Shawn Halloran of Boston College once told his coach, Jack Bicknell, "I don't know how Doug did it." And Cowboy Jack, who likes horses and western books and seeing the good and gentle people win out in the end, said, "Stop worrying yourself. Just go out and play."
These days before Thursday night's season opener against Brigham Young at Giants Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands, Bicknell's Eagles play on the make-believe grass at a shiny tin horseshoe called Alumni Stadium on the campus of the largest Jesuit college in the country. Even on Saturday mornings, as early as 8 o'clock, you catch old men sitting in the end zone bleachers, trading stories about the best player in the history of the school, the 1984 Heisman Trophy winner, Doug Flutie. Some of these ancient hearkeners are priests, wearing civilian shirts and slacks and doeskin bluchers, and they, too, wonder if the Eagles, who went 10-2 last year and finished ranked fifth in the nation, can win without the magic man.
"You see young Halloran's picture in the paper the other day?"
"Looks like a pup."
"Like a high school boy."
"Like a pup, I say."
"Maybe 16, 17 years old."
Shawn Halloran, who is 21, does not need anyone to tell him that he's in for a handful. Reminded maybe 4,816 times a day that he's replacing the very fellow who won 31 of the 42 games he started, set nine NCAA Division I-A records and helped earn the school somewhere in the neighborhood of $9 million, Halloran sort of shifts into neutral and says, "I really haven't thought about it at all."
Then, kicking into first gear: "I mean, I really can't think about replacing a legend, but simply about leading the team and playing the best I can."
The truth is, Shawn Halloran would rather talk about taking an aerobics class this summer with his girlfriend out in Westminster, Mass., his home town. They'd go late in the day, after his construction job let out, and dance themselves silly. Three, four days a week, he'd work out at a Nautilus center, then go home and watch game films and jump rope. It was a great summer, he said, especially those weekends at the Cape. You hardly ever ran into people who wanted to know how Boston College would do without Doug Flutie.
"It's everybody's question," Bicknell said. "But it's really the most natural thing to have a kid graduate. Flutie was a great player who won for us here. If you look at John Elway's four years in college, he was also a great quarterback but Stanford never once made it to a bowl game. One guy can help your program, but he'll never be able to carry it . . . I know we've got a lot of very talented, very capable players at Boston College. And that's why I've been saying there's plenty of life after Flutie."
Halloran, a redshirt junior, is 6 feet 4 and 212 pounds, a classic dropback passer with a strong arm and pretty good speed. He compares his playing style to that of Dan Marino, the Miami Dolphins' quarterback, and says if anything he could "get better at improvising, on pulling off those little flip passes that Doug did so well, and on coming through with whatever the situation calls for."
Flutie, he said, "had a really strong arm, but I don't see any arm difference between him and me. I won't run out of the pocket like he did, but hopefully you'll see me take the blows and still be able to get the ball off. The coaches said we'll be throwing about 25 times a game, which is a little less than what Doug averaged. But you'll see that the concepts are still the same."
Halloran said he never once thought about transferring to another college while languishing in the shadow of Flutie, who went on to play for the New Jersey Generals of the U.S. Football League this spring. He said he never once regretted waiting, mainly because he knew what he was getting into.
"They told me when they recruited me that I wouldn't get my shot at starting until Doug was gone," Halloran said. "They never promised me I'd start or beat him out when I got here. They knew he was a great player and told me so. I'd have to wait, they said. And everything they said happened. Everything."
Bicknell says his greatest concern entering the season is not how Halloran will perform in place of Flutie, but how the defense, which has only five returning starters, will play. First off, how will it cope with BYU's extremely high-powered offense, led by quarterback Robbie Bosco, who led last season's Cougars to a 13-0 record and No. 1 rank?
Boston College, Bicknell says, "will not be as prolific an offensive team as we were last year, so we're really looking for our defense to come together and perform as well as possible. The scramble, the wild play, that's something Doug did so well. He could make something out of nothing. With Shawn, I think we'll be a much more disciplined team. But we'll still be a quarterback-oriented team."
Halloran likes to believe everything will fall into place, that soon enough, he'll prove himself as an able leader of the Eagles' wide-open, multiple offense. Although it was reported recently in a local paper, Bicknell said he did not pull Halloran aside late in last season's final regular season game and say, "It's your team now." Doing so, Bicknell said, would have undermined all competition for the position and "disregarded the chances of the other kids in the program," including Steve Peach, a fifth-year senior who has received much praise from the coaching staff throughout August's two-a-day workouts.
With Flutie's departure, Boston College signed a group of freshman quarterbacks that came to be known as the Fantastic Four, although two since have been moved to other positions. Transfers Mike Willging and Duke St. Pierre also competed for the top spot. During spring training, Halloran confessed to "feeling weird" when working with the first-team offense, "but only because Doug had been there so long."
Bicknell said he expects to read a lot by looking into his new quarterback's eyes during the BYU game.
"If his head is hanging down," he said, "I'll be upset with him, but I won't and never have pointed any fingers. Nobody tries to screw up. Shawn may need to be spoon-fed a little early on, but physically he should have no problem. He's a big, strong kid and a player. It's the mental part, all the pressure, that will be the biggest test. That, more than anything else, is what he's up against."
Halloran said he's not worried, he's just glad finally to have the chance to play. And he's always enjoyed playing in the Meadowlands because he's always had good luck there. In 1983 against Rutgers, after Flutie suffered a concussion midway through the second quarter, Halloran completed eight of 12 passes for 102 yards and one touchdown. The Eagles ended up scoring 30 points with him in charge and winning, 42-22.
Halloran said a busload of friends and family from his home town will make the trip to New Jersey. These are the people, he said, "who've followed me through my career. They expect the most, and you want to please them.
"I'll do what I have to do to help us win. People will make comparisons, I know. But you won't see Doug Flutie out there."