The more Tony Nickinello spoke of selling dirt, the more his
diminutive limo driver liked what he was hearing. Meeting clients
at their ball fields and golf courses, talking sports, working
outdoors--that had to beat shuttling customers to and from
Boston's Logan Airport. When Nickinello finally introduced
himself, the limo driver had his opening. "Hi, I'm Darren
Flutie," he said.
Nickinello's shock was hardly unexpected, and Flutie, prepared
for such a reaction, used Nickinello's moment of surprise to
brief him on what the life of a Canadian Football League player
includes: a second job and no fame. Flutie counts meeting
Nickinello, the owner of Read Custom Soils, four years ago as one
of his luckiest days. He soon became a part-time salesman for the
company, a job he has held since January 1998.
At the same time Flutie is busy trying to become the CFL's
alltime leading receiver, which is what he could be next season,
his 12th in the league. With one game remaining in the 2001
regular season Flutie had 79 catches for 1,194 yards through
Sunday as the slot receiver with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and the
soon-to-be 35-year-old was 59 receptions and 1,453 yards shy of
Allen Pitts's career marks of 966 and 14,891. This year Flutie
also tied a league record for most 1,000-yard receiving seasons
"Week after week he gets clobbered on crossing routes," says Ron
Lancaster, coach of the Tiger-Cats, who'll face the Montreal
Alouettes in the first round of the playoffs this weekend. "He
has no business getting up from some of those hits, but he does.
Everyone knows we're going his way, and they can't stop him."
Flutie dismisses talk of his place in history, revealing a
perspective gained while toiling in a relatively anonymous league
and in the shadow of his famously shortchanged brother, who
happens to have been the best player in CFL history. "People
always wonder if it was tough being Doug's brother, but he's my
biggest supporter, my confidante. What more could I want?" Darren
says. "Maybe the records would be nice, but they don't make a
difference. I can't take them on the field with me. They're not
what I'm about."
"More than anyone I know, Darren deserves to be remembered for
his accomplishments," says Doug, the starting quarterback for the
San Diego Chargers. "He's a great athlete--he could've played pro
baseball, and he was Boston College's alltime leading receiver.
But no one knows about him. That's why I want him to have those
There's a sort of Zen calm to the 5'9", 180-pound Darren, no
doubt formed by a career that has been as trying as it has been
satisfying. In 1988 he made the Chargers as an undrafted free
agent and caught 18 passes, including two for touchdowns, as a
third-down receiver. San Diego cut him before the '89 season, and
the following year he joined the Phoenix Cardinals, who dropped
him before the '91 season. Finally, Darren was coaxed north by
Doug, who was playing out his own NFL exile in Vancouver, with
the B.C. Lions.
Once in Canada (he played five seasons with the Lions, including
one with Doug, and two with the Edmonton Eskimos before joining
the Tiger-Cats in 1998) Darren had an epiphany. Weary of life as
an NFL team's 53rd man--"I couldn't handle thinking that every day
might be my last," he says--he found that playing every day, every
down, had restored his love of the game. "I never seriously
thought about the NFL again," says Darren, who spends the
off-season in his hometown of Natick, Mass., with his wife,
Terri, and their two children, Taylor, 6, and Troy, 5. "I've
become a better person, and I've matured as a husband and a dad.
Sometimes I wonder how different fame or NFL success might've
The big negative to playing in the CFL has been the money--or
lack thereof. Although he makes around $100,000 per season, for
most of his career he was earning far less. Off-seasons were
spent selling Christmas trees, tending bar, driving limos or
hawking dirt. "He's the prime minister of peat moss," says
Tiger-Cats quarterback Danny McManus. "I can't believe how much
he knows about dirt."
When his football career ends, Flutie says he will have no
regrets. He plans to play the occasional gig with the Flutie
Brothers Band--he on rhythm guitar, Doug on drums, and three
non-Fluties rounding out the quintet--hit backyard grounders in
Natick to his kids and punch the clock at Read Custom Soils.
"I'll always look back on my football career and smile, but I
have to admit, I love my job," says Flutie. "I love selling
have the records."