Only six seconds remain on the clock. The Un-Seasonable Football League is deep in its own territory. It needs a miracle here. Doug Flutie takes the snap and fades back under a heavy media rush. He eludes many NFL scouts and sidesteps the blitzing Brian Sipe. Now Walt Michaels is chasing him out of the pocket, but, oh, Michaels goes down on a beautiful block by Donald Trump. No time left now. Flutie flings the ball 64 yards toward his roommate, Gerard Phelan, in the end zone over the outstretched fingers of hundreds of lawyers and loan officers.
Well, something like that happened once, and now the question is whether Flutie can make it happen again—not for Boston College this time, but for the USFL. This week Flutie is scheduled to sign a five-year, $7 million contract with the New Jersey Generals, which will make him the richest player (based on annual salary), not to mention the richest second-string quarterback, in the game.
Other questions were raised after Flutie's attorney. Bob Woolf, announced last Friday that he and the Fluties, father Dick and son, had come to an agreement with Donald (It's My Ball) Trump, the owner of the Generals. What about the NFL, Flutie's league of preference back in December when he won the Heisman Trophy? Whatever happened to Herschel Walker, the 1982 Heisman winner? Whatever happened to Mike Rozier, the '83 Heisman winner? What were the Buffalo Bills waiting for? Doesn't Michaels know on which side his bread is buttered? Is Flutie Pass—the street named after our hero—paved with good intentions?
Here, one at a time, are all the answers you've been waiting for: Last Saturday Flutie said, "Forget the money. It seemed like the situation in New Jersey was just too good. New York City was important. The location is nice. It's close to home. I'm getting to play on the same team with Herschel Walker." So that's where he went. Rozier isn't even that visible. He's a USFL free agent and at week's end was still shopping for a team.
February 4, 1985
Trump had been coveting Flutie for a long time, and courting him for the last month.
"I think he's really excellent," Trump says. "He's going to be great for the league. I love the concept of having him in the same backfield as Herschel Walker. It opens things up tremendously. They won't be able to just key on Herschel. I've never seen a reaction like this. This is bigger than the Herschel deal."
Two weeks ago Woolf and Flutie met with Trump at his headquarters in New York City's Trump Tower. At one point Flutie was taken to a private theater and shown a five-minute film entitled Trump Tower, A World of Glamour. "That's pretty much the big time to me," said Flutie. Trump had originally planned to take Woolf and Flutie to lunch, but then realized they might draw too much attention. So he had sandwiches brought up. Flutie had the turkey.
"I was struck by Mr. Trump's enthusiasm," said Flutie. "I didn't know what to expect from him. But he was very easy for me to talk to—of course, he did most of the talking."
Where was the NFL during all this? The Bills, who have the first choice in the April draft but could have negotiated with Flutie now if they had so chosen, couldn't decide if Flutie was worth a first pick, much less $7 million. Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell expressed a more active interest, but in essence the league twiddled its thumbs. Here was the most attractive college player in years—or, at least, of this year—and the NFL didn't even buy him a turkey sandwich. Flutie has even popped up in a New Yorker cartoon: A butler, announcing the arrival of a pie-carrying football player and a flag-bearing woman, tells party guests, "The flag, mom, Doug Flutie, and apple pie." NFL scouts may consider Steve Calabria of Colgate a better pro prospect, but he's not about to make The New Yorker.
On Jan. 7, Generals president Jay Seltzer met Woolf in Boston. After 16 days of negotiations, they had the basics of a five-year pact for $7 million, the first three years of which are guaranteed should the USFL, which has lost an estimated $100 million since its inception, call it a ball game. Two days later, Woolf was in New York to appear on Good Morning, America, and after the show he stopped by Howard Cosell's office several blocks south for bagels and coffee. While there, he called Trump, and the two ironed out some details. Then Woolf flew back to Boston and, after he had phoned Seltzer, advised the Fluties to take the offer. A half hour later, at 3 p.m., Doug called Woolf and said, "I'm ready to commit." He also asked how he could get a playbook.
The NFL reacted with an impressive yawn. "God bless Doug Flutie, I guess," said Terry Bledsoe, general manager of the struggling Bills.
Earlier in the week, Bledsoe had said that the Bills could have done three things with the first pick in the NFL draft: "Trade it. Use it to draft Flutie and try to sign him now. Or draft someone else."
The talk of trades seemed to bother Flutie, who said, "With the NFL, I didn't know whether it would be Buffalo or not. Would the Bills decide to draft me or would Cleveland? The question was not when or if I would be drafted, but by whom?"
O.J. Simpson, for one, had some doubts about how Flutie would have done in Buffalo. Simpson, who played for nine seasons with the Bills, knows how unpredictable playing on the eastern shore of Lake Erie can be once the fall weather turns to winter. "The kind of quarterback you want in Buffalo is the big, strong guy who can stand in the pocket and throw the ball through the wind," said O.J. last week. "A scrambling type throws on the run.... Well, that wind will take his ball and turn it upside down."
