Passing Time At 35 and with nothing left to prove in Canada, little Doug Flutie is taking one last shot at making it big in the NFL

June 21, 1998

The basketball is finished at 2 o'clock on a Monday afternoon at
the Longfellow Sports Club in Natick, Mass. The businessmen are
showering, dressing, talking about the stock market and personal
relationships and missed layups, getting ready to go back to the
job. Doug Flutie is getting ready to go to lunch. He is still
wearing his shorts and sneakers.

"You're not taking a shower?" he is asked.

"No," he replies.

"Really?"

"I don't need it," he explains. "I kind of, you know, just stay
sweaty all day."

His schedule for this day is pretty typical. Let's see, he has
run four or five miles, lifted weights for an hour, played
basketball with the same lunchtime group that gathers every
noon. After lunch he will meet his brother, Darren, and they
will run sprints and go through drills, throwing a football back
and forth. Then he will return to the gym and play a higher
grade of basketball with college kids.

On other days there might be variations--a game with his
rec-league soccer team, perhaps, or a session on the drums with
his band--but this is his usual off-season routine. He is 35,
still flying around like a teenager. He could be Peter Pan in a
damp sweatshirt.

"Take away the part where you go to classes, and he's like a
college kid," says Jack Mula, Flutie's agent of three years.

"Remember when you'd get up in the morning, throw on any clothes
that were around the room, clean or not, and just go? Not worry
about shaving? Nothing? That's Doug."

His life--his athletic life, at least--seems frozen in time and
place and circumstance. His hair is still long and black,
rock-and-roll hair. His weight is still 175. His height is still
5'10" in any program, 5'9" in stocking feet, about 2'11" in the
estimation of most NFL scouts. He looks no different from the
way he did in 1984, when he was a Boston College quarterback,
when he made a miracle pass in Miami, when he stood behind the
Heisman Trophy at the Downtown Athletic Club. He feels no
different. He's free from chronic injury, and even after 12
seasons of professional football on six teams in three leagues
in two countries, his knees are intact.

The place is still the same: his hometown, Natick. His parents
have moved to Florida, and he has moved into a big house (with a
full-sized basketball court) designed by his wife, Laurie, but
he still goes to the same bank, eats in the same restaurants,
shops in the same stores. He still has the same friends.

The eeriest aspect of a life that appears frozen in time is his
career. He is back at the beginning. The misconceptions and
preconceptions, the computer-printout prejudices that he has
battled all these years, that he quieted with eight seasons of
excellence in the Canadian Football League, have returned. Too
small. Too short. Too...too something. Can't play. Can't
survive. Can't. He is back in the NFL, back behind some other
quarterback on the depth chart. He is the underdog again, this
time with the Buffalo Bills.

"Do you think you'll get a chance in Buffalo?" he is asked.

"We'll see," the 35-year-old teenager replies, as he moves to
the next event in his teenager's day. "All I can worry about is
me. The rest will be decided by other people."

He knows the rules. He has been here before.

"I could retire tomorrow and be perfectly happy," Flutie says.
"Well, 90 percent happy. I'm proud of what I've done in Canada.
I love that league. I love the people in that league. I came
back to the NFL because I just want to see what will happen. To
take a shot. I didn't want to be 50, sitting somewhere and
wishing I'd taken one more look."

The NFL is his one bit of unfinished business. He was the best
college player in the country his senior year. He was the best
player in CFL history, winner of six Most Outstanding Player
awards in eight years, quarterback of three Grey Cup champions,
holder of most of the league's passing records. Even in the old
USFL, as quarterback of the New Jersey Generals in 1985, he was
a diamond in Donald Trump's little showcase.

Only the NFL has resisted his scrambling, free-form charm, the
sight of a little man weaving through fat-boy peril to complete
passes on the run. By signing with the Bills in January, by
taking a pay cut from the $1 million he made last year in Canada
to the NFL minimum $275,000 plus a $50,000 signing bonus and
incentives, by surrendering all-out control of the show in
Toronto with the defending-champion Argonauts to stand behind
recently acquired Buffalo quarterback Rob Johnson, Flutie has
given himself one more chance. It seems to have come at a high
price.

