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True measure of QB's heart found at home

Flutie family faces challenge of autism

NATICK -- This time there are no boxes, no moving vans, no harried coast-to-coast transports of the dogs, the kids, the stuff.

Doug Flutie is home. His new job, backup quarterback for the New England Patriots, enables his daughter, Alexa, to complete her senior year of high school alongside her lifelong friends -- not to mention cousins -- from Natick. It allows his son, Dougie, to sleep in the same room all year, with his toy box and his hockey stick and his big old bear.

Dougie is 13 now. He loves music and the ocean. Sometimes, when the family is at the beach, he'll bolt toward the water without warning, and Doug will have to chase him down. Dougie will hear his father coming, his steely legs frantically pounding the sand in pursuit, and he'll wheel around and smile. You know what he'd be saying if he could talk: Gotcha, Dad.

He loves it when his mother, Laurie Flutie, plays the ''Hey" song. When he was 2, before autism overtook him, he would croon right along with her. You know the tune. It's ''What I Like About You" by the Romantics. When they sang, ''You really know how to dance," Dougie would bust a move, smiling and laughing, like always.

Dougie doesn't dance so much anymore. He often sits in his stroller, a state-of-the-art contraption that helps contain him and provide comfort from the swirl of life's activity that is, at times, just too overwhelming. He has a habit of drifting off to his own place, where nobody -- not his mother, his father, his sister, or a team of top-flight physicians -- can penetrate.

Autism is heartbreaking that way. One minute, your son is smiling at you, and the next, he is looking right through you.

''He's always looking away," said Doug Flutie, wistfully. ''You wonder what he's thinking."

But his parents believe Dougie is happy. He doesn't know he's autistic, doesn't notice when others gawk at him when he's shouting, or chewing on a plastic bottle, or twirling objects again and again and again. Some people stare, others recoil. His parents have long ago accepted that.

The rest of the world simply does not see the Dougie they see.

''People ask me how he's doing," Doug Flutie said. ''It's not that he's doing any one specific skill. It's little things. He follows directions better. He gets in and out of the car by himself. That's a huge improvement. Before that, it used to be a procedure."

Here is one of the most celebrated athletes in New England sports history, a Heisman Trophy winner who married his high school sweetheart in a storybook wedding. The Fluties were millionaires by the time Doug was 25, yet his own son, his namesake, can't even begin to carry on the legacy. It's likely Dougie will never read or write. He will never be able to take care of himself. He probably will never speak. The Random House Dictionary defines autism as a pervasive developmental disorder characterized by impaired communication, excessive rigidity, and emotional detachment.

Heartbreaking? Of course it is. But don't you dare feel sorry for the Fluties.

''We don't really like that poor, poor pitiful me thing," Doug explained.

They started the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism in 1998, three years after their son was diagnosed. As they learned more about Dougie's condition, they recognized the need for heightened awareness, education, and research. When Laurie purchased a special tricycle for Dougie with wider handlebars and a bigger seat, the price tag was more than $1,000. His special stroller cost $2,000. It rankled her. How could average families afford this?

The foundation. It supports people who need financial assistance in caring for their autistic children. It funds research and helps develop new programs and services.

''I feel like Dougie was meant to do this," Laurie said. ''Without him, there is no foundation. It wouldn't have happened. It's in Dougie's name. It's his legacy. It gives us peace."

Still, it's not easy sometimes. Doug and Laurie have nieces and nephews who are growing and prospering all around them. Bill Flutie's son Brett is the same age as Dougie and he's an athlete, just like his older brother Billy, who just committed to Boston College to play football. The Flutie family is close; Doug's brothers, Bill and Darren, and sister Denise, all live in town. Laurie's mother is still there. There are daily reminders of what could have been.

''We were at one of Brett's basketball tournaments recently," said Doug. ''He came out and said, 'I could use one more guy on the court with me. I need one more guy who thinks like I do.'

''I turned to him and said, 'Brett, you know, that's supposed to be Dougie.' "

Brett blanched. Doug's brother Bill turned away, his eyes moist. But the quarterback no longer cries for his son.

''They see what Brett is doing, and they want that for us," he said. ''But we don't miss it as much as they might think, because we never had it. We love Dougie just the way he is."

Devastating diagnosis

When Dougie Flutie was just 2, if he concentrated really hard, he could practically reach the hoop with a regulation-size ball. He loved to shoot baskets with his father, and would happily sit with his little arms and legs curled around Doug watching an entire NBA game.

