Commentary

WONDER BOY

Updated: July 10, 2012, 1:27 PM ET
By CURRY KIRKPATRICK

Let Doug Flutie win a Super Bowl. Let him win multiple Super Bowls. Let him become the MVP of the NFL five times over. Let his Flutie Gang rock band go platinum. Let his Flutie Flakes cereal go national. Let him grow up. Or better yet, just grow. Lord, let him grow. Let Flutie leave football, join the real world and become Secretary of Health, Education and Hair Revival in a Bill Bradley administration of jockocracy. Let him ratify the nuclear test ban treaty, end famine and cure pestilence. Still, he probably will be remembered for only one thing: Boston College vs. University of Miami. It was the Thanksgiving holiday, 1984 -so long ago most people can't recall what day it was. Some folks tell Flutie they were eating their turkeys. Jerry Ostroski, his current center on the Buffalo Bills, rags Flutie that he was just a child slurping milk and cookies back then. Jay Riemersma, his tight end, didn't see it, he just heard about it: "Little guy, odd number. What was a quarterback doing wearing No. 22?" he laughs. Flutie himself isn't so sure it wasn't a Friday, for God's sake. (Turns out it was.) Whatever. It was so long ago, "whatever" hadn't yet become a cool phrase. The laughable thing is that just after Flutie scrambled around and hurled that most famous of panic passes 48 yards into the Miami heavens to Gerard Phelan, he didn't even see what happened until the official raised his arms. "It just had a matter-of-fact feeling to it. Things always had a way of turning out," he says.

Matter of fact, what the Boston College quarterback also couldn't possibly see that day included a bittersweet future that seems to be, uh, turning out. The Pass, the Heisman, his previously obscure school, his size (5'10"? Sure, and Pokemon is a pulling guard), as well as the sheer magic of it, all combined to make Flutie an icon in college sports. Which was worth at least a couple of chin straps when he reached the NFL and couldn't cut it; when his Bears teammate, Jim McMahon, charmingly labeled him "America's Midget"; when a new coach in New England, Rod Rust, told him, "There's a minicamp at the end of the month but you're not invited"; when he ultimately had to exile himself to Canada where moose were moose but the gridiron men were boys (12 to a side? Three downs?) and the celebs were the size of Michael J. Fox.

And not just the celebs. "There's been a perception in the NFL that everybody who plays in Canada is that small," says Riemersma, who enrolled at Michigan as a 6'5", 195-pound QB himself. "But Doug's shown that if a guy can make plays up there, he can make them down here."

And how. Since taking over as the Bills' starter early in the '98 season, Methuselah Mouse has marched his team to 11 victories in 18 games. And he's thrown for 29 TDs through Week 7 and 4,297 yards. More importantly, his breathtaking takeoffs and runs-he leads all quarterbacks this year with 262 yards rushing (6.6 average)-and the threat of those runs have made Buffalo multidimensionally dangerous. Flutie is now one of the most feared offensive creators in the business.

"I don't know of any 36-year-old who can run like Doug," says Trace Armstrong, the Dolphins DE who failed to trace Flutie enough in Buffalo's 23-18 Monday Night surprise on Oct. 4-just 19 days before the old guy turned 37. "And it's not just his speed. A lot of scramblers take off just to get a better look downfield. When Peyton Manning pulls it down, he's moving around looking to throw. With Kordell Stewart, he's going to run every time. Doug is able to do both things. He's never lying back there with his feet set, so you never know."

"Flutie does some crazy stuff," says Miami backer Zach Thomas. "He'll jump in the air and throw it. Or he'll fake and take off. He finds a way to get things done even if they don't always make sense."

Flutie's uniqueness is old and new at the same time. Mobility is the characteristic of the future for NFL signal-callers: Tim Couch aside, witness the last draft's other poster boys-Donovan McNabb; the side-arming, pocket-size Flutie clone, Cade McNown; and Akili Smith (who has already beaten Couch)-as well as this year's Heisman favorite, Georgia Tech's bantam Joe Hamilton, who will probably get some serious pro looks mainly because of Flutie. But remember, too, that in another, much earlier time, Fran Tarkenton was Flutie Lite-The Flutester halved, squared and often fricasseed.

