Flutie larger than life in Buffalo NFL: Bills backup Doug Flutie shows how a short quarterback with flair can become a giant killer -- and earn a city's adulation.

October 25, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Who would have thought that after Cookie Gilchrist and Jack Kemp, after O. J. Simpson and Paul Maguire, after Marv Levy and Jim Kelly, there would be Doug Flutie?

America's reclaimed sweetheart. Canada's adopt- ed son. Everyman's hero.

A 36-year-old backup quarterback joining the long list of Buffalo's most revered Bills from eras past.

Flutie Fever has gripped Buffalo just as certainly as the snowdrifts that soon will start appearing along Lake Erie. And the contagion was building before Flutie fueled the Bills' 17-16 upset of previously undefeated Jacksonville last week in his first NFL start in nine years.

"We had 130 Doug Flutie jerseys in stock," said Mark Dalton, Bills publicist. "They were sold out before kickoff."

Back from a self-imposed exile in the Canadian Football League, filling in for 25-year-old starter Rob Johnson, turning a broken play into the game-winner, Flutie played last week as if he had never been away. Improvisationally. Inspirationally. With that old Flutie flair.

A naked bootleg for the winning touchdown after a back missed the call? Perfect.

In a city accustomed to Super Bowl fanfare, Flutie suddenly has materialized larger than life:

Last Monday, more than 24 hours after the game, all three Buffalo TV stations led their news programs -- not sports -- with stories on Flutie.

His breakfast cereal, Flutie Flakes, is such a hot item that supermarkets are limiting sales to one box per customer.

When one member of the Bills' organization was about to be ticketed for illegal parking last week, he escaped a fine; the issuing officer asked for two auto- graphed boxes of Buffalo's favorite breakfast cereal.

"I have no control of what goes on out there," said Flutie, who makes his second straight start tonight at Carolina while Johnson's injured ribs continue to heal. "When I'm on the field, I try to compete. A lot of that is people rooting for the underdog.

"The other thing is, I just play from the heart. I do whatever I have to. I don't know if I could do it textbook all the time."

Flutie, born in the Carroll County town of Manchester in 1962, has never been textbook dull -- from the famous Hail Mary pass he threw in 1984 for Boston College to his three-league, eight-team, 14-year odyssey as a professional.

His is a career filled with tantalizing accomplishment but punctuated with numbing what-might-have-beens.

Why didn't the Chicago Bears or New England Patriots commit to him when he was a 20-something quarterback in the NFL in the late 1980s? Why didn't some needy NFL team call him down from Canada, where he fashioned an eight-year career that produced six Most Outstanding Player awards and three Grey Cup championships?

The one-word answer: size.

At 5 feet 10, Flutie is not the prototypical NFL quarterback. He is not 6 feet tall, not big enough to see down the field standing in the pocket, in the opinion of NFL personnel men. Because of that, he was viewed more as a novelty act than a prospective winning quarterback.

Flutie could win the battle in the trenches -- he's 10-5 as a starter in the NFL -- but never the tale of the tape, where he's always 5-10.

"When he went down to Buffalo, everyone asked him how he'd do because he's so short," said Don Matthews, the Toronto Argonauts coach who won two Grey Cups with Flutie at quarterback. "And I always said, 'Flutie, if given a chance, will be a star in whatever league he plays in.'

"With his style, he brings the level of the other players up. Everybody around him plays a little better, mostly because they believe in him."

Matthews' prophesy already seems to have taken hold. Seven weeks into the season, Flutie has won his only start, pulled another game out in relief and barely missed winning a third. He has thrown five touchdown passes and only one interception and ranks sixth in the league in passer efficiency at 93.8.

Yet Flutie knows it all could disappear with one uneven performance.

"All it takes is one bad day," he said. "What have you done for me lately? That's the way the media works, the way the public works. My situation is maybe a little different. Maybe I have a one-week grace period. I throw a couple of interceptions next week and I'll be 5-4 again."

Flutie has a perspective hardened by the knocks of life, not all of them on the football field. He and his wife, Laurie, have two children, 10-year-old Alexa and 6-year-old Doug Jr. His son is autistic.

Last April, Flutie announced the creation of the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism, which focuses on raising awareness and support for those affected by the disorder. Money generated by Flutie Flakes goes to the foundation.

Flutie also knows that no matter how well he plays, the starting job still belongs to Johnson, acquired for a first-round draft pick and given a five-year, $25 million contract.

"Rob Johnson is the starter, and Doug Flutie is the backup," Flutie said. "Guys all know that. They like the fact I've come in and played well because it's not a desperate situation if I come in.

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