Okay, so it was in a different country, with different rules, and the prize was an oversized cup guarded by two troopers in the scarlet livery of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. But the night, and the Grey Cup, belonged to Doug Flutie, who has put his personal stamp on the Canadian Football League as surely as he put it on college football during his glorious days at Boston College, almost a decade ago.
The NFL spent four years trying to take the magic away from him, trying to tell us it was a mirage, all those wonders he had worked at Boston College: the Heisman; the yardage—more yards than anyone had ever thrown for in college—much of it gathered in wild and unpredictable ways; the way he bedeviled Penn State before 85,000, Miami with a Hail Mary pass, and Houston in the Cotton Bowl. He was 5'9", just a little guy who couldn't cut it, they said. Jim McMahon called him "America's midget" when they were teammates with the Chicago Bears, which was at the midway point in Flutie's NFL career. The Rams, the Bears, the Patriots and out. Come see us when you're 6'3".
Sunday night's performance in the Toronto SkyDome, however, was Boston College reincarnated as he quarterbacked the Calgary Stampeders to a 24-10 victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Right away you knew this was it for him—his night, his answer to all the folks who had given up on him.
First series, first play: Flutie rolls left, fires on the run and finds former San Francisco 49er Derrick Crawford for 39 yards. Second series: a 41-yard bomb to Crawford. Third series: another scramble left and a deep sideline strike for 28 yards to former Miami Hurricane Pee Wee Smith; and then, four plays later, retreating under a full blitz and throwing off his back foot, completing a 35-yard touchdown pass to Dave Sapunjis, who played at the University of Western Ontario.
December 7, 1992
By the end of the first quarter the Stampeders were up 11-0, and Flutie had thrown for 167 yards. By halftime the score was 17-0, and he had 297 yards. Sam Etcheverry's 37-year-old Grey Cup record of 508 passing yards was in big trouble. In a game Flutie was born for—12 men on a side, no-back sets with as many as six receivers going out in patterns, blitzers pouring in like crazy, a chessboard gone mad—he was the master. He was a moving, darting exclamation point, scrambling to buy time, throwing the ball sidearm, underarm, once almost backhanded on a four-yard completion to Sapunjis.
By early in the fourth quarter, with Calgary ahead 24-0, he had thrown his second TD pass and surpassed the 400-yard mark, and the game was virtually over. The only question was whether he would break the record. He ended up with 480 yards, on 33 completions in 49 attempts. He would have gotten the record if a fourth-quarter 59-yard TD pass hadn't been called back because of an ineligible man downfield. "Yeah, I guess we were keeping track of the yards—loosely," said Flutie after the game, "but it didn't really matter."
Yards? He has had plenty of them. More than 15,000 in his three seasons in Canada, a league-record 6,619 in 1991. He was voted the CFL's Most Outstanding Player that season and again this year, and naturally he was the MVP of Sunday night's Grey Cup. He has done it all up North, but that leaves a nagging question: Would he, when the four-year, $4 million contract he signed with the Stampeders expires after the 1995 season, consider a return to the NFL at age 33?
"I know what some people say, that I'm doing it in a second-best league," said Flutie the day before the game. "Well, this game just means so much to me. A championship is a championship, I don't care what league it's in. This is my Super Bowl.
"I think I've gotten the NFL out of my system. I played four years; I had some success, some hard times. I figure you have X number of years to play this game. Why should I spend them sitting on the bench? I want to have things to look back on.
"Going back to some closed-offense, ball-control team would be very boring. One year with New England I was averaging 15 throws a game at the end of the season. I was handing the ball off and watching the game. There was no such thing as mental fatigue."
But what if, say, a run-and-shoot team became interested? John Hufnagel, the former Penn State quarterback who coaches the Calgary offense, says Flutie's best attribute is his ability to think on the go, to make the quick reads and adjustments. Wouldn't he be perfect for the run-and-shoot?
"Well, maybe," Flutie said, "but it would have to be a run-and-shoot team that needed a quarterback. I don't want to sit on the bench again. Besides, I like it up here in Calgary, the day-to-day life for me and Laurie and our two kids. I'm feeling good about it. We never were big-city people."
Still, the hokeyness is inescapable at times. "My first season , when I was with British Columbia," Flutie said, "we played a road game in Hamilton. A 29,000-seat stadium, with about 12,000 people in the stands. It looked like the old Alumni Field at BC. I just shook my head. What the heck am I doing here?"
Last March the Stampeders' 37-year-old owner, Larry Ryckman, put together a deal for Flutie, who had played out his option at British Columbia. THE MAGIC FLUTIE read the headline in The Calgary Sun. Right alongside it, on top of the lead sports page, was an ad for County Line country bar, which listed among its features "Porky's, hooters, beer store, liquor store, bring this ad in and receive a single room at $26.95."
"Our goal," said Ryckman when he signed Flutie, "is to fill the stands [capacity at McMahon Stadium is 38,200] and to win the Grey Cup." One out of two ain't bad. The stands were filled just once this season—on Labor Day. On Oct. 4, when the Stampeders beat Ottawa and Flutie broke the team's 25-year-old record for single-season passing yardage, the smallest crowd of the year, 20,207, was on hand for the game.
The city of Toronto was underwhelmed by the 1992 Grey Cup, and more than 6,000 tickets went unsold. Before the game you could buy seats at cost, below cost or "whatever you want to give me," as one poor chap who was holding up a pair said. The Winnipeg Free Press did a survey the week of the game, asking 50 Toronto businessmen if they knew which teams were playing. Twenty-nine didn't know. Even a great old Calgary tradition—the horse in the hotel lobby—ended when the Royal York barred its doors to some Stampeder fans and their mounts. "Our carpet is brand-new," said the manager, Johann Isopp.
Financial worries have the CFL brass considering such daffy ideas as expanding to San Antonio, Sacramento or Albuquerque. Picture it. Albuquerque versus San Antonio, as all Canada holds its breath. But maybe, just maybe, if Flutie keeps cranking out those 400-yard games, he can be the marquee player who helps the league right itself.