- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2006

There was nothing Doug Flutie wouldn’t do to play pro football. He crossed the picket line to get a shot with the Patriots during the 1987 strike, then exiled himself to Canada for the better part of a decade when he couldn’t find steady work in the NFL. He could have gotten a TV job 15 years ago if he’d wanted one, but he didn’t; he wanted — against all odds — to be a quarterback.

If the NFL’s imagination matched Flutie’s determination, there’s no telling where his career might have taken him. But coaches have a blind spot when it comes to 5-foot-10 QBs. All they can see is what God left out, not what He put in.

And so Flutie announced his retirement yesterday at 43 having compiled these modest statistics in the No Fun League: 14,715 passing yards, 86 touchdowns and a 54.7 completion percentage. Still, they’re not bad for a quarterback who really didn’t get started until he was 36 — yet still had the legs, at 37, to rush for 476 yards. (Let’s see Michael Vick, Vince Young or anyone else do that.)

It’s not a stretch to say Boston College is in the ACC today because of Flutie’s Heisman Trophy-winning heroics in the early ‘80s. He’s not the only reason, certainly, but he’s a big one. The year before he arrived on campus, the Eagles had Holy Cross, Massachusetts, Villanova and Yale on their schedule; his last season there, they played Alabama, West Virginia, Penn State and Miami. He made BC football big-time again, bigger than it had been since the days of Frank Leahy.

Flutie couldn’t save the USFL, but then, neither could Herschel Walker, Steve Young or Jim Kelly. Fact is, it took Doug a while to figure out the pro game — and coaches don’t have much patience for pygmy quarterbacks. Mike Ditka, ever the iconoclast, gave him his first chance in the NFL with the ‘86 Bears, but the kid wasn’t ready. (As evidenced by his 11-for-31 passing performance against the Redskins in the playoffs.) The next three seasons in New England weren’t much better, so Flutie brushed up on his Canadian and headed north to British Columbia.

On the wider, wilder playing fields of the CFL, he was able to develop all of his unusual talents, particularly his ability to hit a receiver in stride while on the dead run. Over time, he became a very good quarterback — by anyone’s standards — not that the NFL noticed. Nobody sent a private jet for him when he threw for 6,619 yards in ‘91 … or when he accounted for 56 touchdowns (48 by air, eight by land) in ‘94 … or when he completed 67.2 percent of his passes in ‘95. It was as if he was playing semipro ball (rather than in the league that gave us Warren Moon and Joe Theismann).

The bias against Flutie was so great that Carolina and Jacksonville didn’t even sign him when they were starting up in 1995. He would have been the perfect expansion-team QB, too — capable of eluding sacks and making plays. Had the Panthers, with their great defense, had him in ‘96 instead of second-year man Kerry Collins, they might well have beaten the Packers in the NFC title game and won it all. (That’s my story, at least, and I’m sticking to it.)

Fortunately, after eight years in the wilderness (and six CFL Most Outstanding Player awards), the Bills gave Flutie an opportunity in 1998 — and we got to see what we were missing. All he did that season was lead them to a wild-card berth, rack up 360 passing yards in the playoff loss to Dolphins and make the Pro Bowl. Alas, that was as good as it got. In Buffalo, and later in San Diego, there was always a fair-haired young quarterback who Just Had To Play. (Rob Johnson? Now there’s a QB with intangibles.)

As career highlights go, you couldn’t ask for better bookends than Flutie’s 64-yard “Hail Mary” against Jimmy Johnson’s Miami Hurricanes in 1984 and his first-in-64-years dropkicked extra point for the Patriots in the 2006 regular season finale. The latter served as a reminder of what a fabulous athlete Doug is. (By the way, any idea who the last quarterback before him was to boot a PAT in the NFL? Answer: George Blanda in the ‘75 playoffs. I spent two hours researching that … just so you and I would know.)

It’s the little guys who often make the strongest connection with the fans. In the magnifying-glass world of sports, with its 7-6 basketball centers and 375-pound defensive tackles, it’s the little guys who seem the most real, the most like us.

So it was with Flutie. Joe Paterno may have grasped his essence as well as anybody. “What that kid does,” he said after his Penn State team was “Flutied” in 1983, “is make people happy to watch football.”

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