November 2, 1998
By JIM LITKE
(reprinted with permission)
You figured him for toast by now, not the front of the box of his own breakfast cereal.
Then again, Doug Flutie is used to people selling him short. He was supposed to be too small to play in the big time -- and that was before he got too old. Yet there was Flutie with his arms raised in victory on one more Sunday, his ``Revenge Against the NFL┤┤ rolling faster and smoother than ever.
``It's a nice story,┤┤ Flutie said after leading Buffalo to a 30-24 victory over Miami. ``But this is about a team that's playing real well right now.┤┤ That much is obvious, because the Bills have won five straight after a 0-3 start and find themselves tied with Miami, New England and the New York Jets for first place in the AFC East. Less apparent is how a 36-year-old quarterback ignored by just about every other NFL team turned Buffalo's season around.
The short (pardon the expression) version is this: Flutie was in the Canadian Football League when his agent, Jack Mula, faxed every one of the NFL's 30 teams to drum up interest. For three straight off seasons, all he heard in return was an all-too-familiar silence.
Flutie won the Heisman Trophy at Boston College, threw what is probably the most replayed touchdown pass of all time -- the ``Hail Mary┤┤ that beat Miami in 1984 -- but nobody called him then, either. At 5-foot-9 and only 175 pounds, he didn't look like most scouts┤ idea of a quarterback. It didn't matter that Flutie got the job done everywhere he played -- in the now-defunct USFL, during brief stints with the Chicago Bears and New England Patriots in the NFL, and as the most prolific passer ever in the CFL, where he won six Most Outstanding Player awards and three league titles, passed for more than 41,000 yards and 270 touchdowns.
``They didn't want me down here. No one was willing to take a chance,┤┤ he recalled last week. ``It really irritated me back then.┤┤ Flutie had only a few backers in the NFL, but for a while, none of them wielded enough clout to do much about it. One was Saints coach Mike Ditka, who brought Flutie to Chicago and steamed when the Bears No. 1 quarterback, Jim McMahon, took to calling Flutie ``Bambi,┤┤ and then ran him out of town. Ditka left not long after. But even before he resurfaced in New Orleans, the coach talked up the quarterback and helped keep his name in front of some decision-makers.
One of them, Buffalo's A.J. Smith, was nagging his own bosses at the same time to take a shot on Flutie. What probably clinched the deal was the price. The Bills already had $25 million invested in front-line quarterback Rob Johnson; at $225,000, Flutie was a cheap insurance policy. Then Johnson went down against Indianapolis and the replacement part performed better than the original. Flutie stepped in, threw for 213 yards and a win. The Sunday after that, with eight years between NFL starts, he beat Jacksonville by sneaking into the end zone on a bootleg.
Last week, against Carolina, Flutie completed 18 of 22 passes for 282 yards and two touchdowns. This past Sunday, he was 15-of-26 for 206 yards and three touchdowns. With the Bills down 24-14 with 13:39 left, Flutie threw a 48-yard touchdown pass to Eric Moulds, then put the Bills in position for Steve Christie's two field goals in the closing minutes. Afterward, Buffalo coach Wade Phillips called his team ``a wonderment. They continue to amaze me.┤┤
But he shouldn't have been so surprised. Flutie has that effect on everybody he plays with. One glance and his teammates know he's beaten long odds just to get there alongside them. ``We have guys on this team who aren't the premier players in the league or of marquee size and strength, especially Doug,┤┤ said offensive tackle Jerry Ostroski. ``But we have guys that have things that aren't measurable, something that you don't look for on a resume, and that's heart.┤┤
Flutie knows all about that, too. His 6-year-old son, Doug Jr., is autistic and can barely speak. Part of what made it important for Flutie to get back to the NFL was to raise money and awareness for autism research. The winning has made his new brand of frosted cereal, Flutie Flakes, a best- seller in western New York and the Boston area, with the proceeds going directly to his son's foundation.
``When you see him making strides, that's much more important than football. I'd definitely trade a lot of my success on the field for him just to be able to say, `Dad┤,┤┤ Flutie explained last week. It's still a long way from happening. But he's come a long way before.
Jim Litke is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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