One year ago, on a windy, rainy Thanksgiving Friday in the Orange Bowl, Boston College was six seconds away from losing to Miami when BC quarterback Doug Flutie launched a 64-yard pass that spiraled into football folklore by way of the outstretched arms of his best friend, wide receiver Gerard Phelan. The Pass was the high point in a college career that had been pure fairy tale from the outset. But it also marked the beginning of a year that has tested young Flutie in ways he could not have imagined on that glorious day.
It is autumn in Chestnut Hill, Mass. The leaves have blazed and fallen once more, and the footpaths that crisscross the Boston College campus are paved with gold. Down on the field in Alumni Stadium, the football team is making familiar autumnal noises—the thud and slap of padded bodies colliding, the drumming of running feet that dwindles to a muffled tattoo as the pursuers abandon the chase and the ballcarrier hurtles on alone.
"It's an eerie feeling that you're missing something, that something's happening without you," Flutie says. "It's like you're supposed to be somewhere, but you have nowhere to go."
For the first time since he was eight, Flutie is spending a football season as a spectator. He is back at BC finishing the communications degree that was interrupted last January when Donald Trump gave him $8.3 million to play for the New Jersey Generals of the USFL. In return, Flutie was supposed to save Trump's failing spring league, attract a new network TV contract and lead the Generals to the Summer Bowl championship. None of those things happened. Flutie's rookie season was a mixed bag, disappointing in some ways, remarkable in others.
December 2, 1985
Less than a month after his last college all-star game, Flutie made his first start as a pro quarterback. He played in 15 games, 10 of them victories. Then on June 1, early in the second quarter of the Generals' 15th game, he rolled out to his left on a third down and was tackled by 284-pound Reggie White of the Memphis Showboats. Flutie's left collarbone was broken. His season was finished.
In July, Flutie learned from a reporter that New Jersey would merge with Houston and that the Gamblers' Jim Kelly, the USFL's top quarterback, was the probable choice of the merged ownership for Flutie's spot. Today, Flutie still does not know what is to become of him, his team or his league.
Meanwhile, Flutie is back home in Natick, Mass., a western suburb of Boston. He is surrounded by the people who care for him most: his new wife, his folks, his brothers and his sister, old friends, former coaches. And he is free of financial worry. Trump's contract may not guarantee Flutie a job, but it does assure him ample income for a long time to come.
Flutie commutes the 12 miles from Natick to Chestnut Hill for classes, plays pickup basketball to stay in shape and watches his brother Darren, a sophomore wide receiver for BC, at football practice. On weekends he goes to New York City to play analyst on ABC's College Football Scoreboard. For the average undergraduate, it would be a full life. For Flutie, it is sometimes strangely aimless. "Just last night I was lying in bed thinking about it," he says. "I wanted to get together with some guys and throw the ball around, but there's no one to throw it with. They're all playing now."
Mainly, though, Flutie is happy to be home. "When I was playing for the Generals, it seemed like college football was so long ago," he says. "Now that I'm back at BC, it seems like I still belong with the guys on the team and it was only yesterday that the season ended. It's like nothing's changed. I love being on campus because I know everyone. It seemed like with the Generals I was out of my element."
"Nobody's ever had such a difficult route to pro football," says BC coach Jack Bicknell. "He was a month late reporting. He'd missed all but one of the preseason games. Brian Sipe was gone. He's 22 years old. He gets thrown into the big media thing, everybody wanting magic every game he plays. It was ridiculous, as I see it."
At BC, Flutie set Saturday afternoons on fire with record-breaking passing and unbridled optimism. Flutie Magic. Unfortunately, pro football has little use for magic. Magic means variables, and variables make pro football coaches nervous. When Flutie showed up, New Jersey coach Walt Michaels and his staff were, to put it gently, skeptical. Trump reportedly had not consulted Michaels before acquiring Flutie or before trading veteran Sipe to make way for Flutie.
In his first game, against Birmingham, Flutie got off to a rocky start. He threw nine passes, two of them interceptions, before finally completing one in the third quarter. However, late in the game, with Birmingham leading 31-7, the Generals went to their two-minute offense. For a little while Flutie was Flutie again, calling his own plays, in control of himself and the situation. New Jersey lost 38-28, but Flutie completed 12 of his last 18 passes for 189 yards.
"Whenever I felt I was in control, I did well," he says. "Whenever I felt like I was being dictated to, I just didn't."
