The Trajectory of Doug Flutie
Next week will mark 20 years since a BC quarterback launched the pass that launched a football career filled with as many valleys as peaks. A visit to California finds Natick's Doug Flutie - a man, a husband, a father - still trapped in a boy's world, trying to look to the future even as his past keeps chasing him down.
Who saw this coming, a storybook career chipped out of the frozen tundra in Boston, Canada, Chicago, Foxborough, and Buffalo, ending up in sunny San Diego, where football generates less passion than the daily surf report, and the coldest thing in town is the blended margaritas? "This is my reward," Doug Flutie says. "At the end of my career, to play in nice weather and have more of a casual, comfortable lifestyle, not having to fight the elements every day."
We're sitting on a concrete walkway in suburban San Diego, and Flutie's back is up against an outside wall of the locker room, in one of the only shady spots that the Chargers' Mission Valley practice facility offers on a cloudless September Friday. Fresh from the showers, he's wearing jeans, sneakers, a Red Sox uniform jersey, and a blue Sox cap. He is common-man in stature, that's true, but he is also tanned and more handsome than ever, with the requisite growth of rugged chin stubble that shows a few distinguished glints of gray; that famed mullet he wore for so many years has been surrendered, at last, to the fashion police. Lunch is a protein shake in a plastic cup.
Has it really been 20 years since The Pass? If that doesn't hurt enough, try this: Doug Flutie is 42. Forty-two? Wow. Let's all take a timeout just to feel old.
With most men, you have to strain to catch a glimpse of the boys they once were. With Flutie, that boy is right there on the surface, still eagerly waiting for the chance to show you what he can do. His face is more chiseled than we remember, but sometimes especially when he's on the practice field running drills and you catch his profile in mid-throw you'd swear he was 22. Still. In conversation, when he describes how much he continues to love getting on the field, there's a gleam in his eye that recalls the wholesome kid with the baby face and the Mary Lou Retton feathered haircut. But other times, when he looks down, bored, because the topic has turned to tired controversies or greatest hits, all you can see are the frowning tops of his thick eyebrows.
The longer you chat with him, the more you see there is absolutely no visible evidence that Flutie has "gone California on us," as the folks back home in Natick might say, even if their boy does show the earmarks of a reprioritized quarterback who's finally learning to kick back, value a balanced life, and mellow out a bit. In fact, if anything, he's hardened, more cynical than ever, soft hazel eyes notwithstanding. "This is a game," he says. "I don't care how many billions of dollars are being spent and the life-and-death attitude; I roll my eyes sometimes at the talk."
He swears that the fact that he's even still playing has less to do with football than with family: His 16-year-old daughter, Alexa, a cheerleading-obsessed high school junior, wants to continue splitting her academic year between La Jolla and Natick, and, Flutie says, she "laid down the law." Dad can't hang up his cleats, he explains, before she graduates.
"There are different priorities at my age; things that [my teammates] can't relate to," Flutie says. "I still thoroughly love the game and playing it, but it's a little bit more of a grind for me on a weekly basis. . . . My daughter says it's this season and one more. I don't see it going past that."
They are sensible, thoughtful words, and it's hard to argue with them, but bear in mind that this is the same guy who is often first to arrive and last to leave the practice field, who spends his day off downloading footage of opponents, and requires at least a 2-mile run to unwind after games in which he's seeing little, if any, action.
Doug Flutie without football? Football without Flutie? Unthinkable. Unimaginable. Yet maybe it's just time.
TWO DECADES SINCE ONE FLING of the pigskin 64 yards catapulted a talented but not exactly sought-after 5-foot-93/4 Boston College quarterback into our collective consciousness and made Flutie a household name, it's a good time to measure just how the arc of that pass steered the trajectory of his career, his life.
For many of us who saw the play unfold on the night of November 23, 1984, it still seems so fresh - Boston College locked in an epic day-after-Thanksgiving battle with defending national champion University of Miami that ended with Flutie completing his impossible heave of a Hail Mary to Gerard Phelan to give the Eagles a 47-45 win. The Pass, as it instantly became known, lives on in the mythology that charms Top 10 list-makers everywhere. Its particulars are often retold, by both those who were there and those who were not, as a life-or-death moment in a local folklore full with history-altering games.
It's still a past-tense event no matter how often it's replayed, but the legend who threw the ball that night, he remains a living, breathing, mysterious thing.