The NFL could have easily gotten enough money together to help the Bills or Browns pay Flutie, but the league didn't do that for two reasons. It didn't want to upset its salary structure, and it didn't want to leave itself open to charges of collusion from the USFL, which has a $1.3 billion antitrust lawsuit against the NFL in the works. "The suit is baseless and we are going to keep it that way," says NFL comissioner Pete Rozelle.
The NFL scouts also weren't that hot on Flutie, mainly because of his size, which is 5'9" and 176 pounds, and because he didn't look that impressive in the Cotton Bowl or in his two postseason all-star games, the Hula Bowl and the Japan Bowl. "He's a perfect college player, but that doesn't make him a great pro," says New York Giants general manager George Young. "On an NFL team you'd have to gear your offense to him and put in a rollout passing attack, and maybe that would mean you would need a different kind of lineman. Plus, you'd have to teach a whole new blocking scheme. You'd have to ask yourself, is he that good that he's worth it?' " Richard Todd, quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, says, "I just don't see how a guy could play in the NFL at 5'9". I'm 6'2", and I have plenty of trouble seeing over those hands that are in my face all the time."
Flutie believers, however, might assume that NFL skeptics are just too small to see over the hands of all those on-rushing stereotypes. Or to recall that scrambling six foot Fran Tarkenton holds the league career records for passing yardage and TDs.
Flutie will be facing a strange situation when he arrives in Orlando, where he won't exactly be met with open arms. The Generals have already spent $2.1 million on the 35-year-old arm of their incumbent quarterback, Sipe, who won't go gently. "What happens with Flutie is out of my hands," Sipe says. "I'll treat him like any other quarterback on this team, but my obligation is to get myself ready to play.
"It's too early for me to come to any conclusions because I've never gone head to head with such a notorious character. I've heard from what I consider to be reliable sources that he is a hell of a nice kid. I'll be surprised if I find him otherwise."
For his part, Flutie is willing to bow to Sipe. "Brian Sipe is a phenomenal quarterback. He has been and will be. He considers himself to be the number one quarterback of the Generals, and I consider him to be the number one quarterback of the Generals. I'm expecting to be a backup. Anything other than that will be a surprise." As for Trump's view of the Flutie vs. Sipe situation, he says, "There'll be competition. We'll just have to see."
Then there's the matter of Michaels, the coach, who has remained altogether mute on the subject of Flutie—except to say, "Whatever Jay Seltzer told the press is what I know." Michaels wanted to sign the 6'4", 215-pound Calabria, whom the Generals also drafted, and was overruled by Trump. Michaels, in fact, wasn't even given the opportunity to talk to Flutie during the negotiations.
"Coach Michaels doesn't know me," Flutie says. "I have to go to camp and show him that I really can throw from the pocket, that I am a drop-back passer, that I'm not a scrambler, that I'm not a sprintout quarterback. He probably saw Steve Calabria as the prototype of a pro quarterback, someone who can throw out of the pocket. I read in the papers that I'm a scrambler. I know that I'm not. We threw out of the pocket at least 80 or 85 percent of the time."
Jack Bicknell, Flutie's coach at Boston College, has some advice for Michaels: "As Doug's former coach, and I hate to hear myself say 'former,' I can only tell his new coach that he's never seen anyone like him, anyone who can light up a scoreboard or move a ball down the field like Doug. I can also tell him that Doug is a better person than he is a player."
Walker thinks everything will turn out fine for Flutie. "The guys will accept him like they did me," Walker says. "They're mature enough to understand all of this."
The Generals do have an added attraction for Flutie, and that's the strong possibility that his roommate and friend, Gerard Phelan, who's also represented by Woolf, will soon sign with New Jersey. Last week Flutie interrupted an interview by exclaiming, "I love it! I love it!" No, BC didn't beat Georgetown in basketball, nor had Flutie won the Massachusetts lottery. He had just been told that Phelan had been timed at 4.54 seconds in the 40 at an NFL minicamp. "Gerard's for real," said Flutie. "You can print that. No one believes it."
Then Flutie added, "I can imagine Gerard is saying, 'Let's make something work. I want to be with Doug. This will be fun.' But he won't bend over backwards."
On Sunday the people of Natick, Mass., who have already named one of their streets Flutie Pass, gathered for a Doug Flutie Day parade. The American flag hung in front of several homes along the parade route. Thousands lined the streets on a cold, calm afternoon, and there were undoubtedly visions of Flutie's pass to Phelan dancing in their heads. The New Yorker was right—he is Americana. He and his fiancée, Laurie Fortier, rode on the back seat of a vintage, jet-black T-bird, complete with New Jersey license plates. The BC band played For Boston over and over, as friends and neighbors cheered and enterprising vendors sold Doug Flutie pennants, pompons, hats, wool beanies, T shirts and buttons.
"I'd rather he signed with the NFL," said 11-year-old Sean Slavin, who lives down the street from Flutie. "But New Jersey will be my favorite team now." Said Maureen Mahar, a retired state employee from Natick, "I think it's terrific. This will be fun. He should take the money and run. Or better yet, he should take the money and pass."