Doug Flutie Loses Both Parents Within an Hour of Each Other
His friends and former coaches say that the frustrations of the past five years have taken their toll on the unflagging optimism that once sparked his play. “See, he knows he can’t have a bad day,” Jack Bicknell said. “A bad day means he’s proved all the people right who say, ‘See, he can’t play.’ I saw him a couple of times in the pros and I knew it wasn’t him. Because he sort of went into a shell. In fact I wrote him. I said, ‘Doug, what the heck are you doing? Play the way you’ve always played.’ ”
Already he has made three professional stops: the Generals, the Chicago Bears, and now the Patriots. He heard his first boos with the Generals, endured ridicule with the Bears, was benched for the first time with the Patriots. His genius for turning routine plays into unpredictable adventures costs him dearly with the pros, who place a premium on game plans and consistency. In Chicago the Bears’ most visible player, quarterback Jim McMahon, called him “America’s dwarf.” When Flutie started and lost a playoff game against the Washington Redskins, the city of Chicago blamed him for the defeat.
“Doug grew up a lot in Chicago,” Joan said. “He always felt people were good, period. We both grew up in Chicago. It never entered my mind that people would be so nasty. That was Jim McMahon territory. Doug would come home at night in Chicago, and people had written things or thrown eggs on his garage door, and his neighbors would go and clean it up.”
I said I’d ask Doug about that.
“No, please don’t,” Joan said.
He came from the Bears to the Patriots, the team he had always hoped to play for, in the last days of the player strike in 1987, crossing a picket line he said he would never cross except for the opportunity to come home. “When Doug came home,” said Joan “everything seemed right. Everybody was right where they were supposed to be.”
Last year Doug, a substitute, came into the fourth quarter of a game that seemed lost. Joan ran out in the street. “Doug’s in,” she cried. “Come over, come over!” The neighborhood poured into her home and saw him electrify the crowd and score the winning touchdown. It seemed that day as though the indefinable Flutie charisma had been grafted onto a dormant Patriots team. He would start the next nine games, winning six, including a four-touchdown-pass game that earned him sweet revenge against the Bears. Of his days with the Generals he once said, “Whenever I felt I was in control, I did well. Whenever I felt like I was being dictated to, I didn’t.” Soon it became obvious that with the Patriots, Doug had little control of the team’s offense. Finally he was benched at season’s end in favor of Tony Eason. A Maine writer summed up the feelings of many Patriot fans: “Flutie has been used, abused, and tossed away. Doug Flutie deserved better.”
In the season’s last game against Denver, when a victory was needed to make the play-offs, Flutie was sent in only for the final, meaningless play. The Patriots were losing 21 -10. He threw the longest pass of his life. The ball sailed 67 yards through the Denver sky. When it came down in the end zone, Denver intercepted. The miracles had passed him by.
Flutie picks up a doughnut. “I could go through a whole season without throwing an interception,” he, says. “I firmly believe that. But I’ve always wanted to be aggressive. Go after it. Right now I’m caught in between. Everyone’s paranoid that you’re going to make a mistake. And it’s life or death. My attitude has always been, ‘We’re going to outscore you. We’ll make some mistakes. So what? If they pick one off and score, no big deal. We’ll score three more.’ ” He took a bite.
I thought of what Joan had told me earlier. “Of all my kids, Doug needs the pat on the back,” said Joan. “He needs it desperately. And he’s not getting it right now. To me, they’re mistreating Doug,” she said. “I don’t care about the reasons. If you’re mistreating him, you’re on my list. Period.” She was quiet. Then she said, “But I’m not Tony Eason’s mother.”
Jack Bicknell simply said, “Doug Flutie’s dying now.”
Doug pushes back from the table. He flicks the football from hand to hand. “Terry Bradshaw struggled through his first few years. Struggled a lot. I remember him saying he went up to Chuck Noll [his coach] and said, ‘Stand behind me, pat me on the back, tell me I’m doing a good job. I’ll go out and kill for you.’ ” Flutie pauses. “That’s all he needed.” Outside a squirrel leaps onto the porch. The dogs pound across the room, barking and scratching at the door. Doug throws the ball against the door, scattering the dogs.
While we talk, Joan has been watching a movie on television. The movie is Winning, starring Paul Newman. “He won the race,” says Joan, “and he kept driving, and a reporter asked him why he didn’t stop, and he said, ‘I didn’t feel like stopping.’ ”
Doug is at the front door, ready to leave. He walks back, glances at the screen. “Great line,” he says. “Great line.”
“Remember, don’t smother the ball with your hand. Hold it on the fingertips. Leave a little space.” The high school kids, all hopeful quarterbacks at the Boston College football camp on the last day of June, kneel in a semicircle around Doug Flutie. He wears gym shorts and a T-shirt. “The easiest way to throw a football is with your legs,” Doug says. “Keep your feet under you and step in the direction of the throw. Of course,” he adds, “sometimes you’re being chased.” He smiles. “And you gotta do what you gotta do.”