Somewhere between making TIME and the ABC World News Tonight and
getting turned into the kind of cuddly American hero people want
to hang from their rearview mirrors, Doug Flutie lost his baby.
It's all right. He handled it. His wife, Laurie, handled it. It
happened two weeks ago. She miscarried at three months, and they
grieved at 10 cents a minute, and he missed two nights' sleep
flying back and forth between his home near Boston and football
practice in Buffalo, but they got through it. Then he went out
and beat the Miami Dolphins and smiled for the cameras the way a
good little legend is supposed to.
It's just that while America was getting giddy over how Flutie
snatched the Buffalo Bills quarterback job from a guy to whom he
gives up six inches, 11 years and $24 million, he was having to
deal with the slight inconvenience of being human. What was weird
was that he and Laurie knew this pregnancy was going to be
worrisome. When you have a severely autistic six-year-old who has
to be watched 18 hours a day, nonstop, you think hard before you
have another child. "We knew we were going to worry," says
Flutie. "We were going to watch that kid like a hawk until he was
21. I guess all the worrying started six months early."
Some autistic kids whine and wail and shriek. Not Dougie. Dougie
is happy and smiling "100 percent of the time," says his father.
But another autistic child would mean the end of Flutie's
football career. He nearly quit after last season to stay home
and help Laurie with Dougie. "He's a six-year-old with the
maturity of an infant, but he can open doors and unlock windows
and get out," says Flutie. "So, he's a handful."
It's bittersweet to see Dougie on the living room carpet, eating
his frosted Flutie Flakes by the handful, having no idea how much
he and the cereal mean to others. A portion of the proceeds from
sales of Flutie Flakes goes to the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation
for Autism, which raises awareness and support for those
affected by the disorder. Sales didn't figure to be $5, but then
the Bills' 25-year-old starting quarterback, Rob Johnson, who
has a $25 million contract, went down with Buffalo's record at
1-3, and football's favorite lawn gnome took over. Defensive
ends couldn't seem to find Flutie and defensive backs couldn't
seem to find his spirals, and pretty soon he had the Bills at
5-3 and the starting job for keeps.
So it became the feel-good story of the season: The man who won
three Grey Cups in Canada is the littlest big man in America, but
he's not one bit suckered. "Everybody's saying, 'Well, of course.
He's always been a winner,'" Flutie says, "but what were they
saying two months ago? 'He's too short. If Johnson goes down,
Buffalo's in big trouble.' Crap like that. I've heard that the
last 10 to 15 years, and it's never been valid."
If Flutie seems a little bitter toward the NFL and the media,
it's only because it's true. The league has treated Flutie the
way Calista Flockhart seems to treat a ham sandwich: 1) ignore
it, 2) maybe nibble at it or 3) spit it out entirely. In 1986 the
Chicago Bears took this Heisman Trophy winner and set him next to
the door to the toilet. Jim McMahon called him Bambi. A year
later Flutie was traded to New England, where he was allowed to
throw the ball every other autumnal equinox. Then the Patriots
cut him after the '89 season.
"They can write all the Flutiemania stories they want, and they
can talk all they want," Flutie says. "I don't read them, and I
don't listen to them."
Flutie understands life's divine balance. He's lived it, as have
other NFL quarterbacks. To the gifted Dan Marino was born a
mildly autistic son, Michael. To the athletic Boomer Esiason was
born a son, Gunnar, with cystic fibrosis. To Mark Rypien was born
a son, Andrew, who died of brain cancer in August at three. To
Jim Kelly was born a son, Hunter, who is terminally ill with
Krabbe's disease at 21 months. To Flutie, Dougie. Why?
"When you see kids like Hunter and what they and their families
have had to go through," Flutie says, "you're so grateful to have
someone like Dougie."
Who knows? Maybe Flutie and his Flakes will wind up in the Big
Bowl. Maybe not. But one day soon Flutie will have a Sunday when
he'll throw three interceptions or fumble twice or trip over his
own size 11s and people will grumble, "Told you. Too short," and
Flutie will slump home and there will be Dougie, laughing and
smiling and happy.
Maybe that's why.
COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA [Rick Reilly]
Doug Flutie understands life's divine balance. He's lived it, as
have other NFL quarterbacks.