Even as he hovers on the sidelines now after a 20-year professional career spread out over three football leagues and eight teams, Flutie, the durable dragon slayer who has thrown for more than 50,000 yards, continues to promise us magic. And he knows it, too. That's why he's still a man in perpetual motion there by the bench advising, fidgeting, putting his helmet back on to hear play calls radioed through his earpiece even though he's not in the game.
He's one of those rare athletes who dare you to take your eyes off them for even a second. He was Michael Vick before Michael Vick; blink, and who knows what you'll miss. Case in point: Just two months ago, during the Chargers' home opener against the New York Jets, Flutie subbed for injured starting quarterback Drew Brees and, with less than four minutes to go in the game, led an 81-yard touchdown drive that pulled his team to within 6. The Chargers wound up losing when the Jets recovered an onside kick in the final seconds, but for that fleeting drive at least, Flutie had every fan believing in miracles once again.
How many other football players, or athletes for that matter, have managed to hold on to the role of white knight for more than two decades, even after they start falling short more often than not? Until his very last play, Flutie will have us all wondering what he might pull off next. Laurie Flutie, who has been watching him play ever since she met him back in the 10th grade at Natick High School, was at that Chargers' home opener, having a relaxing afternoon in the team's luxury suite, until her husband ran onto the field. "Then my heart started beating 500 times faster," she says. "I just want him to go in and do well."
Sure, a wife is obligated to say these things, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone on the planet outside the contemptuous observers in Buffalo, but more on that later who disagrees with her.
Why? Because the thing about Flutie is, he's us.
FLUTIE WRITES IN HIS 1998 AUTOBIOGRAPHY (Flutie, with Perry Lefko) that some of his first memories involve backyard scrimmages with brothers Bill and Darren and sister Denise, particularly after their parents, Richard and Joan, moved the family to Florida in the late 1960s. Born in Baltimore, Doug wore Jim Palmer's No. 22 Baltimore Orioles jersey and was something of a sensation even as early as midget football, largely because he liked to stun referees by ripping the ball out of an opponent's hands. By the time the family moved to Natick when he was 13, Flutie was a fierce competitor who would eventually bump his older brother out of the quarterback position. Natick High football coach Tom Lamb tells me admiringly: "Right from day one, he thought he was very good, and he was very good."
Certainly good enough to move on to then-unheralded Boston College, the only Division I school that saw past his height and offered him a scholarship. He led the Eagles to three bowl games (including a Cotton Bowl victory in 1985), national prominence, and that stunning win in Miami. But even with the Heisman Trophy on his resume, the best that Flutie's unconventional build could fetch in the National Football League draft was an 11th-round pick, which he turned down to sign an $8.3 million contract in 1985 with the fledgling United States Football League. Flutie was the league's biggest star, playing for Donald Trump's New Jersey Generals, but when the USFL folded after just one season, he reluctantly accepted a backup role in the NFL, moving on to Chicago. There, the Bears' bratty quarterback, Jim McMahon (he would later famously label Flutie "America's midget"), did a spectacular job of undermining him until Flutie was traded to the New England Patriots, in 1987. Inauspiciously, Flutie quarterbacked his first game with the Patriots during the final hours of a players' strike (a move for which some people have never forgiven him), and his subsequent two-plus seasons with the team were a roller-coaster ride at best. Despite his compiling a winning record with the team and the fans' pleasure in having their hometown hero around, Flutie was unceremoniously dumped after the 1989-90 season. Again feeling unwanted, he headed to Canada, a place where football is a faster, three-down game played on a bigger field, all features that suited his stature and his frenetic style.
It was there that US sports fans lost track of him, only catching the occasional glimpse of Flutie on ESPN running or throwing for a touchdown, first for a team called the British Columbia Lions, then for the Calgary Stampeders and Toronto Argonauts, but always wondering why things never worked out for him back in the States if he could win three championships in Canada. Then, in 1998, he was back, forfeiting millions of Canadian Football League dollars to take one more shot at NFL fame for a Buffalo Bills bargain-basement salary of $250,000. The Buffalo saga is complex, well known, and mired in an ugly cockfight that Flutie ultimately lost to his young rival for the starting quarterback job, Rob Johnson. But in the headiest days of the three seasons before Flutie found himself shuffling off to San Diego, awed NFL fans became reacquainted with his magic to such a degree that "Flutiemania" was added to the Buffalo lexicon.
Say what you will about Flutie's social skills - his supporters call him reserved but genuine, his published critics prefer adjectives like "arrogant," "backstabbing," and "phony" - the one thing nobody questions anymore is that the man can play. And on a good day, even fresh from arthroscopic knee surgery in August, he can still play better than most.
