MUCH HAS been made of Doug Flutie's 13-year-old autistic son, but then, you can never make enough of him. How a boy like Dougie will force you to rethink everything as he wrenches you onto the hardest track. How Dougie's biological quirk renders most of life's travails laughable by comparison. The odds are overwhelming that Dougie will never feed himself with utensils, dress himself or wipe himself without assistance. Forget playing football, he may never even utter the word. And all that makes his father's struggles as a pro--wandering the football hinterlands for 20 years, from the USFL to the NFL to the CFL and back to the NFL and, finally, back home in New England; nine years between NFL starts, the second longest such stretch for a quarterback in NFL history; getting cut, repeatedly, and having to prove himself again and again (nine teams)--seem trivial. So some NFL coaches thought Doug was too short to be their quarterback.
That's a joke compared to Dougie's being too mentally impaired to ever say his own name.
I am in Doug Flutie's kitchen in Natick, Mass. Outside is a swimming pool and Dougie's quarter-acre fenced-in play area full of slides, swings and climbing bars. It is early afternoon, and Doug sits at the counter that divides kitchen from dining room, sipping a Red Bull, talking about returning to his hometown--this house is just a good two-iron from the one he grew up in--and how one of the reasons he is so pleased to be back is that he'll have more time for Dougie. Laurie, his wife of 20 years, has borne the primary burden of caring for Dougie, and caring for a severely autistic child is much harder than raising most other so-called special children. Severely autistic children often progress fitfully, making torturously tiny strides amid steady backsliding. Their parents can feel that they are not teaching so much as merely keeping their children from injuring themselves.
For Doug, after four seasons in San Diego, it had come down to two options last summer: retire or join the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots as backup to Tom Brady. (At least two other teams expressed interest in bringing Flutie to camp; he turned them down.) He was fine with either path because both would lead him right here, to this kitchen, to his home. The house is as gilded as we would expect for an NFL quarterback's: a tan-brick, two-story colonial at the top of a long, curving driveway with lampposts every 20 feet. There is a porch with two white rocking chairs, and next to that is a full basketball court on which are parked an Escalade, a Denali and a Trans Am. In the garage are a black Ferrari, a silver Viper, a white Corvette and a purple Cadillac XLR.
Doug knows that he has been lucky in many ways. Because of his last name and the Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism, which the Fluties run for autistic kids, Dougie is among the most famous autistic children in the world and thus the recipient of extraordinary care and special attention from the best doctors. Doug and Laurie also have a daughter, Alexa, 17, who is lovely, smart and supportive. And Doug truly feels he was blessed that night 13 years ago to have a son, a beautiful boy. In his mind's eye he was already envisioning all the things they would do together.
"I have a nephew who is 14, Brett, a phenomenal little athlete," says Doug. "And Dougie will be 14 this year. As soon as both of them were born, that was what was in my mind. They would have been the same year at school. They would have gone through Little League together. They would have had so much fun. But then--"
When dougie walks into the room, I recognize him immediately. Not because of the striking resemblance to his father but because of how similar he is to my own autistic younger brother, Noah. There is the same tipping of his head as he looks past you; the rubbing together of his fingers and thumbs; the mumbled, repetitious humming--muh-muh-muh-muh--of nonsensical syllables. But there is also the ethereal beauty of the autistic, the innocent, cherubic expression and fixed boyish features. (The vast majority of autistic children, about 80%, are male.) In his perpetual state of suspended infantilism, the autistic retains a little of a newborn's glow.
But Dougie is 13 and Noah is 38, and I suspect I can see Dougie's future and the Fluties' struggles yet to come. Noah, because of three popular books my father wrote about him and a 60 Minutes segment devoted to him, may have been the most famous autistic child of the 1970s. At 13 he was still living at home, just like Dougie. My parents rearranged their lives in myriad complicated and ultimately futile ways to care for Noah, just as the Fluties have for Dougie. And my parents and I maintained the same stoic optimism that somehow, someway, our boy would improve enough so that he could talk or take care of himself or even just get a little "better." Doug and Laurie profess to being similarly sanguine about Dougie, qualifying every expression of despair with a quick "but we never count Dougie out." They insist that their parental hopes will never die, that Dougie talks in their dreams.
Dougie, of course, is receiving the best treatment available, yet I wonder if he is bound to disappoint, as Noah did, because it is in the nature of autism to frustrate almost all who try to treat it or live with it. For Dougie to ever become anything like normal would require a miracle far greater than the one his father pulled off on that foggy Florida night in the Orange Bowl.
