NATICK --It was always the biggest game of his life.
He remembers the intense buildup, how the town rallied behind his team. And how his mind raced with possibilities for days. Will this play work? Maybe we should try this. Can we stop their running backs? Will our star receiver play?
The wait, the uncertainty, was excruciating. Then the day came, with the bands blaring and cheerleaders doing backflips and as many as 13,000 people in the stands. And then it was time to run out onto the frozen turf and play.
Doug Flutie remembers those Thanksgiving Day football games with a smile.
Hes reminiscing as he sits in the locker room at Gillette Stadium, where he has become the elder statesman of the New England Patriots, the trusted backup to superstar Tom Brady after 22 years of pro experience. Brady walks by. Coach Bill Belichick walks by. But this is about Natick football, just Natick football.
Natick, of course, is his hometown. Its where Flutie starred at quarterback from 1978-80 before going on to Boston College. Fluties career took off at BC, where his Hail Mary pass against the University of Miami became the stuff of legend.
He won the Heisman Trophy as the nations top collegiate player. Hes since played in the National Football League, won championships in the Canadian Football League, and is now back in the NFL.
Hes been to the big leagues all right. But some of Fluties best memories are of playing for Natick High on Thanksgiving.
Thousands of student-athletes in Massachusetts will take the field this morning to play in Thanksgiving football games and the 43-year-old Flutie will get swept up in the excitement again himself.
He will attend Naticks game against visiting Framingham, taking a break from preparations for Sundays game in Kansas City.
It was just a great atmosphere to play in, he says. At every level, Ive had special memories. And those are special memories.
It is, as he told Natick High players earlier this year, one of the great traditions in Massachusetts.
What does Flutie remember most about Thanksgiving?
The game starts earlier [10 a.m.], so it was always an early, early morning, he said.
Usually, we all got together and went out to breakfast before our regular games, so we got up ridiculously early on Thanksgiving. It was a cool feeling because high school kids usually dont wake up that early.
It was always a cold-weather game and as a senior, your thought process that morning is that wow, this is my last high school game. The fact that its on Thanksgiving makes it even more special. Theres a longer buildup to it and that helped create a playoff or Super Bowl type of atmosphere. It was always exciting.
In Fluties years, Naticks rival was Framingham South, which has since merged with Framingham North.
As a sophomore, Flutie directed the Redmen to a 38-14 win at Framinghams Bowditch Field.
Coach Tom Lamb remembered that Flutie didnt start the year at quarterback, his brother Bill did. Yet after three games, Lamb gave Doug the job and moved Bill to receiver. Natick finished 8-2.
It was one of the few times we moved a senior out of the quarterback spot and put in a sophomore and didnt have to explain it to the parents, Lamb joked.
Doug connected with Bill on a 24-yard touchdown that Thanksgiving and also remembered a special moment after the game.
That was my last game with Bill and we had some nice catches and throws, but what Ill never forget is being together on the field, the two of us, and getting a picture of the two of us in uniform with my mom, he said.
There was another unforgettable moment the next Thanksgiving, one Flutie wishes never happened. Framingham South beat Natick, 34-23, to snap an eight-game losing skid in the series.
The fact we lost bothered me more than anything, Flutie said.
You just dont want to end your season with a loss and you dont want to lose on Thanksgiving, then go home and be miserable the rest of the day. When you lost, you felt like you let everybody in the town down. Thats what I remember more than anything.
Lamb said the only disagreement he ever had with Flutie took place at the end of that game.
There was about a minute left, maybe 30 seconds, and I took him out so the crowd could give him a hand, Lamb recalled. He was upset. He thought we could still win the game, and was probably right.
It was vintage Flutie, scrapping to the last second. No matter that Framingham was leading 34-23 at the time.
Flutie still remembers some of the South players who handed Natick that bitter defeat, and he rattled off their names to prove it Travis Hinton and brothers Arnold, Donald, and Andre Garron were four of Souths stars. Doug and Donald were later teammates at Boston College.
Flutie exacted his revenge as a senior in 1980.
We were back at Bowditch Field and I remember it was frozen; I couldnt get my cleats into the field, I was slipping and sliding, he said. In the second half, I wore sneakers.
He didnt need to worry so much about the shoes. Natick rolled, 37-13. Despite playing without his main receiving target, Darryl Williams, Flutie passed for 207 yards and two touchdowns. His first two passes went for 35 and 34 yards to Tim OCallahan.
He throws spears, South coach Scooch Giargiari told the Middlesex News after the game. Fluties the best weve faced. No question.
After the game, Flutie sounded like Flutie.
The pressure was there today, he said. We had to win. But I was confident. I felt we were ready.
Flutie has been ready for this mornings Framingham-Natick game for some time. Throughout his career, hes maintained a house in Natick.
When he signed a contract with the Patriots this year, part of the appeal was that he could attend games. His nephew, Bill, is one of Naticks star players.
Two weeks ago, Flutie was part of a charged-up Friday night crowd as Natick beat Milton to improve to 10-0. He watched from the stands. Other days, he shows up at team workouts.
Hes thrown some balls for us in practice, Lamb said. You know those kids will be telling their grandparents about that.
Flutie remembers Natick wore special uniforms on Thanksgiving, which was one reminder the game was different from the rest.
It was always the biggest crowd of the year, he said. Everyone always comes back we had 11,000 one year, 13,000 another. It was just a great atmosphere to be a part of.
Coach Lamb, he always brought that attention to it, reminding us that it was a big deal. He made it feel special and emphasized that it was your last chance, your last game. So it was a big buildup. I go back now and look at it, and I remember how much I built it up in my mind. Im excited for Billy. Thanksgiving will be huge for him.
[Former teammate] Paul Ghilani and I spoke to the kids earlier this season before they played Walpole. It was a big game for them. The two of us told them what a special opportunity they had and how big a game it was that they would always remember the Walpole game. But we reminded them it was second to one game Thanksgiving.
Thats always number one.