"The midget brings it, dude," says 44-year-old Chargers fan Tony Reyes, a Lake Elsinore, California, resident who articulates the resounding opinion among tailgaters congregated outside San Diego's
At this stage, Flutie isn't big on letting the media inside his personal space. He refuses requests for interviews at his La Jolla home and doesn't have a lot to say about his daily routine, whom he hangs out with, or what he does for fun. The questions are all getting old by now, and he doesn't stand to benefit from answering them the way he did when he was building an image that would help pay the bills and advance his career.
His life now is settled in and sort of normal, if the life of a professional football player with an autistic 12-year-old son who needs round-the-clock care can ever be called normal. While in San Diego five months of the year, Flutie goes to work and comes home almost like any other dad. Occasionally, he gets out to one of his favorite Pacific Beach haunts to watch televised sports, and, more important, there are fund-raisers to attend for his Framingham-based Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism.
"Dougie's coming along slowly," Flutie says of his son's condition. "His awareness and the things that he does do are at a much higher level now." That's about as much as he'll offer on the subject.
"It took [Doug] a couple of years to resign himself to the fact that Dougie was ill and it wasn't something that was going to go away," says Joan Flutie, the quarterback's mother. "But once he faced it, that was it. Then he did everything he could to make a reason for Dougie being that way." The Flutie Foundation, which supports organizations that assist the families of autistic children, has given out grants totaling about $2 million.
For release, Flutie favors the drums he took up one Christmas as a kid, which have given him opportunities to play alongside Bon Jovi and Lynyrd Skynyrd since forming the Flutie Brothers Band with his younger brother, Darren (himself a former Canadian Football League star receiver), in 1992. Occasionally there's even time to shoot hoops with friend and teammate Tim Dwight, who continues to try to coax him into surfing. "I think he's been a little more relaxed here in San Diego," Dwight says. "As he's getting older, he's been getting a little grumpier, and I'm trying to relax him a little bit."
Dismissing suggestions that he'll turn to big-time coaching when he retires from quarterbacking, Flutie is set on residing permanently in the Boston area, where he thinks he might help out at the high school level and do broadcasting gigs part time. But mostly, he says, he'll play pickup games (imagine finding Doug Flutie on your flag football team) and watch his favorite local prospects from the stands. "I'm just going to enjoy it," he says determinedly. "It wouldn't faze me to never do another interview and I just disappear."
Complete anonymity. How attractive must that sound to a man scrutinized in slow-motion replay for most of his adult life? And it could happen, too, but for the event that Flutie says continues to be brought up to him at least once a day the event that forces him to revisit the past even as he embraces an uncertain future.
It's November 2004, and here we are back at The Pass.
"I dropped back and sucked the guy in to buy more time for the receivers. . . . I didn't throw it specifically at Gerard; I threw it to an area. . . . In fact, I threw more of a line drive because I was afraid of throwing it out of the end zone. . . . All I saw was the two defensive backs go up, and then everybody falling to the ground. I saw it go over their heads and I assumed it went incomplete. There was maybe a second delay, and then I saw the official's arms go up in the back of the end zone. . . . The first emotion was: You've got to be kidding me."
- Doug Flutie, September 2004
Anybody who has ever seen The Pass - and in New England you had to have been in hibernation for two decades to have avoided a clip of it - has a mind's-eye view of it that may or may not correlate to Flutie's personal description. What most of us probably remember is the sequence of events: the hike, the dropback, the brief scramble, the steps forward, and the absolute heave 64 yards down the field in a tight spiral that seemed to hang forever in the stadium lights until it dropped down into Phelan's waiting lap like an airmail from God.
If our memory has room after that, we can see the mob scene in the end zone, and Flutie's exuberant, disbelieving leaps. Sometimes we can even still hear echoes of a stunned announcer screaming, "He did it! He did it! Flutie did it!" Few of us, though, remember every detail and nuance of how the play came together the way Flutie does.
He'll remind you of Troy Stradford's hamstring injury that took the wide receiver out of the end-zone mix and of the inadvertent whistle and defensive realignment that freed up Phelan instead of the original go-to guy, Kelvin Martin. He'll talk about Plan A (rolling right, but then looking left to his tight end) and - because time ran out on that option - Plan B (the aforementioned Hail Mary known in the playbook as Flood Tip). In the end, he says, he simply ran on instinct and adrenaline, and somehow it worked.
