Doug Flutie Loses Both Parents Within an Hour of Each Other
Doug Flutie, one of the most famous athletes to come from New England, has always credited his parents, Richard and Joan, with giving him the support and confidence to excel, no matter the obstacles. On Wednesday, November 18, 2015, Flutie’s father passed away from a heart attack after a period of poor health. An hour later, Joan Flutie had a sudden fatal heart attack. Doug Flutie posted a Facebook message that read in part: “They say you can die of a broken heart and I believe it. I would like to honor my parents for all that they did throughout my and my brothers’ and sister’s lives.”
Mel Allen wrote this Yankee Classic in November 1989 on the fifth anniversary of Doug Flutie’s football triumph for Boston College. November 23, 2014, was the 30th anniversary of that moment.
The father of Doug Flutie drives slowly through Natick, a town of 31,000 west of Boston. It is a summer night; the air conditioner hums softly. Now and then the radar detector beeps a warning, but Dick Flutie pays it little heed. His wife Joan sits in the back.
They are showing me landmarks in the life of their son, Doug Flutie — the most famous football player in New England history — so he drives as if these streets were pages from an album he could turn.
“That’s where Doug and Laurie were married,” Dick says in front of St. Patrick’s Church. LIFE magazine was there. “Natick’s royal couple,” I say. “Yes,” Dick says, “they were.” Four years have passed since the wedding, a new granddaughter has been born, but he still has trouble accepting that Doug has a life away from them, even though the life is lived but two miles away. “That’s been the hardest,” he says. “Not the football. Just Doug not being around as much.”
We ride in a 1985 Ford LTD Crown Victoria. It is maroon, the school color of Boston College, Doug’s alma mater. In the winter of that year, at the height of his fame, Doug made a television commercial for Ford; as payment he could select a car. He told his father to take his pick. “I was in a grocery store with Doug,” Dick says, “and I felt tears in my eyes. I pulled him over in an aisle, and I told him that for me not to have to worry about car payments … well, nobody had ever given me anything like that. Ever.” Bolted to the front bumper is a Boston College novelty plate, presumably in place forever. Lying on the back window is a New England Patriots banner that — should Doug be traded — can easily be removed.
Five years ago Doug Flutie threw a ball that traveled 65 yards through the rain in the twilight of the Orange Bowl, defying a wind that shook the palms outside the stadium and a clock that read zero. Some 30 million people watched on national television. The longest pass in football history, one writer said, because it traveled into myth. When he threw the ball, the score was 45-41 in favor of the University of Miami, the defending national champions. When the ball came down, Gerard Phelan, Doug’s roommate, was waiting two yards deep in the end zone. Later, in the bedlam of the Boston College locker room, a player said, “That wasn’t Gerard Phelan who caught the ball. God caught that ball.” “No,” replied a teammate, “God threw it.”
The land hungered for a hero. Here was Doug Flutie: clean living, handsome, polite, modest; a Rhodes Scholar candidate who played with the bravado of a fighter pilot. He said his parents were his best friends. He played touch football with his old neighborhood pals. And his story read as if scripted in Hollywood. Standing a shade under 5′ 10″ and only 165 pounds, he was too small for big-time college football. Though time and again he had rescued his Natick High team from certain defeat, the Boston College coach had rejected him. Then the coach resigned. A new coach, Jack Bicknell, arrived from Maine. Dick Flutie phoned him . “Take another look at Doug,” he urged. “Look at the films.” There was one scholarship left to offer, and his son received it. When Bicknell came to the house, Dick told him, “You don’t know what you have just signed. You just don’t know.”
Doug became what the New York Times called “a cultural icon.” Stores sold out of football shirts bearing number 22. A week after the “miracle in Miami” he won the Heisman Trophy, awarded to college football’s best player, and soon after helped Boston College win the Cotton Bowl. A television producer toured New York with him and said in wonder, “It was like being with Sinatra.” One day former president Richard Nixon was walking when a young woman wearing a Boston College sweatshirt jogged by. “Ah,” he reportedly murmured, “Doug Flutie.”
For years Dick Flutie had been Doug’s coach, his cheerleader, his historian; he roamed the playing fields snapping photos of his three boys, athletes all, and sold them to the local papers for $5 a shot. A computer engineer, he arranged work schedules so he could attend practices. Once Doug’s high school baseball coach told him not to come to practices anymore. The two men have not spoken since. At Boston College he obtained a photographer’s sideline pass. At times during games he could almost reach out and touch his son.
His own father, the son of a Lebanese immigrant, had been an oft-injured 5’6″ lineman in high school and college. Dick grew up lonely in Baltimore without brothers, with an alcoholic stepmother and a father who seldom made time for play. He never forgot his ineptness when he tried out for Little League against the boys whose fathers had helped them along. When his father refused to let him play football, he cried himself to sleep and joined the golf team. As soon as he graduated from high school, he married Joan Rhodes, his girlfriend across the alley.
The children came, one after the other — Denise, then Bill, then Doug, then Darren. Dick worked days, went to college at night, formed a dance band, moved to Florida, gave his kids music lessons, and dreamed of the day he would have a family band. They had no other family in Florida as, later, they would have no other family in Massachusetts. “All we ever had was each other,” said Joan. “We depended on each other. ” One day Bill said he wanted to play Little League. Dick signed permission and said he would help out. A few days later the coach quit and Dick, with little baseball knowledge, filled in. He went to the library and started reading. Baseball became football became basketball. The boys measured themselves against each other. Bill was the biggest, the fastest. Darren was the toughest. Doug was the most exciting. “Bill made all the plays,” remembered Joan, “but Doug was so much fun to watch.”
Joan joined in, coaching softball, girls’ basketball, running the concession stand at the games. “I learned about sports the same way I learned mothering. It’s there to do, and you just do it.”
Dick taught his sons a game called spoons. “You have a card table. You put one spoon in the middle. A person says ‘Ready … go!’ The first person who can grab the spoon and bring it back wins.”
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