Somewhat impressed, Michaels let Flutie begin the following game against Orlando in the two-minute offense. Flutie threw three touchdown passes in the first half. Then in the second half, with the game won, Michaels changed his strategy. "All of a sudden we went back to handing the ball off," says Flutie. "I became a robot again, just doing what I was told to do."
The third game was a big one, the home opener against the L.A. Express before 59,000 fans at the Meadowlands. Flutie's passing was off badly, but he made up for it by scrambling all over the field, improvising, doing what needed to be done. It was college football in pro uniforms, and the crowd loved it. Down by 10 points going into the fourth quarter, the Generals scored three times to win 35-24. Kari Yli-Renko, an offensive tackle, said, "We've all seen Doug play and we knew he was sensational, but just not how sensational."
That was it, though. The next week Baltimore beat New Jersey 29-9. "I feel that's where the coaches lost confidence in me," says Flutie. "Now they wanted to protect me, just give the ball to Herschel Walker. Get Herschel to do the work. If we got in trouble at the end of the ball game, then it was 'Doug, try to do your thing.' " Sometimes Flutie saved the win, sometimes he didn't. Either way he was usually limited to 16 or 17 passes a game. Houston's Kelly, on the other hand, was throwing 35 to 40 times a game.
Although the Generals won every home game until White broke Flutie's collarbone, the Meadowlands fans sometimes booed him. In the second Baltimore game, on May 12, they booed him off and on for three quarters as he completed just four of 17 passes for 38 yards. Late in the fourth quarter Baltimore led 3-0 when Flutie raced to the rescue, throwing four completions in five attempts for 83 yards to rally New Jersey to a 10-3 victory. He was a hero again. After the game, the Littlest General sounded almost wistful. "I never give up," he said. "I know I have some ability. I wish the people in the stands would not give up so early."
Flutie also wishes—oh, how he wishes—that Michaels had not given up on him after his injury. Before the Generals' first playoff game, against Baltimore, the team's orthopedic surgeon declared Flutie fit to play. But Michaels decided to start Ron Reeves, who had replaced Flutie for the final three regular-season games. "It was the first time I'd had a rest in six or seven months," says Flutie. "All of a sudden I come back and I'm zipping the ball, throwing it really well in practice. My legs had more bounce. I felt like the old Doug Flutie, and I was ready to go. Then I was told I couldn't play."
Next Flutie tried to persuade the coaching staff to use him as the No. 2 quarterback. I said, "If you're not going to start me, at least list me as No. 2, so that if Ron gets hurt I can go in and give it a shot." Instead, the team announced that Flutie would be No. 3. In the USFL the third quarterback is officially inactive, allowed to play only if Nos. 1 and 2 are injured and incapable of continuing. The No. 2 quarterback was Fred Hessen, who had not played all season.
"It might have been an ego trip," says Flutie. "But I felt with me at quarterback we could go all the way, and I wasn't given the opportunity. It was frustrating."
The Generals lost to Baltimore 20-17. To compound Flutie's frustration, he had to watch Reeves throw 32 passes. "We didn't do that the entire season," says Flutie. "I couldn't understand it then, and I still don't understand it."
In some quarters, it was assumed that Michaels was protecting Trump's investment. After the loss, however, Trump said, "Yes, I'm upset. The quarterback we needed was Flutie. He's pulled out so many games."
Michaels sticks by his decision. "What we tried to do was watch the practices and see how everything was going," he says. "Doug had had no work for about four weeks. We had to be realistic."
Walker was Flutie's best friend on the Generals. They lived in the same condominium complex in Verona, N.J. during the season. They shared dinners, golf games and an occasional night on the town—Manhattan, not Verona. That Walker had a spectacular season (USFL Player of the Year, 2,411 yards rushing) and Flutie, partly as a result, a frustrating one, has not affected their friendship. Walker sympathizes, but he thinks Michaels made the right decision. "If everybody knows you're hurt," says Walker, "you know they'll be gunning for you. No matter who you are, if somebody is dedicated to stopping you, it can be done."
With the USFL season over, Flutie went home to Natick to prepare for his August wedding to Laurie Fortier, his longtime girlfriend.
On July 31, Flutie was sleeping late when the phone rang. A reporter from the Boston Globe asked him how he felt about the possibility of being traded to the USFL's Chicago franchise. His reaction was disbelief. The phone rang a second time. A TV station wanted to know what he thought about the Houston-New Jersey merger. "Then I got scared," says Flutie. He called Bob Woolf, his agent, who was already trying to reach Trump, and he read over his contract to find out if Trump could trade him. He could.
