The football career of undersized quarterback Doug Flutie is a straight-line extension of countless games he has played from high school to the NFL. To the frustration of defensive players, the consternation of his critics, the fascination of his fans and his own delight, little Flutie never goes away. At 37, he is 15 years removed from "The Pass," his "Hail Mary" heave that claimed an improbable victory for Boston College and a place in football lore. This Sunday as quarterback of the Buffalo Bills, Flutie will be the Washington Redskins' problem.
Flutie can beat the clock and win a game as he did last week in Baltimore. He can defy the calendar. Like the fictional Roy Hobbs in "The Natural," who resurfaced to baseball glory after a long disappearance, Flutie vanished from the NFL for eight seasons, then returned from the Canadian Football League last year to lead the Bills to the postseason. He was named NFL comeback player of the year.
Yet in Buffalo, some media and some fans hold him greatly responsible for the team's modest 5-3 record. Stellar wide receiver Eric Moulds has been injured. The Bills' running game has been bad. Flutie has thrown eight interceptions in the last three games. Earlier this week, Larry Felser, sports editor of the Buffalo News, wrote a sentence chilling to Flutie fans: "There is a feeling around the NFL that Flutie can no longer put enough smoke on his passes on a consistent basis."
It could be. But, then, comebacks are his life's theme. In 1984 it seemed that the Miami Hurricanes had beaten Boston College in Miami when Flutie unleashed a ball that traveled 64 yards to the end zone (48 yards officially) and into the arms of Gerard Phelan, no speedster, who inexplicably had gotten behind the Miami defense as time expired. Final: 47-45, Boston College. As the New Yorker wrote of Flutie: ". . . the toss, into the wind and in a driving rain, earned him not unfavorable comparison with God in the next morning's Boston papers and cemented his hold on the Heisman Trophy, symbol of gridiron greatness . . ."
With behemoths circling him on Sundays and sports talk show voices firing at him on western New York weeknights, Flutie remains upbeat, determined, congenial and frank. In telephone news conferences during the last two weeks leading up to the Bills' games in both Baltimore and here, Flutie reminisced about college ball and his six outstanding-player-award seasons in Canada, derided what he perceived as the NFL's hidebound approach to evaluating college talent and reiterated the virtues of never giving up and also enjoying life.
On "The Pass": "It was three to five minutes before I knew who it was who caught it. When it came down it went over two defenders' heads. I assumed it landed incomplete. There was a second delay and the arms of the referee went up in the back of the end zone. But it wasn't until I was going into the tunnel to go off the field, I asked who caught the ball. That was after shaking hands with people, piling on top of people."
On perhaps opening the way for other players who don't fit NFL stereotypes: "I know that a lot more CFL players have signed in the last year-and-a-half. Guys from the World League. From the Arena League. And I love that. I love throwing a wrench in the big system of the NFL because it always irked me that they took the attitude that they have all the answers. No one knows all the answers. . . . They've got four years' worth of film on all these guys coming out of school. Why do they have to take them to a combine? They got to line 'em up in their underwear and look at their bodies. It's got nothing to do with playing football."
The first time around in the NFL, from 1986 through 1989, Flutie started only 15 games combined for Chicago and New England. Coaches wanted results immediately. He infuriated the fiery Mike Ditka. He left the cerebral Raymond Berry puzzled. "My stats looked weak," he said, "so I was on my way out."
"For some reason, they expected him to do it when none of the other guys were expected--even [John] Elway and people like that," Buffalo Coach Wade Phillips said. "I told him last year, if he'd been in the league five or six years ago he'd be holding a lot of records because he's a tremendous player--and leader. He'd only been with us a year and he was voted one of the captains."
As Jack Bicknell, Flutie's coach at Boston College, said: "Flutie wanted the ball in key spots. He really wanted the ball, the chance to win it or lose it."
"You've got to be able to play the game with a smile on your face," Flutie said. "I've always enjoyed trying to figure out a way to come from behind, try to win. I don't care if it's a pickup basketball game in the driveway or . . ." He described a softball game in which he moved all the outfielders to the infield and got a double play to escape with the victory.
Discarded by the NFL, Flutie found his joy ebbing. But the CFL "really put the fun back in the game for me." And being "voted to the Pro Bowl by my peers meant a lot to me. But I still don't think the personnel people are going to be running out looking for 5-10 quarterbacks." Flutie is 5-10, counting his stack of hair.
Before his family settled in Natick, Mass., he grew up in Baltimore. He watched Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson play at Memorial Stadium. He took No. 22 in college because it was the number worn by Jim Palmer. Flutie vacations most summers in Bethany Beach, Del., a carry-over from family vacations as a youth in Ocean City, Md. He and his wife, Laurie, were Natick High sweethearts. As parents, they rallied quickly from personal setback. They founded the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism after their second child, 7-year-old Doug, had the disorder diagnosed.
When asked last year if playing in a Super Bowl would be his ultimate dream, Flutie replied, according to Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News: "My ultimate dream would be walking into the house and hearing my little boy say, 'Hi, Dad.' "
Special correspondent Kathy Orton contributed to this report.
CAPTION: The first time around in NFL (1986-89), Doug Flutie started only 15 games combined for Bears, Patriots before going to CFL. "My stats looked weak," he said, "so I was on my way out."
CAPTION: Called too short, Doug Flutie won Heisman Trophy, dominated in Canada before NFL gave him another chance.