"But Doug has wanted this for a long time," says Mula. "He's
always said, 'What about the NFL? Find out about the NFL.' There
have been times when a couple of teams have shown interest, but
he hasn't been available. There have been times when he has been
available but teams haven't shown much interest. This is the
first time it's worked out."

As good as the CFL experience was in British Columbia for two
years and Calgary for four and finally in Toronto for two more,
it was an exercise in obscurity as far as most people in the
U.S. were concerned. What did they know? A clip might appear
during the last few minutes of SportsCenter, probably a snowy
scene, bodies slip-sliding across a field that seemed too long
and too wide. A game might be shown in its entirety on ESPN2,
probably on a delayed telecast between some mountain-bike
extravaganza and a strongman competition from Uruguay.

The illusion was that 41,355 career passing yards and 270
touchdown tosses came easy. The only plays that ever were
highlighted were the spectacular, the imitations of that
48-yard, last-minute rocket in college that beat Miami 47-45.
Flutie must do that all the time. What kind of competition could
he be playing against? No one ever saw the succession of
handoffs and passes from the pocket. No one ever saw the
collisions.

"I'd get that all the time when I came home, that it all looked
easy," Flutie says. "It was never easy. I was taking a lot of
good licks. It was football, good football. It was legit. That's
what got me about the CFL televised in the U.S. It was never
packaged right. It never looked good."

He had gone to the CFL in 1990, but not before testing the
waters in the States. Flutie was an 11th-round pick of the Los
Angeles Rams in 1985, but he had already signed with the USFL.
The league folded after his rookie year, so Flutie caught on
with the Chicago Bears, starting the '86 regular-season finale
and a first-round playoff loss after Jim McMahon and Mike
Tomczak were injured. He was traded to New England in October
1987 and spent three weird seasons with the ball-control
Patriots, beginning when he crossed the players' picket line
during the second NFL strike and ending early in 1990 when, he
recalls, new coach Rod Rust told him, "There's a minicamp at the
end of the month, but you're not invited."

He had been stymied by the conservative game plans in the NFL,
always forced to work in offenses designed for someone else. His
numbers were mediocre: In 22 games he completed 166 of 341
passes, with 14 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, but he was 8-5
in 13 starts for the Patriots. There were a couple of offers to
come to training camp for "a look," but what good was a look? He
wanted to play.

"That's all I've ever wanted anywhere, to be a contributor," he
says. "I didn't want to just be on a roster. The way it's always
been for me in the NFL is that I'm a risk for a personnel
director, for a general manager. I don't fit the mold. If they
take a chance on me and I fail, they also fail. If a guy is
6'5", 230 pounds and he fails, well, he's the only one who
fails. The personnel director and the general manager had it
right. The quarterback was the one who didn't do the job."

Canada was the answer. After sharing the British Columbia Lions'
starting job with veteran Joe Paupau in 1990, Flutie was on his
way. The larger field--10 yards longer and 1 1/2 yards wider
than the NFL surface-- helped and maybe the slightly smaller
players helped, but what helped most was the control. The ball
at last was in his hands. He could improvise, call audibles,
make suggestions to the coaching staff. He also could flat-out
throw the ball. He always has been able to throw the ball.

"The first play he ever ran for us was supposed to be a screen
pass," says John Hufnagel, who was the offensive coordinator for
Flutie's four years with the Calgary Stampede. "The screen was
covered, so he threw a 40-yard bullet down the middle for a
touchdown. I remember saying, 'Hmmmm, I think this is going to
work.'"

Flutie became the league's little millionaire. Maybe the
millions didn't always arrive--bankrupt former Calgary owner
Larry Ryckman still owes him about $800,000--but he was the
drawing card. The CFL always has been a minor league with major
league pretensions, so Flutie was working with an ever-changing
roster in big stadiums and bad practice surroundings, a buzz of
chaos around no-frills, old-time football. It was real, and it
was fun.

"You can see anything in the CFL," says Don McPherson, a
quarterback in Hamilton from 1991 to '93. "The season starts
early, in June, so once the NFL training camps start to make
cuts, guys can be arriving and departing at any time. There was
this running back, Michael Richardson, in British Columbia, who
was the rookie of the year. He showed up late for a game, and
the trainer had run out of socks. Richardson had no socks. He
put on his shoes, no socks, with the rest of his uniform. He
walked out of the stadium, across a street, into a mall, in his
uniform, as people were coming to the game. He bought a pair of
socks in a Foot Locker, put them on in the store, walked back
and was on the field for the opening kickoff."