He was an active, alert, mischievous child.

''When he wanted juice, I'd ask him, 'Now, Dougie, what do you say?' " Laurie recalled. ''He'd giggle a few times, but wouldn't answer. I'd say again, 'Dougie, what do you say?' He'd laugh, then he'd shout, 'Please, beauty mom!' "

When his father went down to the basement to practice his drums, little Dougie would trail behind, climb into his lap, and bang on the cymbals. They lived in Calgary at the time, when Flutie was starring in the Canadian Football League, and their house included a master bedroom with a fireplace that also connected to the living room. Dougie loved to stick his hand through the grate from one room to another, shouting with glee to his sister, ''Lexa, grab the hand!"

''He was one of those kids who hated going to bed," Doug said. ''We'd put him in, and the next thing you know he'd be standing on the balcony. We'd say, 'Dougie, go to bed,' and he'd say to us in that sweet little voice, 'Good night!' "

The memories are like precious stones, to be coveted and admired and preserved. Dougie was once like all of his cousins. He talked and he sang and he cried and he giggled and he looked right into his parents' eyes and told them he loved them.

It changed shortly before Dougie turned 3, when Laurie and the kids went back to Natick to enroll Alexa in school. All of a sudden, the sunny boy was subdued. He talked less and less. Laurie called the pediatrician. He told her it was not uncommon for younger siblings to stop talking for periods of time, because their older brother or sister did the talking for them.

Two months passed. Dougie barely spoke at all now. The only time he managed to articulate much of anything was to repeat what Laurie said to him. Laurie went back to the doctor. She mentioned Dougie's symptoms developed shortly after he had his immunization shots. She was referred to a neurologist, who recommended the boy be admitted to New England Medical Center.

Dougie underwent a battery of tests. He was scared. He had wires coming out of his head. They put him in a crib that looked like a cage. He looked away, and he never looked back.

''I remember being in the doctor's office," Doug said. ''They told me Dougie wouldn't make eye contact with anyone. But when I looked at him, I saw the old Dougie."

The doctors surmised that Dougie was developmentally challenged from birth. Laurie put together a video of her child when he was a completely healthy, vibrant, communicative 2 1/2-year-old -- ''his highlight film," she joked. The doctors viewed it, then grew silent.

''I watched and said, 'Oh my God,' " Doug said. ''I didn't realize how far he'd regressed."

The diagnosis -- autism -- was devastating. But, within a week, Doug and Laurie were moving forward.

''We just started focusing on, 'Where do we go, who do we see?' " Doug said. ''I've had to do that a lot in my career. I know how to put last week behind me."

Questions are raised

Doug Flutie was always the little guy who defied the odds. He was a United States Football League bonus baby. He was a Canadian Football League legend. He was a replacement player in New England, a controversial figure in Buffalo, a sage veteran in San Diego. Along the way, he used his notoriety to start the Doug Flutie Jr. Celebrity Golf Classic, an all-star basketball tournament, and a 5K road race, all to benefit the foundation.

''It always amazes me when I work with families like the Fluties, who truly do not feel sorry for themselves," said Lisa Borges, executive director of the foundation. ''It would be easy to be bitter, or angry. No one would blame them. But they don't say, 'Why me?' They say, 'What can I do?' "

According to the Center for Disease Control, 1 in 166 children develop some form of autism, ranging from mild and somewhat high functioning (like Dan Marino's son) to severe. The number is staggering, and Bill Flutie does not understand why there hasn't been a more urgent look at the preservative containing mercury that is used in immunizations.

''You've got to shake your head at it," Bill said. ''Dougie is a normal little boy, then after the shots he's not? Autism is reaching epidemic proportions. I wish someone like Doug, with so much visibility, could pressure the government to do something.

''I'm afraid to discuss it with Doug. It's so personal. It's a tough subject. It upsets them, sometimes."

Doug and Laurie have struggled with this issue. They, too, believe the immunizations are the cause of Dougie's autism, even though no studies have proven a direct link.

''The government will never admit it, but we've got a big problem," Doug Flutie said. ''They did a study. Great. Happy for them. But there's no doubt in my mind we need to get the mercury out of these shots.

''We can't get into the lab ourselves and prove it, so we're trying to raise funds for research. No matter what they find it's not going to make Dougie better. But it could help others."

They are wrapped up in Dougie; they admit it. There are excellent facilities that house autistic patients, but the Fluties have rejected that option.