But what if, just for the sake of asking, it hadn't worked? What if Flutie had uncorked a wobbly duck or his throw had fallen inches short and wound up on the grass or in the hands of a Miami defender, and the game had ended 45-41 Miami? If not for the success of The Pass, would even the Heisman - voted on before the Miami game was played - still have propelled his pro career, or would he have been just another solid college quarterback whose career ended when he collected his diploma?
It's impossible to say for sure, but in this country we do like our Cinderella stories to end with the slipper on the correct foot. So, chances are that if Bernie Kosar had been able to quarterback Jimmy Johnson's Hurricanes to a win that day, we'd have admired the game and moved on, maybe without ever naming some street in Natick Flutie Pass.
Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, cautions that we're a culture that gives too much weight to fairy-tale finishes. "Those things only happen every so often; that's why we need to be promoting the value of the journey and not just the destination," he reasons. "We have a fascination with outcome that gets people distracted, and so we end up not appreciating all that we benefited from along the way."
We also end up freeze-framing a 20-something athlete for the rest of his life, the burden of which is perhaps why Mike Eruzione, another local boy (from Winthrop), ditched competitive hockey after his "Miracle on Ice" Olympic moment in 1980. But Flutie has never been one to be daunted by heroic benchmarks, partly because there have always been plenty of naysayers driving him to prove that Miami was not a fluke, the high point of a career that he never would reach again ("At least there's a moment that I'll be remembered by," he says). What's maybe most unique about him is that he's taken the reputation The Pass earned him and instead of letting it define him, he's pulled off just enough successes over the years to persuade people that it was more than luck, that maybe he really can lead a team. He hasn't won a Super Bowl, but his career has been dotted with enough flashes of brilliance to make us look past Miami, even if it remains his crowning moment.
"You could probably make the argument that that's part of his success," says Bob Bigelow, a former Boston Celtics player who's now a self-professed youth sports reformer and activist living in Winchester. "It's not like the fast-burning supernova that crashed. It's been a lighter supernova, or maybe just a nova."
Whatever it is, it's bright. And the folks in Flutie's cheering circle make no bones about also being captivated by his ordinariness, from the way he's kept certain ties to his past to the way he plays the drums barefoot, loads his own equipment, and flies coach class to gigs.
Jack Bicknell, the former BC football mastermind who now coaches the Scottish Claymores for NFL Europe, says Flutie's a class act on and off the field, a characterization that BC assistant athletic director Barry Gallup supports with an anecdote that has him choking back tears. In February of 2003, when Gallup's 18-year-old son, Darren Douglas Gallup, was killed in a car accident, Flutie flew from San Diego and stood in a snow-dusted, two-hour queue for the wake, refusing an invitation to head straight inside. "Barry's a friend of mine," Gallup says Flutie told the funeral director. "I'm going to stand here with everybody else."
Bobby O'Donnell, a bandmate in the Flutie Brothers group, says he sees the competitiveness even in the music they play. "He's the type of person who, if you say, `Doug, you can't play like that on the drums,' he'll be like, `Oh, yeah?' And he can do it. That's how competitive he is."
Yes, that's Joan Flutie's son, the one she used to worry so much about because she couldn't see him surviving in a 9-to-5 job. Decades later, she worries less. "He's a good person, especially inside," she says from her home in Melbourne, Florida. "None of the hoopla ever went to his head."
That's what his supporters say, at least. But there are those who paint a very different picture of the man Flutie grew into after BC and after all his success in Canada. In Buffalo, there's been enough bile to fill the Bills' Ralph Wilson Stadium, and even if those who were there for the Flutie years, such as former backup quarterback Alex Van Pelt, refuse to talk about the things they observed, the local media aren't so demurring. "I thought he was a phony, and I don't think I was alone in that," says Buffalo News sports columnist Bucky Gleason. "He's a very calculating person. I don't think I've ever been around an athlete that's more aware of when the cameras are on him and when they're off than Doug Flutie."
Among the choice adjectives that Gleason has used over the years to describe Flutie in print: "selfish," "egotistical," "conniving," "manipulative," and "insecure." Gleason accuses Flutie of privately complaining about signing autographs and of talking trash behind the back of his teammate and rival, Rob Johnson. At the very least, many can agree, Flutie didn't do enough to diffuse the quarterbacking controversy or lead by example.
"The perception in media circles here is that Doug was the one stoking the fire more than Rob," says Chris "Bulldog" Parker, co-host of a Buffalo sports-radio call-in show. To which his on-air partner, Mike Schopp, adds: "Generally speaking, when he talked about the successes of the Bills, he used the first person, and when he talked about the failures of the Bills, he used `we' or sometimes even `they.'"
