Making a splash, then quick dash

Tribune staff reporter

If Chad Hutchinson has a role model these days, it should be Virgil Carter. The parallels abound. In 1968, Carter, like Hutchinson on Sunday, was the fourth quarterback of the season for the struggling Bears. He came out of nowhere (in Carter's case, the taxi squad) to give the Bears an offensive jolt, leading them to four straight victories. Hutchinson, though, must hope for a happier ending. Carter's meteoric rise was short-lived for the Bears.

The QB search

The 1968 Bears were led by new coach Jim Dooley, taking over for the retired George Halas, and by Hall of Famers Gale Sayers on offense and Dick Butkus on defense. But as has been the case since forever, they lacked a quarterback to pull the package together. Jack Concannon started the opener, but he floundered. Replacements Rudy Bukich and Larry Rakestraw weren't much better. With the Bears 1-4 and Concannon and Bukich injured, Dooley tabbed Carter.

Virgil rises

Carter was a second-year player from Brigham Young, where he set six NCAA records. Still, with all the experienced quarterbacks in front of him, he wasn't expected to see any action in 1968.

Dooley, though, didn't have a choice. In his first game, Carter was shaky but did enough to lead the Bears to a 29-16 victory over Philadelphia.

Carter clearly was in control the following week, throwing two touchdown passes to beat Minnesota. Given his inexperience, Vikings coach Bud Grant was "amazed that Carter could look so cool."

The streak continued when, behind Sayers' 205 yards rushing, the Bears beat the Packers 13-10.

Carter enjoyed one more strong week, throwing for 234 yards and a touchdown in a win over San Francisco. But there would be no celebration after the game.

A devastating hit by Kermit Alexander ripped apart Sayers' knee, ending his season and forever robbing him of his greatness.

Carter's Cinderella season also came to an end the following week. Dooley watched in disbelief as his hot quarterback broke his ankle in a loss to Atlanta. With Carter out, the Bears lost three of their last five games to finish at 7-7.

They still had a chance to win the Central Division on the final Sunday, but the Packers, behind Don Horn, beat them 28-27 at Wrigley Field.

The aftermath

Carter punched his ticket out of Chicago with his infamous expletive following a loss to Green Bay in December 1969. Angling for a trade, he said he hoped Halas wouldn't be "chicken(bleep)" and force him to return for his option year in 1970. Halas responded by fining Carter $1,000 and then trading him to Cincinnati. He had a couple of successful seasons with the Bengals before joining the Chicago Fire in the World Football League. He actually finished his career with the Bears in 1976.

What they said then

Dooley during Carter's hot streak: "Carter has taken charge of this team. His teammates are rallying around him; his linemen are blocking for him. I tell you he's done an amazing job. He never even practiced with the first team in two years."

What they say now

Carter, who lives in California: "The great thing about winning as a Bears quarterback is that it is almost a lifetime gift. I still can actively trade off that at the age of 59. It's amazing how they remember you there.

"At the start of the year, I never thought I would play. We had a veteran team that rallied around me. Beating Bart Starr, one of my heroes, was a great thrill. If I had stayed healthy, I like to think we would have beaten Atlanta and continued the momentum."

Linebacker Doug Buffone on Carter: "All the players look at quarterbacks in practice. We all judge. When I saw him make some plays, I said, `Wait a minute, this guy can play.' He was a smart kid, and tough too. He was a big spark for us."

In perspective: 1968

"60 Minutes"
"Hawaii Five-O"
"Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In"

Best picture: "Oliver"
Best actor: Cliff Robertson, "Charly"
Best actress: Katharine Hepburn, "The Lion in Winter" and Barbra Streisand, "Funny Girl."

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