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ON FOOTBALL

There's still magic left in Flutie

Local hero shows he hasn't lost it

FOXBOROUGH -- Three plays. Two touchdowns. One quarterback controversy?

Maybe not, but three plays into his return to New England after a 16-year absence, Doug Flutie had led the Patriots to two touchdowns, including a 29-yard scoring pass to Jason Anderson with just over a minute left in the first half of last night's 37-27 loss to the New Orleans Saints at Razor Blade Field. As efficiency goes, that about covers it.

Flutie played not a down a week ago in the exhibition opener but he wasted no time pleasing a crowd that had come hoping to see him and ready to roar when his name was announced as he replaced Tom Brady late in the second quarter. They missed that moment because it came and went so fast, but all Flutie did thereafter was produce 14 points in about 14 seconds, which was enough to remind a lot of people when he, and they, were young.

Obviously, Brady's right arm would have to become a lot sorer than it allegedly has been of late for Flutie to wend his way onto the field this fall, but for a few minutes on a beautiful summer night, he was magic the way he used to be, and the fans loved it, hollering when he handed off the ball to fullback Kyle Eckel for a short touchdown run and then going wild when the 42-year-old former Heisman Trophy winner lofted a perfect throw to Anderson for a second score, on his second completion of the night.

Moments earlier, Flutie hit a diving Tim Dwight for a completion on the first throw he'd made as a Patriot since Dec. 3, 1989, when he played against the now-defunct Houston Oilers. When Dwight hauled it in, the crowd roared. When Eckel took that handoff from Flutie and ran in for a score, the crowd roared. When Flutie threw that perfect ball to Anderson, the crowd roared even more.

The message was not that anyone here believed Flutie was any threat to Brady. The message was that New England sports fans don't forget an old friend.

''I was very excited about being at home and getting the opportunity to play," Flutie said. ''It's not like I've been playing consistently every year. It's nice to play in front of people who have followed my career."

Those people would have cheered no matter who gave the ball to Eckel and regardless of who threw those passes to Dwight and Anderson. But ever since Flutie threw ''The Pass Thou Shalt Not Forget," that Hail Mary that beat the Miami Hurricanes so many years ago, there has been a special connection between local sports fans and the man from Natick.

He was not only average size and heroic, he was a son of the rocky soil of New England. He was the local boy who performed miracles. He did it at Boston College. He did it for years in the Canadian Football League. He even did it in spurts in a very skeptical National Football League, when he was given his chance.

But those days running the offense are over except in the rarest of circumstances, and Flutie understands that. It is why he came quietly home from San Diego this offseason to sign on to a situation where he knows not only that he won't play, but where as much as people love him, they don't want him to play.

That's because if Flutie is playing, Brady is not, and unless that is because the game is a blowout, that would be a disastrous circumstance.

''I still enjoy playing but my quest is to get myself in position so if I'm ever called on this offense doesn't miss a beat," Flutie said.

Brady has managed to do the impossible in these parts, become an even more mythic figure than Flutie, leading the Patriots to three Super Bowl victories in four years and twice being named that game's Most Valuable Player. Not even a Heisman Trophy, a Cotton Bowl victory, and a pretty good professional career could approach that. Yet last night, for a few moments, at least, it was like old times for Doug Flutie. Every time he touched the ball something happened, and most of the time it was good.

By halftime, Flutie was 2 for 2 for 41 yards and a score, posting a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating, and every time something good happened for him and his team, his friends and neighbors in the stands, many of whom grew up dreaming of being like Flutie, let him know how it made them feel to see a guy from down the street making plays in the NFL in a stadium that sits less than an hour's drive from where he grew up.

It was a reminder, perhaps the last one we will get this season, of what Flutie can still do with a football in his hands. When he dropped back to pass and threw that perfect ball over the outstretched arms of Saints cornerback Fakhir Brown, and into the waiting arms of Anderson, the crowd at Razor Blade Field rose and hollered Flutie's name.

If the Patriots are lucky, that won't happen again until maybe next August, but if they aren't so lucky, it's good to know the kid from down the street is around to help out if they need him.

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