"I felt like things were out of my hands for the first time, that somebody else was in control of my future," says Flutie. "It was a scary feeling."
In August, Trump held a press conference during which he spoke as enthusiastically about Kelly as he had six months earlier about Flutie. "We think Jim Kelly is the best quarterback in pro football," he said. "He's the quarterback, and right now Doug is on the team. I've talked to Herschel about the merger, and he's thrilled. I've also talked to Doug. Let's just say that Herschel's more thrilled than Doug." Tact is not Trump's strong suit, but he did add, "We're going to be very loyal to Doug, and Doug's going to be loyal to us."
Now Trump says the merger is not final: "It's a bit complex. It hinges on certain player contracts. My deal is conditional on certain players coming with it. For instance, if Kelly can't come with the deal, then I'm not particularly interested."
Will he look for a deal for Flutie? "Well, possibly."
The air is left thick with rumor. Flutie may go to a new Boston franchise. Kelly may jump to the NFL (Buffalo picked him in the first round of the 1983 draft). Flutie may go to Chicago. Michaels may go to Chicago. Flutie may go to Tampa Bay or Portland in the USFL. Trump may go to the NFL. If the USFL does not win its $1.3 billion antitrust suit against the NFL, which is scheduled to go to trial on March 17, there may be no USFL and nobody will go anywhere.
"No one said professional sport was going to be fair," says Dick Flutie, who has been coach and head cheerleader for his four children, Bill, Doug, Darren and Denise, since their earliest games. "You hope he'll go to a team that realizes that a Doug Flutie, if used properly, would be a great asset. In the meantime, you don't worry about things you can't control."
Dick is a world-class positive thinker. "Doug had a terrific advantage with the Generals," he says. "He played on a relatively good team, so he had good talent around him. He wasn't bashed on every play like Steve Young was." Young, who played for the Express, was sacked 52 times in 12 games. After L.A.'s 3-15 season, the team went out of business, and Young went to the NFL club in Tampa.
In September, Flutie bought a house in Natick for himself and his bride. It is a medium-size, suburban contemporary on 2½ acres in a neighborhood of similar houses. He points to it as proof that money has not gone to his head. "Look at it," he says. "It's a nice house, not a mansion." The house does have a swimming pool, however, and before long it will have a basketball court, because basketball is Flutie's true love.
Having money is new to Flutie, and the novelty of minor indulgences such as "going out to dinner without having to think twice about spending 20, 30 bucks" has not yet worn off. "I grew up where Friday night we'd go to McDonald's after my dad got his paycheck, and that was a big deal," he says. "It seemed like Dad was always struggling to make ends meet. For the last few years my mother's been working part time at a deli. That was for some extra spending money, to make sure ends met. But she really isn't the type that wants to be working. She enjoys being around the house, doing the gardening, taking care of the place. I see the money as an opportunity to help out my parents, to help out my brothers."
From the day Doug and Laurie returned from their honeymoon in Bermuda until six weeks ago, when they moved into their own house, they lived with his parents, testimony to the harmony that exists among the Flutie generations. "Doug is definitely happiest when he is around his family," says Darren. "That's why he bought the house in Natick. He wants to live around people he's familiar with. I think he was very lonely in New Jersey."
There was a time, shortly before Christmas last year, when Flutie had blisters on his right hand from signing autographs. He was experiencing the flip side of superstardom for the first time. "The Pass just blew it all up," he says. "Before, I'd just been able to wall things off if I wanted to. If people were looking for me, I'd go to my classes, go to the cafeteria, hang out around campus. As long as I didn't go back to my room, no one could get in touch with me. Well, in December I couldn't do that. There was no place to hide anymore."
The difficult year is over. The cheering has died for now, and the raucous braying of commerce is muffled. What remains are the voices of the people who cared about Flutie before the Pass and who care what happens to him next. "He's got to go somewhere they want him," says Bicknell. "I'm just a fan now. As a fan, I would say to his coach, 'Don't, change your offense for Doug. Just play your offense and let him play your offense. Don't change one thing for Doug. He doesn't need it.' They say there are no short quarterbacks, but there are 6'2" quarterbacks who can't throw over the defensive line. There is no limit to what that kid can do."
If Flutie never plays again, he won't be forgotten. The Pass took care of that. But fairy tales need happy endings, and this one isn't finished yet. Check the clock. Six seconds left? It's enough. Remember, the little quarterback in charge of happy endings never gives up.