Autistics can be maddening in their nonprogression. Doug's patience as a father has been tested, and his role as a father has already become highly unconventional. There will be none of the usual father-and-son pleasures of ball games or pancake breakfasts; instead, there is the domestic banality of helping Dougie use the toilet at an age when he should be teaching him which base to throw to. Boys like Dougie, or Noah, can wear you down, take everything you have and even make you question the validity of your marriage--divorce rates for parents of autistic kids are between 70% and 80%. Laurie was a cheerleader in Natick High, the popular girl who met the school's star quarterback the first day of her freshman year. "I found mine," she told her friends at lunch that day. In 1985 LIFE ran a full-page photo of the newly wedded Fluties, holding silver goblets full of champagne, Laurie's eyes closed as if in postnuptial bliss.
Twenty years later Laurie is a stubborn, proud, intelligent woman who vows that she will fight through all of the challenges of her son's affliction with her husband. "Sure, it makes you question everything," she says. "But not the relationship."
At 42 Doug Flutie is slightly wrinkled-- creases as narrow as paper cuts radiate from his mouth, nose and eyes--and his hair, up close, is tinged with gray. Yet his face remains so indelibly linked with our own memories of his youth, of that game, of that pass--November 23, 1984, 0:00 on the clock, Flutie to Gerard Phelan on a Hail Mary, Boston College 47, Miami 45--that he will always be 22 years old.
Sportswriters typically describe Flutie as boyish, but perhaps that is just another way of saying he is short. With his speed, arm strength, quickness and intelligence he represents the textbook quarterback ... except that he is a crucial three inches too short. So even though his diminutive stature has helped him by making him a quicker, smaller target for tacklers, he has always needed to overcome the conventional wisdom and fight hard for playing time: at Boston College, in New Jersey (with the Generals of the USFL), then in Chicago, New England, British Columbia, Calgary, Toronto, Buffalo and San Diego. Even on those rare occasions, as in San Diego, when he was assured the starting job, it was always with a "Yeah, but," the understanding being that he was just filling in until someone better--taller--showed up.
That made him resilient, humble even, and, probably, a better father than he might have been otherwise. He has never taken for granted success or opportunity. He knows that you have to find a way to go on even when you have no idea what you are supposed to do. "You don't have a choice," Doug says. "My whole career, every place I've been, I've had to start over. So with Dougie, it was kind of the same situation. For a while you're going through the Why, why, why? but then it's, O.K.--what do I do now?"
For his first two years Dougie developed as any little boy should. Crawling, and then walking. Forming syllables and then words. Doug was playing for the Calgary Stampeders at the time. After that 1994 season Laurie flew with Alexa and Dougie back to Natick for the holidays. Over a period of about four weeks, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, she began to notice Dougie becoming nonresponsive, as if he couldn't hear her. "I had his ears tested," says Laurie. "Then, when it wasn't that, I was worried he had a brain tumor."
Being told by a doctor that your child has severe autism is like someone telling you to drop all your plans for the rest of your life. "You get the diagnosis," says Doug, "and that just wipes the slate clean."
And then Dougie's regression seemed to accelerate, and for Laurie and Doug there was the sense that they were losing their child, that his personality and intellect were vanishing before their eyes. "Sentences become words, words become nothing," says Doug, "That's the way it went."
For many of us there is no great lesson to learn from autism. The kids don't teach you anything except, maybe, by grinding you into submission, patience. Autism is a problem that can't be solved. And it sounds cruel to say this, but in its intransigence, it can be more difficult for the family than a terminal disease. A cancer patient, tragically, will die, but that will allow survivors to grieve, mourn and somehow go on. But a child with severe autism will, in all likelihood, outlive his parents. This problem, for Laurie and Doug, will never end.
Yet Flutie's whole career has been in defiance of very long odds. From the moment we first heard of him, as the quarterback of the Boston College Eagles who threw for more yards than anyone ever, and won the Heisman Trophy, there was always the quick follow-up: "... but too bad he's too short to play in the pros." Among the quarterbacks NFL scouts rated above Flutie the year he graduated were Steve Calabria, Steve Bono and Paul Berner. (The Los Angeles Rams took Flutie in the 11th round in 1985; they traded his rights to the Bears in 1986.) If it weren't for Donald Trump, we may never have known what Flutie could do as a pro. In 1985 Trump signed Flutie for a then-unheard-of $8.3 million to play alongside Herschel Walker for the USFL's New Jersey Generals. Yet even in the USFL, he was slotted behind Brian Sipe on the depth chart, and then, before what would have been his second season, he was told that the team would be merging with the Houston Gamblers and that their guy, Jim Kelly, would be the starter.
