Us New England sports fans know our local boys playing in the bigs. Maybe it's because the numbers are relatively small, or just our Puritan streak making us support our "family", but we keep track of all those that go on to play at the highest levels of their sport. We were once out with some California friends of ours, and they were amazed at my comments on the local boys playing in the major leagues, wondering how anyone could keep track of them. I suppose I'd find it much harder to follow kids from the entire state of California, or even the local county, but here in New England, we keep track of these things.
And in the pantheon of local boys done good, Doug Flutie is at the pinnacle. Only a few can challenge his ascendancy. A couple of Red Sox players were tragically cut down in the prime of their careers. Harry Agganis, The Golden Greek, from Lynn MA, starred ever so briefly with the Sox before being dieing at the age of 26 of a massive pulmonary embolism in 1955. Tony Conigliaro, Revere MA, was beaned on August 18, 1967, and the youngest player to ever win a home run championship, and the youngest to reach the 100 HR plateau, was never the same player again. Carlton Fisk, born in Vermont and raised in New Hampshire, went on to a Hall of Fame career for the Sox, both Red and White. Patrick Ewing, from Cambridge MA, basketball star, is also up there.
But of them all, none commanded the adoration of the public like Our Doug (yup, that's what we call him). Not quite 5'9" tall in a land where 6'8", 300lbs is consider small for some positions, he stands tall in the eyes of New England sports fans everywhere. From schoolboy All-Star, to Heisman Trophy winner, and many stops in the USFL, NFL, and, most impressively, the Canadian Football League, he retired yesterday at the age of 43, when many of us are just hitting our strides.
He was a school boy star in his hometown of Natick, MA, where there is a street named in his honor (Flutie Pass). He caught the eye of Jack Bicknell, Boston College football coach, and became a starter midway through his freshman year. And the two of them put BC football on the map here in New England. The first football games I ever went to were at the old Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, sitting on the metal benches, watching Flutie lead the BC Eagles to their first bowl games in over 20 years. He held the college record for passing yardage when his time at BC ended.
And, of course, there's The Pass. Up until Vinatieri's kick went through the uprights to win Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002, it was easily the most memorable play in New England football history. And like that field goal, any sports fan can tell you exactly where they were when it happened. I was living in Derry NH at the time, watching it on TV and simply couldn't believe what had just happened. I can remember getting the Boston Globe the next day and just reveling in the front page - "A Miracle in Miami". It still give me chills to think about it.
I went to see his final game as an Eagle. It was the 1984 Cotton Bowl in Dallas Texas, the biggest bowl game the Eagles have ever been to. My family lived in Oklahoma City at the time and I prevailed upon my dad to get us a couple of tickets to the game. We drove down the day of the game, trying to guess exactly when Flutie would break the Cotton Bowl passing record, which at the time was something like 250 yards. Unfortunately, the weather was absolutely miserable - cold, freezing rain, sleet and very windy. We had a blast though, as the Eagles romped 45-28, even though Flutie didn't break the passing mark. The drive home was even more memorable, as the road were a sheet of ice. And Texans have no idea how to drive in that stuff, so cars were off into the fields 200 yards or more. But in one of the finest displays of winter driving I've ever witnessed, my dad got us home safe and sound.
Unfortunately, Doug never got a fair shake in the NFL. And any true blue New England sports fan will tell you the same. His skill set was unique, and if it is one thing management in any sports doesn't like, it is a unique skill set; one that forces them to modify their game plan to fit, and not the other way around. I thought when he went to play for Ditka in Chicago that there would be a chance, as Ditka would do what it would take to win, something Flutie excelled at his entire career. But in neither Chicago nor even Foxboro could he find a sympathetic coach, and it took a flight to Canada for him to be able to perform his magic.
Given the wide open nature of CFL football, I guess it is no wonder he did well. But one thing he mentioned yesterday was that another vital part of his success there was the ability to call his own plays, to call plays he was comfortable with and knew he could be successful using. And that's something that just doesn't happen in today's NFL. After seven seasons and five player of the year honors in the Great White North, he came back to the NFL. And once again, all he did was win, for both the Buffalo Bills (leading them to their last two playoff appearances) and the San Diego Chargers. He finally came back home and played a couple of snaps for the Patriots, including one of the most memorable regular season plays of all time - a "drop kick" extra point, the first in over 60 years, a play called by Belichek, of all people, "the most fun" of his whole career.
I mentioned winning, right? How about these numbers - a career 38-28 record, but 23-9 in home games and an amazing 12-2 (including college) in Foxboro, 5-0 as a Patriot. 3 Grey Cups. 5 CFL MVP awards. Given the chance, Our Doug just won, baby.
It's too bad some losing franchise didn't take a chance on the Heisman Trophy winner. I would have signed Jack Bicknell as coach, drafted Flutie, and built a team around them. Bicknell doesn't get enough credit for the success of the BC program and, in fact, I'm still surprised he's never gotten a chance at the NFL. He's been pretty successful in NFL Europe. How exciting it would have been if the Patriots had done just that? Heck, they were a losing franchise at the time, so what would it have cost?
But it was still a fun ride, and I can't believe he is retiring. He's about my age (okay, a couple of years younger), but he's been a part of my football season in one way or another since I really began taking an interest in the sport. Earlier in the year, I was watching a Red Sox game, and a guy caught a foul ball. They showed a quick shot of the catch and went back to the game. But I immediately said to myself "That looked like Doug Flutie!". And sure enough, they went back to it and it was Our Doug. They interviewed him in his seat, and like all real fans, he had brought his glove (despite the knocks you take on some commercial about it). He said he was watching the game with some buddies and that he had caught balls in the previous couple of games he'd been to as well! That's Our Doug, always catching on. He will be missed, although I guess he's signing on to do college football commentary. Good luck!