That last criticism in particular continues to dog Flutie even in San Diego, where the veteran quarterback has been known to point fingers at a variety of external forces in interviews, even once saying of a batted-down pass, "It was a touchdown when it left my hand."
This is not quite the daily slice of humble pie that Bob Johnson encourages in the high school football players he coaches just north up the freeway in Mission Viejo. Johnson, who may or may not intend more than one meaning when he says that Flutie "deserves everything that comes to him," doesn't care to deconstruct his son Rob's Buffalo years for this article. He will say this, though: "I thought [Rob] handled it just unbelievably good, because I know the ins and outs, which I won't go into. This is a story about Doug, so it's all Doug again. But trust me, the inner workings of what happened there were very hard on Rob."
Go figure, then, that no one I talked to on Flutie's current team seems to have a single problem with the little guy now wearing No. 7. Even though Flutie is one of four quarterbacks on the Chargers' roster, head coach Marty Schottenheimer, star running back LaDainian Tomlinson, and quarterback Brees all say he's a vital ingredient whom they're thrilled to have in the mix. There is no quarterback controversy here, they say, even when Flutie plays well enough to bring up all the old questions about whether he should start. Maybe the difference is that Flutie has less interest in fanning the flames these days and more interest in mentoring a team that might in some miracle scenario bring him his elusive Super Bowl ring.
Stranger things have happened.
"The hard thing about the play was that the ball disappeared as everyone jumped up. . . . I had to be a backstop, sort of like you catch a pencil rolling off the corner of the table. The ball hit me just below the face mask and then into my chest, and I fell backwards. It was wet and it slid between my legs, so I curled my body up to stop it from getting all the way through. . . . My first thought was: `They're never going to let us get away with this in Miami on national television.'"
- Gerard Phelan, September 2004
He calls it The Catch.
In Phelan's eye, the Miracle in Miami is an oncoming ball falling from a sky of white rain. He may be the only one who remembers it this way, but that's what makes it his moment as well as Flutie's, and ours. After all, complete strangers have told him time and again: "A thousand people could throw the ball 60 yards, but someone had to make the play, and you made the play."
In the luxuriously appointed offices of a South Boston financial printing company where Phelan is vice president of sales, the svelte 41-year-old former BC star talks about his most public achievement with a mixture of fondness, patience, and perspective. He didn't go on to pro football greatness - he blew his knee out during his rookie year with the Patriots - but he's had a great life that includes three kids, an 18-year marriage to his college sweetheart, and even an American Football Conference Championship ring. So he sees no reason to be annoyed with folks who call it The Pass or focus on Flutie when they ask him (daily) to recollect the moment. "That's the pageantry of football," he says philosophically. "The hype, the grandeur, and all that other stuff."
In other words, quarterbacks get the glory - especially quarterbacks who find a way to project the image of a rock star all the way into their 40s. And if you wonder whether Flutie actively cultivates this time warp, consider that the self-proclaimed "big kid" drives a 1979 Pontiac Trans Am and listens to Bob Seger religiously.
Hey, why grow up if you don't have to, right? Whether you call it The Catch or The Pass, there's no shortage of ways to get mileage out of the play.
At San Diego's Ocean Beach Grille, where a box of frosted Flutie Flakes sits stubbornly on the bar, the number-one sandwich on the menu is The Doug Flutie - a throwback concoction of deep-fried chicken and Buffalo sauce. Not surprisingly, many of the transplanted New Englanders who flock to this sports-viewing hangout owned by West Roxbury native Aileecia Lewis claim to remember exactly where they were when the Miracle in Miami happened. And they're no less enamored today of the former BC quarterback since his do-good cereal (with proceeds supporting the Flutie Foundation) earned him the nickname "Flakes."
"I respect Doug Flutie like the pope," says 38-year-old South Dennis native Kevin Witherell, completely straightfaced. "And I'm a religious man."
Witherell's faith also leads him to believe what fellow fans on both coasts express so often: that Flutie will one day rejoin the Patriots to realize his Super Bowl quest. There were rumors of such a move earlier this year, before the Chargers re-signed the veteran quarterback, and certainly it would be the fairy-tale ending this story would seem to deserve: Flutie's number being called for some fluke reason to replace today's star, Tom Brady, at a critical moment to keep the Patriots' season alive.
Does he have one more miracle left in him?
Does it matter?
Janice Page is a freelance writer living in Brookline. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.