At last, Doug Flutie is in the right place at the right time.
Don't laugh. One of the most exciting college football players of the '80s—but a man who has been rejected, scorned, ridiculed and humbled as a pro—is deliriously happy to find himself a born-again quarterback, this time with the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League. Sitting in Stanley Park recently and taking in the spectacular good looks of Vancouver with his wife, Laurie, and daughter, Alexa, 2½, Flutie said, "I have had more fun playing football here in the last month than I have had in my entire pro career. I tell you, this is so great, they don't have to pay me to play. However, they do have to pay me to practice."
And he laughs. A huge, heartfelt laugh that speaks volumes. Because Flutie in the CFL is the perfect confluence. Flutie's game is scrambling, throwing on the run, putting the pedal to the metal—a style of play that makes NFL types uneasy. But it is a style that the CFL game is built on. Truly, this is Flutie's natural environment, not that you could have convinced him of that six years ago. When he led Boston College against mighty Alabama in 1984, then Crimson Tide coach Ray Perkins said during the week leading up to the game that he thought Flutie would make a great CFL quarterback. "I took it as an insult," says Flutie, who responded by rallying BC to a 38-31 victory. He doesn't consider it an insult anymore.
Flutie, 27, remains the people's choice, the little guy (5'9", 175 pounds) competing in a big-man's game. But until now, because of his size, he has not been coveted as a football player by a single team since he was a star at Natick (Mass.) High. Boston College was the sole Division I-A school to offer him a scholarship, and then only at the last minute, when the Eagles discovered they had one to spare.
Despite winning the Heisman Trophy in '84, Flutie received plenty of advance indication that no NFL team was willing to make him a first-round draft pick in April 1985. So two months before the NFL draft he accepted Donald Trump's offer to play for the New Jersey Generals in the struggling USFL. Even then," Flutie was hired primarily for his celebrity value; whatever he did on the field would be a bonus. He passed for 2,109 yards and ran for another 465, but he broke his collarbone near the end of the season, and the league never reopened in '86.
The L.A. Rams, who had drafted Flutie in the 11th round, traded his rights to the Chicago Bears in October 1986. Flutie appealed in lour games that season and started a playoff game, but coach Mike Ditka chewed him out on national TV, and regular quarterback Jim McMahon "mostly ran his mouth about me," Flutie says.
The New England Patriots brought him home by way of a trade in October 1987, and he had his best season in the NFL in '88, when he started nine games and passed for 1,150 yards. But the coach at the time, Raymond Berry, "had no confidence in me," says Flutie, who started three games early last season and then was benched. Rod Rust was named Patriot coach last February, and according to Flutie, Rust promptly called him to say there was going to be a minicamp in March and Flutie was not invited. At which time not a single NFL team cared that he was available.
Regardless, the incontrovertible fact is that Flutie can play this game when he has the confidence of a coaching staff and is given a legitimate shot to establish himself in the offense. British Columbia coach Lary Kuharich says, "The NFL doesn't seem to ask one basic question: Is he a good football player or a bad football player?" After all, while Flutie appeared in just 21 games in four NFL seasons, he passed for 14 touchdowns, and his team won nine of the 14 games he started. But the NFL had decided in '84 that he was too short. Case closed. Minds, too. But those were the bad old days.
Now B.C. Lions president and general manager Joe Kapp, a former quarterback who starred in the CFL and then in the NFL (he led the Minnesota Vikings to the '70 Super Bowl) says, "The minute the NFL tells me they don't like somebody, I immediately like them. At the moment, all that Flutie is in the process of doing is captivating the entire country."
Murray Pezim, the flamboyant owner of the Lions, a big player on the Vancouver Stock Exchange and a gold speculator, goes around the bend on Flutie. "He is apple pie and ice cream," Pezim says. "I love him. He's an inspiration. A true athlete. No bad habits. I think in 20 years he'll be president of the U.S." Easy, Murray. For all of this, Pezim is paying Flutie a salary of $127,500 a year (U.S. dollars) for two years, and giving him another $165,000 a year to "do some p.r. for me—nothing laborious." Plus some stock options. All of which means Flutie is making close to the $400,000 he was paid last season by the Patriots.
Pezim didn't get much of a payoff on his investment last Wednesday night; B.C. lost 28-14 at Winnipeg. The Lions committed seven turnovers, including three interceptions by Flutie, who completed nine of 16 passes for 87 yards while playing only the first half. But Flutie wasn't concerned. "Really, I threw one bad ball all night," he said after the game. "Otherwise, it was fine. I felt comfortable and relaxed. The protection was good, the reads were good, I was throwing to the right people. Just a couple of unfortunate things happened." For example, in the first quarter, a Flutie pass was tipped by one Winnipeg defensive back into the hands of another who just happened to be in the neighborhood.
Flutie was signed two weeks before the start of the season. The combination of being eased into the new offense and a rib injury has limited his playing time to parts of four games. But the overriding evidence is that once Flutie breaks some old NFL habits and adjusts to the Canadian game—in particular, recognizing the quality speed that characterizes CFL defenses—he should be as comfortable leading the B.C. Lions as he was the BC Eagles. Against Winnipeg, he relied too much on drop-back passing, as if he were still trying to prove something to the NFL. But in Canada, he has to run more rollout and sprintout plays, move the pocket and consistently hit the curl passes.