"A lot of guys aren't making much money," Flutie says. "They
live three guys to an apartment, and when they go to a
restaurant, they read the prices on the menu. Guys will go to
some function--45 miles in a snowstorm--just for the free meal
and the beer."

By the time last season finished with another Most Outstanding
Player award and another Grey Cup, Flutie was virtually creating
the Argos offense to suit his style. He was even making up plays
in the huddle, taking advantage of tendencies he noticed in the
defense. He was, O.K., making it look easy.

He had proved as much as he could prove. Labatt Breweries, which
owned the team, had been sold, and the new owners were going to
sell the team. The million-dollar contracts were going to
disappear. It was time to go.

"There wasn't a lot of interest when I put out his name [in the
NFL]," says Mula, "but I liked the way A.J. Smith, the personnel
director in Buffalo, said no. I called him and I called him
again, and the 'no' finally became a 'yes.'"

"I've always been a believer in Doug," Smith says. "I just
needed to get authorization. I was up front with Doug. I told
him we were talking with other people, but I also wanted him. I
know he'd like to be the Number 1 guy and on paper he's Number
2, but I told him that Rick Mirer was Number 1 and got a lot of
money in Seattle, and look what's happened to him." I said,
'Just keep doing what you're doing and only good things can
happen.'"

The deal was done.

The most important event in Flutie's brief stint in Buffalo
occurred at the public signing of his contract. He had been to a
minicamp and had reported weekly for strength training and
classroom work--"Looks good, great, much stronger arm than I
expected," said first-year coach Wade Phillips--but the signing
was where an idea was born. The idea might outlast anything he
does on the field.

"I took him to the side and said, 'You know, my job isn't to
give away your money, but it might not be a bad idea to donate
half your [$50,000] signing bonus to Hunter's Hope, the charity
for [former Bills quarterback] Jim Kelly's son,'" Mula says. "I
thought it would be a good way to start in the community. Doug
liked the idea, but then he had an idea about what to do with
the other half. He wanted to start a charity for his own son,
Dougie."

"I probably never would have thought of it, if it weren't for
Jim and Hunter," Flutie says. "It just clicked."

Dougie, who is six, is autistic. In the past 3 1/2 years he has
gone into an autistic shell that defies easy treatment. He will
probably never speak, and every physical action has to be
learned and relearned through constant repetition. With
firsthand knowledge of the expense and the amount of attention
and care that is involved, the Fluties--who also have a
10-year-old daughter, Alexis--wondered how other people in the
same situation could cope. How could they afford all this? The
Douglas Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism could help.

"Do you know who it helped first?" Flutie says. "My wife and me.
She was the one who said it--this is Dougie's legacy. This is
why he's the way he is. This gives a meaning to everything.
There is a purpose. The purpose is that he will help a lot of
people."

Flutie has held press conferences in Boston and New York to
announce the formation of the fund. He wants to do more. He
thinks about his own little problems that have never seemed to
go away--Too small? Too short? Too...something?--and they seem
even smaller. There are more important worries.

"You know, I see these young guys at the Bills' training
facility," the 35-year-old teenager says. "They're 22 years old,
23, and football is their life. I was just like them at their
age. They're taking all this stuff, trying to get bigger and
bigger, add more muscles. You get older, you have a family, you
see what really matters."

Nothing, it turns out, is frozen in place forever. Not even
endless adolescence.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS [Doug Flutie] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: STEVEN SUTTON/DUOMO (2) Name that team After his days at Boston College (far left), Flutie played in three pro leagues in the U.S. and Canada, but he has never had a serious shot in the NFL. [Doug Flutie in games] COLOR PHOTO: BOB FILA/CHICAGO TRIBUNE [See caption above--Doug Flutie] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN BIEVER (2) [See caption above--Doug Flutie in games] COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS [See caption above--Doug Flutie] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN SOKOLOWSKI [See caption above--Doug Flutie]

"I didn't want to be 50, sitting somewhere and wishing I'd taken
one more look."

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