"See, as a kid, I loved watching Tarkenton play," says Flutie. "I loved the way he scrambled and made things happen. But I never thought anything about his size. He's 5'10". So what, I've been measured at 5'9". It was his style. I think people latch on to my story because of the underdog thing and my size. But even if I were 6'5", I hope I'd play with the same style. Of course, I wouldn't have the same athleticism or quickness or change of direction."

For want of a better term, the Tarkentonism?

Not really, says Paul Maguire, the former Bills punter who played earlier this century. "The last thing Fran wanted to do was run with the ball. He only scrambled because nobody was open. What I love about Flutie is when he sees an opening, 50 yards or five, he takes off. There's no hesitation. He's absolutely sure at all times of what he's doing, and it drives the defense nuts. There's only a certain number of ways to come after him. The other side has 11 guys, so it's even. But Doug somehow makes it uneven."

Following Flutie's Week 5 dissection of the Steelers-21 of 32 passing for 261 yards and 3 TDs as well as 7 rushes for 39 more yards in a 24-21 victory- Pittsburgh safety Lee Flowers said the dwarf-turned-dynamic dude "almost made me pull a hamstring. He's 37 and he's scrambling around like he's 25. You've got to respect that." Steelers coach Bill Cowher was impressed enough that he said of his own mad dasher, Stewart: "I'm not so sure the best thing wasn't for Kordell to sit on the sideline and watch Doug Flutie."

High, if belated, praise for a guy who spent most of the decade piling up wild numbers in the wild tundra of the CFL. (He played for three teams, leading two of them to a total of three Grey Cup titles, and won league MVP six times.) And just the kind of validation Flutie was looking for, or why else would he even bother to risk his winning rep (not to mention his ancient body) coming back to a place where he'd already failed twice? The length of Flutie's hiatus from the NFL was exactly eight years, nine months and three days. That's a long time between kinks. But it paid off. In March, Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson extended his stunted savior's contract for four more years. Oh, and by the way, 22 million more dollars.

"I didn't look on this as a third chance," Flutie says. "This was merely a continuation of my career. I don't dwell on the Pass or the Heisman or any of that. You know what I'm most proud of? Those six MVPs in the CFL. But there was nothing else left to do in Canada. I'd keep watching the NFL and see quarterbacks whom I knew I was much better than. I didn't ever feel I got a fair shot before. The game had changed down here. The success Steve Young had. Mark Brunell. Kordell. Steve McNair. You don't think Brett Favre plays the way I do? All those guys paved the way for me to come back. In my heart, I've always known I could play in this league."

Still, only Buffalo-specifically, A.J. Smith, the Bills' director of pro personnel, another guy from New England, who'd been pleading Flutie's case with management since the latter days of Jim Kelly-offered him a job. And still, only an injury to Rob Johnson, Buffalo's 6'4", $5 million-a-year prototype QB, in the fifth game of the '98 season produced an opening. Twenty touchdowns and 2,711 passing yards later, the Bills had won seven of the 10 games Flutie started and were stopped in the playoffs only when he was: a fumble on the Miami 5-yard line halting a stirring last-minute drive. Ultimately, the little engine who could had chugged himself all the way into not only the NFL's "Quarterback Club" (the exclusive marketing arm that handles high-profile stars) but the Pro Bowl.

A year earlier, while on a Heisman outing in Hawaii with his Trophy-winning compatriots, most of them pronounced Flutie "crazy" to even attempt the NFL again. Now he was back in the Islands debating with another QB about who would get to wear jersey No. 7 for the AFC stars. "I've worn 7 all year. What have you done to deserve it?" Flutie joked. "I've worn it all my career," said John Elway.