''Some members of our family have said, 'You know, the sad day will come when you are going to have to put him someplace,' " Doug said. ''I say no. Screw that. I want him with us. If he's 20, 25, 30, 35, I want him here."

''I will never put him in a home as long as I can possibly help it," Laurie said emphatically.

Dougie remains a challenge. He needs constant attention. He is apt to suddenly sprint off into a crowd. He rarely cries, so if he's hurt, or suffering, his family is often unaware. He cannot swim, so he must be supervised near water at all times.

This past summer, Dougie was sitting in the hot tub when he suddenly popped out, scooted down the slide of the family pool, and plopped into the water without his life vest on. Alexa quickly pulled him to the surface; her brother, quite pleased with himself, merely grinned at her.

Doug worries his son doesn't eat enough. Dougie is thin, and he never indicates he's hungry, so his father leaves a trail of easily accessible snacks throughout the house. Laurie worries that Dougie might become sick and be unable to tell them. Alexa needs glasses; how would Dougie ever let them know if he did?

''We were home recently and Dougie was crouched down, just staring out the window," Doug said. ''He had been doing it quite a while, so I said, 'Dougie, come over here.' He didn't move. That's when we realized his finger was stuck in the vent. The poor kid couldn't tell us."

One night, Laurie tiptoed up to check on Dougie in his room. He was looking out the window with his hand sticking through the net of his little plastic basketball hoop. His finger had become caught and was turning blue. Dougie never made a sound. The net is no longer in his room.

Realistic about the future
Who knows what Dougie would have been like? Is it a coincidence that the first thing he reaches for in his toy box is the hockey stick, the basketball, or the football? Doug tries to play catch with Dougie sometimes. He'll say, ''Get ready, I'm going to pass you the ball." His son, his expression blank, will not turn around. His father will throw the ball anyway. Most times, Dougie will expertly snatch it without looking.

''There are moments when you get a little bummed out," Laurie admitted. ''You watch Brett playing sports, and you think to yourself, 'These would be the kids Dougie would be hanging out with.' There are at least eight kids in the neighborhood Dougie's age who are running around, doing what boys do. You wish Dougie could be out there with them. But you can't dwell on it."

They are realistic about their son's future. He may improve in increments, or this may be as good as it will ever get.

''I believe Dougie can understand the majority of what we're saying to him," Doug said. ''I just don't think he's able to respond.

''Jeffrey Lurie, the owner of the [Philadelphia] Eagles, had a brother who was autistic who didn't speak his first word until he was 35. He told Jeffrey, 'Don't talk to me like I'm an idiot.' "

When Doug signed with the Patriots, he sat down and explained to his kids how he had met coach Bill Belichick years ago at rocker Jon Bon Jovi's 30th birthday party, and how he thought this job with New England was a good fit. Flutie had seriously considered playing one more year in the CFL with his brother Darren before the Patriots made their pitch. NFL offers from the Giants, Seattle, and Tampa Bay were more lucrative, but they couldn't guarantee he'd be able to watch his nephew Billy play for Natick High every Friday night.

Flutie reports to Patriots camp today knowing his son is settled. Dougie can hang out in his ''hot pool" and continue his schooling at a collaborative program in Framingham.

The unknown comes into play years from now, when Doug and Laurie grow older. Laurie had a nightmare about it two weeks ago, and woke up sobbing, shaking. ''I told Alexa about it," Laurie said. ''She said, 'Mom, stop worrying. I'll take care of Dougie.' "

''People think he's a burden," Doug said. ''He's not. I love going up to his room and lying with him on that big old bear he's got on his bed."

The Flutie family went to dinner recently. They were in the middle of a conversation when Dougie suddenly picked up the rectangular menus and began twirling them.

''He's got them in both hands, and he's spinning them around, and we can't believe it," said Doug Flutie, with wonder in his voice. ''So we all start trying it. But we can't. We can't do it."

The stunned waiter stared at this nearly grown kid in a stroller making strange guttural noises while spinning these menus like some kind of juggler. He had recognized Doug Flutie when they came in, and now his facial expression betrayed his thoughts: how sad.

No. It's not sad at all. Look at them. Do they look unhappy? So Doug Flutie Jr. will never be a quarterback. So what? His father does not care. Dougie's legacy -- his foundation -- is so much more meaningful.

We should all be able to see that.

Donations to the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism can be sent to P.O. Box 767, Framingham, MA 01701

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