The USFL folded before its 1986 season, and Flutie set out on his tour of North America. To Chicago in 1986, New England in '87, British Columbia in '90, Calgary in '92 and Toronto in '96. He finally returned to the NFL with Buffalo in '98. He became a walking "Where is he now?" his every appearance prefaced with a "Remember when....?" In 1988 Bears starting QB Jim McMahon publicly dismissed his former backup as "America's midget." During Flutie's first stint with New England, in '88, coach Raymond Berry benched Flutie and said, "Maybe you should go into coaching."
Flutie looked at him and shook his head:"You really don't know me very well, do you?"
What the height-obsessed coaches and general managers didn't see was that Flutie would play quarterback for a flag-football team--which he did for a while during the off-season in the late '80s in Massachusetts. "Careerwise," Flutie says, "you would think when I got released by New England and went to Canada, that would have been a low point, but no. I had more fun playing up there than I ever had playing football anywhere else." The conditions were not first-rate. "I've sat in a locker room in Saskatchewan with wooden lockers and nails in the walls for hooks," says Flutie. "We played in Winnipeg, where there was no heat in the locker room and the showers were cold. At no point in my career have I been spoiled."
Yet he says he found himself as a pro quarterback in Canada, having a blast with three-down offenses, spread formations and forward motion before the snap, on teams for which he was his own offensive coordinator, on franchises where he was the only player anyone in the lower 48 had ever heard of. South of the Canadian border all we ever saw of him were the occasional highlights from some slightly too long field with slightly too many players on it that reminded us of that pass. Still, in Canada, Doug Flutie had the most productive season of any professional quarterback anywhere, ever, throwing for 6,619 yards in 1991 for the British Columbia Lions.
When he returned to the NFL in 1998 to serve as Rob Johnson's backup in Buffalo (he took over for the injured Johnson that year and led the Bills to the playoffs), Flutie found the NFL had so changed that his style of scrambling, improvisational quarterbacking had become commonplace. In his entire NFL career he has thrown only as many completions, for as many yards, as Peyton Manning does in a little more than three seasons, but Flutie has lasted through seven presidential terms during which movie tickets have gone from $3.55 to $6.21, the Dow Jones has gone from 1,500 to 10,500, and the progressive-rock group Yes has gone through 13 members. He's the oldest position player in the NFL. He is one of only two active players from the USFL, and he's outlasted Jim McMahon by nearly a decade. And here he is, still in uniform, learning yet another system and playbook.
In this second stint with the Patriots, Flutie has almost nothing left to prove to himself and everything to revel in. He's the backup quarterback on the Super Bowl champs, a hometown hero playing out his career amid those who have adored him for decades. "Doug has brought in an experience level that nobody on our team has," says Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "He's pretty much done everything from a scheme standpoint, and he's been very generous about passing that information along."
Tom Brady agrees: "He's a smart guy. I've learned a lot from him over the past few months."
Flutie, walking through his living room, laughs at the irony of ending up here, back home. "You couldn't have planned it this way," he says. "Hey, I'm just looking for an excuse to retire so I can play summer league baseball, go coach my nephews, play pickup basketball. I've always had that ability to move on to the next thing. Maybe Dougie's situation has helped put everything into perspective--you deal with that and go forward."
One of the most curious sports controversies of this past summer involved Doug Flutie's catching foul balls during Red Sox games at Fenway Park. Sports radio hosts said that Flutie's stature as a professional athlete should have precluded him from bringing a glove to Fenway. It was puzzling, certainly, that he caught four balls in the five games he attended: one while he was sitting in a luxury box and the ball rolled into the box and died at his feet; the others while sitting atop the Green Monster or behind first base. Each time Flutie came down with a ball, the television cameras would find him and show him grinning, holding up the prize.
"That's just Doug," says Laurie. "He's a big kid. He won't go to a baseball game without bringing his glove."
"No way," Flutie agrees. "Now I just have to hide it in my bag."
We're in his Escalade, driving toward Fenway. Seated in back are four boys, including two brothers, San Diego natives Hank and Nick Hendricks, 19 and 17, respectively. Doug has arranged with the Red Sox for these kids to catch batting practice home run balls atop the Green Monster. Why these boys are here says more about Doug Flutie than he is willing to admit. When the Fluties were living in San Diego, Alexa was a cheerleader at La Jolla High. Her boyfriend was Nick Hendricks, and Nick's older brother, Hank, was the school's backup quarterback as a junior. Doug, who went to games to support his daughter, noticed Hank and liked what little of him he saw--Hank had a good throwing motion, decent footwork, intelligence and, the trait Doug most admires, an intense love of the game. So he began to work with Hank almost daily, and then helped him get a scholarship at the University of New Hampshire, up the road from Natick. "If I'm going to go watch my daughter cheerlead, then I want to watch a good football game. I would watch Hank throw, move around, and I don't know, I just thought he should get a chance."