Even on a subpar night, Flutie is not the problem on a team that sits at the bottom of the Western Division with a 1-3-1 record. The Lion defense gave its best performance of the season against Winnipeg and still yielded 452 yards of total offense.
Despite all the attention directed at Flutie, the Lions have so many marquee names that they need a bigger marquee. They are a soap opera being played out against a football backdrop.
Pezim, for example, is being investigated by the B.C. Securities Commission for alleged insider trading related to the drilling results of a gold deposit ("I have discovered more gold than any man in the history of the world," he says), a situation he shrugs off. "I've done nothing wrong," he says. At about the time the commission hearing started in July, Pezim's former wife, of six months, Susan, 34, sued him for $1 million she says he owes her. Pezim, 69, agrees that he does. "But she shouldn't have sued me," he says. "Now she'll have to wait. My problem is I love young girls. I'm sick."
Then there's Mark Gastineau, the former sack king (107½ sacks in 10 NFL seasons) who walked out on the New York Jets in the middle of the '88 season to devote his full attention to romancing Danish actress Brigitte Nielsen. She has since sacked Gastineau, though not before having a child by him; meanwhile, he swears he is finally getting over his love affair with Sly Stallone's ex. Well, sometimes he does. "I still love her," he says.
Having apparently abandoned plans to become a professional boxer, Gastineau began discussing the possibility of returning to football with Pezim, an Arizona neighbor (they own homes outside Scotts-dale). Gastineau signed with the Lions two weeks before the first preseason game, but he arrived with a badly sprained ankle, and his lethargic play the first few weeks of the regular season has ticked off Pezim. "A man has got to want to do it," Pezim says. "He can do it if he wants to."
Gastineau (salary: $65,000) had no sacks, made just six tackles and in general was pushed around by opposing offensive linemen in the first four games. He is now spending 30 days on the injured reserved list, complaining of bruised ribs. "I'm trying," he says, but apparently no one in the CFL is convinced. He was put on the waiver wire recently, and the other seven CFL teams waved dismissively. Lion insiders say if Gastineau does not spend his time on injured reserve getting into proper playing condition and developing the mind-set to be the team leader everyone expected, the erstwhile NFL star will be sent packing.
Then there's Kapp, whose salty language and enthusiasm reverberate around him wherever he goes. During the game at Winnipeg, Kapp—the only player ever to appear in the Rose Bowl, Super Bowl and Grey Cup, the CFL championship game—repeatedly hollered down at the home fans from his seat in an open booth above them, egging them on. "Lookie, lookie, here comes Flutie," he chanted. There was plenty of good-natured give and take, and at appropriate moments he would lean out of the booth and roar like a Lion.
Before signing Flutie, the Lions had great hopes for another new arrival in Vancouver: former West Virginia quarterback and Heisman candidate Major Harris, who was not chosen until the 12th round of the NFL draft, by the L.A. Raiders. A lot of Harris's thunder was stolen with the signing of Flutie, and he has fallen way behind in learning the offense while spending most of the season on the disabled list.
And, finally, there is Jake Rambo, 24, a Vancouver native and landscaper who more than anything else in life wants to play for the B.C. Lions. In trying to show Kapp that he deserves a shot. Rambo dons full football gear and vigorously goes through the paces of every Lion workout—outside the fence of the B.C. practice facility. Kapp has banned him from doing his training routine on Lion property because he is a distraction to the players. To get to practice, Rambo takes three buses, a 90-minute trip. Once there, he sometimes runs into telephone poles to demonstrate his toughness. "I'm a nuisance." he says cheerfully, "But the players like me." He has been doing this for three years.
It is Flutie, reasonable and reserved, who is the island of calm in this sea of outrageous personalities. It is Flutie who has the star appeal, although Pezim insists, "There is no star bigger than me."
Flutie laughs again and says, ""What I want to do is make money with Murray, play football and have fun. And if Murray and I together lose our shirts, I can still play football and have fun." Playing football was always the point. Flutie says he didn't want to try to hang on as a backup in the NFL, and Kapp seized on that feeling. "A truck driver has to have a truck, a sailor has to have a ship, and a quarterback has to have a team," Kapp says. "What good is a leader without an army?"
When Flutie first visited Vancouver, on June 21, to discuss joining the team, Kapp reached into his pocket and rattled a ring of keys at Flutie. "Here are the keys," Kapp said. "All you have to do is turn them." That was persuasive stuff for a player whose passion for the game repeatedly has been unrequited.
Regardless, Flutie nearly returned to Boston unsigned. Over breakfast two hours before Flutie's return flight, Pezim suddenly blurted, "What will it take?" Flutie answered, "It's got to make sense." Soon it did, and Flutie has yet to make his return trip to Boston. Canadian football fans immediately latched on to the Flutie bandwagon. He retains a larger-than-life image, thanks to that 48-yard Hail Mary pass with no time left that beat the University of Miami 47-45 in '84.
"People think all I ever did was throw that stupid pass," Flutie says. "Plus, they expect it again." So wouldn't you know, in the Lions' season opener against Calgary on July 13, Flutie hit Ray Alexander with a 37-yard pass to tie the game—with one second remaining. Not quite a Hail Mary, since there was an intended receiver, but close enough.
Imagine," says Flutie. "I never, ever thought I would play in the pros. And here I am, six years later, still playing. So every day I play is a bonus for me." And with that, he strolls off along a tree-lined path in Stanley Park with his family. "I love my life," he says. "This is the right place for me."