Flutie will sometimes regale his mates with tales of his times. He'll be at rest, usually grinning, sweat-suited, his cap worn backward, barely exposing that marvelous ebony bush of a haircut-"rock 'n roll hair," somebody once called it, while a poster in Ralph Wilson Stadium once screamed, "Doug: The Eighties Called. They Want Their Haircut Back." This is a figure out of a history book, remember, a guy who was a teammate of Herschel Walker and Walter Payton, a guy who's worked for Mike Ditka and Donald Trump, a guy whom Marcus Allen once welcomed on the field with "Hiya, frat buddy" (Heisman bros-in-arms, don't you know?), a guy who never seemed to get hurt on a big hit. Except once-by Reggie White in the long-dead USFL. "Didn't see him coming. Reggie drove me to the turf, separated my shoulder and broke my collarbone," Flutie says. "Usually, I have a feel for the escape. Or when I see I'm going to get blasted, I'll concede, roll up, collapse and get to the ground as quickly as possible. Raymond Berry [his first coach with the Patriots] used to say there are times you know when your journey is over."

Sometimes, though, Flutie's circumspection is naturally tinged with animosity about what might have been. Future Hall of Famer Elway came out of college two years before him, future Hall of Famer Young one year before. Flutie is their peer, yet as recently as a few years ago he was literally on the other side of a fence looking in. Vacationing at Disney World with his family, he peered through the chain links as the others competed in a "Quarterback Challenge."

Even in this off-season, after his marvelous redebut in the bigs, Flutie was severely demeaned by Buffalo coach Wade Phillips when he named both Johnson and Flutie as "starters" on the depth chart. "Rob had lost his job because of an injury, so I felt going into this season that Rob ought to be named too," Phillips says. "We get two quarterbacks ready. I never said Doug wouldn't be the starter or wouldn't play."

"I don't think I made bitter remarks," says Flutie, "but I felt bitter. Coaches have the right to make decisions. But I felt deep down, hey, anybody else makes the Pro Bowl, they're back as the starter. No questions asked. If I were 6'1", no questions asked."

So size matters?

"Last year, Doug would come to me with dismay on his face," says Bruce Smith, the Bills' equally grizzled future-Fame defender. "He didn't think he would get his shot. But I told him to hang in, it would come. I have to root for us old guys, you know. Now, I guess he figures, 'What have I got to do?' If it were me ... I don't know what I'd do. But he has to keep working to prove himself every day."

So size never hasn't mattered. Especially when he has disappeared. "With Doug, I guess some of it was out of sight, out of mind," says Buffalo GM John Butler, almost sheepishly. "People search in vain for a guy like this to run your team, and he's sitting up there in Canada all along. I guess we should all be ashamed. The league was cheated out of his greatness for eight years."

"I've always taken pride in my years in Canada," says Flutie. "Now Jeff Garcia's getting his chance in 'Frisco. He was my backup in Calgary and when he got his chance up there, he played his ass off. I told him last year: 'This game is no different. It's football. There's no reason you can't come down here andplay gangbusters.'

"And what about Kurt Warner, lighting it up out of the Arena League?" Flutie says excitedly. "How great is that? I absolutely love guys who were overlooked ... COME BACK! Because people in those NFL front offices, GMs and coaches and scouts and everybody, take such pride in their charts and their stopwatches and their stupid combines and making guys line up in their underwear while they stare at their bodies. Give me a flipping break. They got all this film on guys, they've watched them four years in college. Then they bring them in to their meat market and try to figure if they can play? That drives me crazy. Kurt Warner kind of sticks it back in their faces, takes their whole system and throws a wrench into it."

Which is kind of what Doug Flutie does too? "Look, what we do is play football," he says. "As much as the NFL has opened up, moved the pocket around, let guys have their head and play, the league isn't even reaching the tip of the iceberg. The stuff we did in Canada ... Out of the shotgun, I ran a two-back offense, spread everybody out and called running plays. I was wheeling and dealing. I'd draw 'em up in the huddle. I got my fullback. I'm the tailback. It's like a single wing. Let's go get six. Down here, I can't do that yet. I still feel like a sec-