Only Doug Flutie would go to a high school game and notice the backup quarterback. It could be that Flutie was also making up for his own loss. It should be Dougie riding with his pop to Fenway to catch batting practice balls and learning to read defenses and joining the Flutie family recreation league basketball team. Instead, Doug has transferred some of his paternal energy to these boys. "Oh, you always wonder, What if?," says Laurie. "Imagining Dougie getting older, playing sports, going to college, driving, all those things you want for any of your children. When you realize that's not going to happen, it kind of hits you hard. You deal with it in different ways."
At Fenway, after depositing the boys in their seats, Laurie and Doug pass through a gate in the barrier that divides the stands from foul territory and step onto the field, past the Red Sox players taking batting practice and a host of sports media figures--Stuart Scott, Peter Gammons, Chris Berman--here two hours before the final game of a Red Sox--Yankees series. Flutie is wearing baggy Levis, a trot nixon T-shirt and a tan Red Sox cap that, when he turns it backward, makes him look about seven years old. Despite two superstar-studded lineups, he elicits more screams and calls for autographs than any one else at the park that day. The favorite son has returned to Boston, and fans gathered along the foul lines waiting with balls, caps and programs are almost hysterical as he walks to the outfield to greet Red Sox buddies Johnny Damon, Bronson Arroyo and David Wells.
"What's up, Quarterback?" says Wells. "Why aren't you at work?"
"One more week," says Flutie. "I'm dreading it."
Wells nods and throws the ball across the outfield to one of his sons. "You know how it is. Once you're back, you'll get into it."
Flutie nods. "How do you like being here?"
"At this point in my career," Wells says, "I want to come out to the park and have a good time. The atmosphere here is loose. My kids can come out on the field with me during BP. Back in New York? With the Yankees? I could never do this."
Flutie, a lifetime Red Sox fan, laughs and wanders over to the fans seeking autographs beyond the first base foul line. A young woman starts crying when he signs her Red Sox cap.
Only one foul ball was hit near Flutie that night. He didn't catch it.
Later, driving back to Natick, Flutie and the boys are joking about a drunken fan who ran onto the field during the game and had to be chased down by security guards. Then Flutie is struck by a funny notion. What if he ran onto the field at Fenway? What if that became his trademark? "You know, 'Doug Flutie, he always runs on the field during Red Sox games,'" he laughs. "It could be like a tradition."
For a moment we try to imagine it: Once the fans realized it was Flutie, they would probably start cheering and the players would come over to high-five him, and is there a cop in Boston who would arrest Doug Flutie?
Hank, the aspiring quarterback, shakes his head and says, "But could they even catch you?"
Flutie smiles. Probably not, he thinks. "The thing is, because it's me, they wouldn't even try. They would be like, Oh, it's Doug. Go, Doug!"
Back home, as soon as Laurie is through the door, she goes upstairs to check on Dougie, who was being cared for by a tutor. Earlier, over burgers at a restaurant in Fenway Park, Laurie asked about my brother, Noah. Where is he now? How is he doing? How are my parents handling it? She says she's talked to Alexa about Dougie, and worries about the inevitability of Dougie's burden being handed down to her daughter. I tell her that as my parents age--my father is 77 and my mother is 74--I assume that I will have to become my brother's primary keeper.
I explain that I don't really feel up to this impending weight. I have two young daughters, and I live in New York City, thousands of miles from Noah's supported-living home in South Central Los Angeles. Looking out for Noah is close to a full-time job for my parents. Almost every day he poses a new problem. He is losing weight. He's been attacking his caregivers. He is having an adverse reaction to his medications. As Noah has aged, everything about caring for him has become more complicated.
As I'm going through this litany, Doug and Laurie become quiet. Though they've raised millions for autism research, they are too realistic to assume there will be a miracle cure. How different will Dougie's path be from Noah's? They must know, as surely as one day Doug's playing career will be over, that the challenges of caring for Dougie will multiply. They know that conditions in state facilities for the developmentally disabled are squalid and you wouldn't wish them upon a healthy person, much less a sick child. You want to keep these kids home as long as humanly possible. But at some point.... "What will happen to Dougie if we're gone?" Laurie asks.
Doug looks away. Then he smiles back at Laurie.
Doug Flutie always finds a way to win, doesn't he?
You can contribute to the Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism by going to www.dougflutiejrfoundation.org or by sending a check or money order to The Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism Inc., P.O. Box 767, Framingham, MA 01701.
As a pro, Doug Flutie has been a scrambling Ulysses, forever searching for honor, a home ... and a little respect