Skeleton left in Flutie's cupboard

 

The curious phenomenon known as `Flutiemania' is once again sweeping America. Douglas Richard Flutie, the pint-sized quarterback who spent the past decade electrifying the Canadian Football League, has become America's favourite garden gnome.

When Flutie took over as quarterback of the Buffalo Bills, the team was 1-3 and headed for oblivion. With Flutie at the helm, the Bills have gone 5-1 and insinuated themselves into play-off contention. Over the past few weeks he has been the subject of feature stories on every US television network. Two weeks ago his picture graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. To which we say simply: How soon they forget.

In 1984 Doug Flutie of Boston College was the most exciting collegiate player in the nation, leading that Jesuit institution to post-season glory in the Cotton Bowl. His last-ditch, desperation pass to Gerard Phelan to beat Miami in the Orange Bowl that autumn remains to this day the classically-defined "Hail Mary," and at the conclusion of his senior year he was awarded the Heisman Trophy as the top college player in America.

When it came to an NFL career his prospects were not so sanguine, however. Listed at 5ft 10in, Flutie is actually a bit smaller than that, and in the estimate of most professional scouts was simply too small to play the position at the top level. Although he was drafted in the late rounds by the Los Angeles Rams, he chose to sign instead with the New Jersey Generals of the upstart USFL, and played for two seasons until that league went belly-up.

The Chicago Bears, having suffered a rash of quarterback injuries, dealt for his rights and signed him to their roster in 1986. The following season he played for the New England Patriots, but having grown disenchanted with what he perceived as a lack of opportunity, went into exile north of the border, where the wide-open Canadian game was more suited to his free-form talents.

In 10 years in Canada he led his teams to three Grey Cup wins and was named the CFL's Most Valuable Player six times, but he always longed to try his hand with the big boys. Flutie's contention is that the NFL's insistence on physical prototypes has never taken into account the one great intangible. "You can't measure heart," said his supporters.

Taking advantage of a loophole in his contract, Flutie signed with the Bills this year for a $50,000 bonus and a $235,000 base salary that makes him the 39th highest-paid player on the Buffalo roster.

Since taking over at quarterback when starter Rob Johnson (whom the Bills had signed for $25 million) suffered a rib injury, Flutie has (a) scored on a deceptive "bootleg" play to beat Jacksonville with 13 seconds left in the game, (b) torched Carolina with two touchdown passes in a 30-14 win, (c) thrown three touchdown passes in a game against Miami and (d) led the Bills to a 13-10 win last weekend over New England, the team of which he had been a boyhood supporter.

These exploits have made for such terrific reading that the more reprehensible details of Flutie's prior involvement with the NFL have been conveniently overlooked. Here, as they say, is the rest of the story.

On the last week of September 1987 the National Football League Players Association held a large meeting at a hotel near Newark Airport in New Jersey, attended by several dozen union members who had gone on strike the previous week. That weekend's games had already been called off, and the owners were busily assembling their rosters of `replacement players' they intended to foist off on the public the following Sunday.

The union player representatives for each team comprised the bulk of the delegation, but also on hand were pro-union activists from all around the league. One of them was Doug Flutie.

Two weeks later Flutie signed a contract to play for the Scab edition of the New England Patriots, and participated in the final `replacement' game at the Astrodome in Houston that Sunday. Although he (unlike the other `replacement' players, who were all sent home when the strike ended) was retained on the roster, the reception he got from his union team-mates was decidedly chilly, and remained so for as long as he remained with the team. He finally packed himself off to Canada, hoping that people would eventually forget his unprincipled behaviour.

Now, it should be noted that Flutie was not the only NFL player to cross the picket line in 1987. There were some, like Steve Bono, who saw it as an avenue toward proving himself and finding a job in a league that had rejected him. There were others, like Joe Montana, who based their case on principle: they simply disapproved of what the union was doing and declined to go along with it.

Neither was the case with Doug Flutie. He already HAD a job with the Bears, and had in fact been Chicago's quarterback in their final play-off game the previous year. Neither can the fact that he went from marching in a picket line to leading the scab team in the space of two weeks be attributed to an act of conscience.

And, then as now, it wasn't even about money. Flutie wanted to recapture his years of collegiate glory before his hometown fans, and he didn't care whose back he stepped on to do it.

"His overriding concern was to come home," recalls Patrick Sullivan, the Patriots' general manager who dealt for the rights to Flutie over the objections of coach Raymond Berry and personnel director Dick Steinberg. "We knew he wanted to come back to Boston, and he felt this was his opportunity to prove he could play in the NFL."

Flutie's revisionist position, articulated years later in his authorised biography, is that he was forced by the terms of his contract to become what was euphemistically known as a `replacement player,' which is pure balderdash. His contract with the Bears was the same contract every other striking player had, and, says Sullivan, "we wouldn't have made the trade unless Doug had agreed beforehand that he would cross the picket line."

A common supposition is that the Patriots acquired Flutie in the hope of boosting attendances, which had averaged 13,000 for the two games the scab team played in Foxboro.

With the Canadian border just a few miles away, the Bills hoped signing Flutie might put a few thousand more bodies in the empty seats - although the cynic might note that once the run on the ticket window and run its course, the Bills went right out and signed Rob Johnson.

Since but a handful of striking players from the 1987 union dispute remain active in the NFL, Flutie's betrayal has not become an issue in his most recent incarnation. More curious has been the behaviour of the journalistic community.