places the order, and the kid gives her twice as much food as she asked for, and then undercharges her. It sets Virg to wondering why, and the answer is simple.

"It didn't seem that way at the time, but saying chickenbleep may have been the smartest thing I ever did," Carter says. "If I'd said it any other way, if I'd used debate terms instead of locker room terms I could be in the business world now. At the time I was making less than $20,000, so the fine was more than five percent of my salary.

"Since then, though, I've figured out the return per letter of chicken-bleep. It's the most lucrative statement I've ever made. And what's really funny is in Chicago I created a local term. Now writers use chickenbleep to describe a lot of things.

"When Judy and I talk about it we just say, 'That year.' We have one scrapbook where the entire book is 'That Was the Week That Was.' It took Tiny Tim getting married on Thursday to get me off of the front page of the Tribune, back onto the front page of the sports section."

After the banquet at McDonald's, Carter and his family get into his proudest possession, his restored yellow 1957 Thunderbird, the two-seater classic, with the removable hardtop roof, and he drives off to make a commercial.

Carter isn't exactly sure what this commercial involves. It has been arranged by his agent. All he knows is it requires his game jersey as costume.

The taping studio is a low, white building in suburban Glenview. Carter parks his Thunderbird away from all other cars. He doesn't want anyone slamming a door into it.

As they walk to the studio entrance, the Carters do not know that waiting inside is an old friend. One of Virg's old roommates. He's in the commercial, too. The friend's name is Bobby Douglass. It's the first time Douglass and Carter have been together since Carter returned to town a conquering hero. The talk is polite, familiar. It is not strained at all. There is no tension.

"I can't believe it's been five years, Bobby," says Judy Carter. "It doesn't seem that long. It's like I saw you yesterday." But it is five years. And for Bobby Douglass, they haven't been the easiest five years of his life.

"Hi, I'm Bobby Douglass. I'm the quarterback for the Chicago Bears." "Hi, I'm Virg Carter. I used to have that job myself." "Virg who?" "Virg Carter. I'm the quarterback for the Chicago Fire."

It isn't one of the greatest commercials ever made- it's for a suburban health club, to be shown on a suburban station, which tells you the brutal difference between playing quarterback in Chicago and playing quarterback in New York- but still Douglass and Carter have to go through a dozen takes to satisfy the advertising people.

All during the rehearsals and the waiting and the taping, Bobby Douglass keeps rubbing his left knee. It's the knee the Lions ruined, the knee the Bears asked Douglass to play two more games on after the injury, the knee a surgeon worked on during the off season. Bobby knows the knee will be fine. But when? The exhibition season is almost over, and Bobby Douglass still hasn't thrown a pass in anger. He's in a Glenview TV studio making a silly commercial, and his teammates are in Baltimore, playing an exhibition game.

Bobby Douglass finishes the commercial, says goodbye to his old roommate and goes home to watch his team play on television.

When he arrives, his wife Carol is playing the piano in the living room. It's halftime, she says. The game is close. Gary Huff, the second-year quarterback out of Florida State, has completed 11 of 18 passes.

The halftime show is on the air, but the better show is in the Douglass living room. It's Carol Douglass. She's a spectacular, an extravaganza all by herself. She was never a homecoming queen, but who cares? She was Playmate of the Month in Playboy a couple of years ago.

When the second half starts, Gary Huff's first pass call is a screen. He drops back, then he's pressured and he drops back a little further. Finally there is nowhere to go. Huff is sacked for a big loss.

"What goes through your mind when you watch this?" Douglass is asked. "If the screen doesn't form in time," Douglass answers, "you've got to do something to get rid of the ball. Or you've got to run."

As the game goes on, Bobby Douglass watches impassively. The Bears don't play badly, for the first time in ages, and win, for the first time in ten tries.

It's a little more ammunition for the bitter Bear fans who cheered when Bobby Douglass got hurt.

Bobby Douglass is awesome. Like Virgil Carter, he doesn't look like a quarterback. He looks like a linebacker. He's six-foot-four and weighs 230 pounds. He is a natural athlete, perhaps the finest ever to come out of El Dorado, Kansas, and the average fan thinks any quarterback six-four and 230 pounds should be great enough to lead a pathetic ballclub like the Bears to a championship annually. Bobby Douglass is Chicago's Wilt Chamberlain.

Sportswriters and fans are constantly finding fault with Douglass. They insist, for instance, that Douglass can't pass. All kinds of wonderful numbers support that criticism. From 1969 through 1973, Douglass completed only 327 of his 775 passes, a rather dismal 42.2 completion percentage. In his first five NFL seasons, three of which were spent as a full-time starter, he threw just 28 touchdown passes. OK, so he's not Sid Luckman. But consider the receivers he has had to throw to. Consider the blocking he's had. Consider that he's had no running backs to take the pressure off him. People say that the Bears don't throw often enough or well enough to win. Well, the last two years the Miami Dolphins have ranked 24th in passing attempts in the NFL. And the last two years the Dolphins have won the Super Bowl.

There are people who say often that Bobby Douglass is a marvelous football player, but he's no quarterback. They say he'd be a terrific tight end or running back or linebacker or free safety. Pick a position, and someone has decided Bobby Douglass should be there. People started saying most of those kinds of things in 1972. That's when Douglass rushed for 968 yards, a record for quarterbacks. In his career, Douglass has gained 2,207 yards on the ground, ranking him seventh on the Bears' all-time list. Many of those yards were gained on failed pass plays that Douglass turned into yardage instead of sacks.

Strangely, despite all the attacks upon him, Douglass is at peace with himself. He's the kind of person who always takes the blame for his mistakes, and who says he's just doing what he gets paid for when he plays well. He understands why the people boo, why the writers criticize. He understands that in 1969, when he came out of Kansas as an All-American, he was supposed to revive the dismal Bears. He understands that he hasn't done it yet, isn't close to doing it and that the fans aren't patient enough to wait for 40 years.

"The fans have to have villains," he says. "Ron Santo, why have the fans always booed him? He was an All-Star for so many years. But they needed a villain for the frustration, and they found one in him. "At times it can be aggravating for me. But aggravation is something short term. I'll read something and for a second I'll be upset. And later I'll remember and mention it to the writer if I think it's unfair. But I don't let it shake me. I have enough confidence in myself, and I see professional sports for what they are- entertainment. You have to take the distasteful with the nice.

"Really, though, sometimes it's hard to understand why people get certain images. When I came out of Kansas, I was an All-American and all that hero stuff. Then I came up here and in my first year we go 1-13. All of a sudden, I have an image. I was a rookie, I didn't play that much, but I have an image. I'm a bad guy. I'm not a quarterback. And I'm dumb. That's what people say. It may have something to do with the situation with Virgil that year, because I was the guy who replaced him. And that stuff about being dumb, well, I really think it's because of my accent. I'm from Kansas, but I've got a thick Oklahoma accent. I just don't talk that fast. At least, I don't think anyone's been silly enough to say I'm not a good football player. The difference between me and them is that I'm sure I'm a good quarterback."

On this night before the regular season, though, as he watches Gary Huff beat the Colts, Bobby Douglass is wondering whether he's going to ever get a chance to be a good quarterback for the Bears again. He is without a contract, and it looks like he'll be playing out his option. That's something George Halas doesn't take lightly. It's enough reason for Halas to order Bobby Douglass benched. It's enough reason for Gary Huff, ready or not, to step in as the Bears' full time first-string quarterback.

It is possible that George is ready to drive Bobby Douglass out of Chicago. It isn't the worst thing that could happen. Ask Virgil Carter.