In April of 1993, Doug Flutie was on a vacation with his family at Disney World. By coincidence, a group of NFL stars also happened to be in Orlando, taking part in a made-for-TV event called the Quarterback Challenge.
Flutie decided to stop by the field where the event was being held to say hello to a few of his football pals. He remembers how distant he felt, standing behind a fence and trying to get the attention of Drew Bledsoe and Steve Young. He quickly slipped away, feeling very much like an intruder.
"It's funny how I was on the outside looking in for all those years," Flutie said recently after a Bills practice.
He has never forgotten how it felt to be denied the company of the world's greatest quarterbacks, to be excluded from the club. He was 30 years old at the time, smack in his prime, happy enough to be a sensation in the Canadian league but certain, in his heart, that he could be a star in the NFL if only he was given the chance.
Six years later, he has finally arrived. After his one glorious season in Buffalo, Flutie has gone from undersized backup to Pro Bowler, from fading college legend to NFL star, from curiosity to national phenomenon.
He has, quite literally, joined the club. During the offseason, he became a member of the NFL Quarterback Club, the organization that oversees many of the licensing and endorsement deals for the league's 40 elite players -- including that same Quarterback Challenge.
"It does have an ironic twist," Flutie said. "For years I couldn't even get my foot in the league. Now I'm able to slip in with the elite guys. It's stuff that is relatively insignificant, but it means something to me emotionally. Like being selected to the Pro Bowl last year. That meant a lot to me. I was just trying to win games and didn't think about making the Pro Bowl. But after the fact, I thought about it. My point was made. Not that I had to make a point, but I was accepted, and that felt good."
Everybody wants a piece of him now. Everyone wants to enter the swirl of his celebrity. People are buying his Flutie Flakes and Flutie Fruitie Snacks. He is a spokesman for Wegmans and MCI. He recently signed a two-year deal with Puma and Logo Athletic. He is making community service appearances for Fleet Bank.
He was in a celebrity hitting contest at baseball's All-Star Game. His band will release an 11-song CD this fall. His biography has been re-released. He has a regular gig on 97 Rock this season. CBS is planning a movie on his life, which is due out in December. Rosie O'Donnell and numerous other TV hosts have tried to get him as a guest.
"We've been approached about doing a Tootie Flootie Toothpaste," said Kristen Kuliga of Boston-based Woolf Associates, which negotiates most of Flutie's endorsement deals. "Some wanted him to promote ice cream. People ask him to appear at bar mitzvahs and birthday parties. He's in huge demand, not only in Buffalo and New England, but nationwide. He even had an offer to tour military bases in Europe for a week. But we couldn't make it work.
"It's a bit overwhelming for him," Kuliga said. "We've turned down many things. If it was up to Doug, he'd rather spend time with his family and play basketball in his backyard. His priorities are football, family and the foundation."
Over the past year or so, he has raised more than $1 million for the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism. Flutie's 7-year-old son suffers from autism, which affects the rate and pattern of a child's development. He has testified before Congress about the need for more federal funding for research on the mysterious disease.
Flutie was asked last season if playing in a Super Bowl would be his ultimate dream. Without hesitation, he said, "My ultimate dream would be walking into the house and hearing my little boy say 'Hi, Dad'."
A Super Bowl would be nice, though. When he joined the team, Flutie said his goal was to take the Bills to the big game. People tended to roll their eyes. Buffalo was coming off a 6-10 season. It was hard enough to imagine Flutie succeeding in the NFL after eight years away. A Super Bowl run seemed ludicrous.
"It always felt real to me," Flutie said. "I've never gone to a team thinking we couldn't win, and by the midpoint of last season I think everybody around here started believing we had a shot. By the end of the year, we were as good as anyone."
Flutie transformed the team and captivated the town after taking over for an injured Rob Johnson. His game-winning bootleg in his first start, against Jacksonville, instantly became part of Bills legend. The Bills were 8-3 with him at the helm. He threw for 2,711 yards and 20 TDs to earn a spot in the Pro Bowl. In the 11 games after he took over, the Bills averaged 25 points and 363 yards from scrimmage.
His contribution went beyond mere numbers, though. During Flutie's magical run, the sale of club seats in the soon-to-be refurbished stadium increased 25 times, allowing the Bills to reach the $11 million figure needed to ensure the team's continued existence in Buffalo. So it was not a reach to suggest that he might have saved the franchise.
Flutie inspires belief in people, be it advertisers, fans or his own offensive linemen. You can't help but be lifted by his competitive will, his dynamic personality, by seeing a 5-foot-10 dodging tacklers twice his size at the age of 36. But with heightened belief comes elevated expectations. Flutie knows that people will expect him to do it all over again. He also understands that the public's fascination will last only as long as he remains productive on the field, and as long as he keeps winning.
In the playoff loss at Miami, Flutie set a personal NFL best with 360 yards passing. Still, people don't remember all the big plays he made. They remember his three turnovers. They remember the fumble at the Dolphins' 5-yard line in the closing seconds.
"That's the way the American public is nowadays," he said. "What have you done for me lately? It's more fun to second-guess than to praise. At some point during this season, I'll be too short again. You just strive to be as consistent as possible.
"I'm enjoying what I'm doing. I'm winning games and that's important. I'm happy. I appreciate the support and I appreciate people believing in me. That's great. But I also know that you go out and lose three games in a row and that can change."
His critics are always circling. No one understands that better than his wife, Laurie, who was his high school sweetheart and has been with him for all the highs and lows. She knows how important it was for her husband to succeed in the NFL, after being dismissed as a failure for eight years. She knows how much he wants to win, and she is a wreck during games.
"It just makes me so nervous," Laurie said. "I pace. I leave the room. I can't watch the TV. Last year against Jacksonville, I never even saw the last play live. I was out by the concessions, standing there. I had his brother Darren's wife running over to the TV monitors and running back to tell me.
"Last year was one of the most stressful for me," she said, "because I knew how much he wanted to play well. It really affects me. He's the one calming me down. I know what people expect. It upsets me because he's my husband and it's personal. When he left for training camp this year, I said 'I'm not looking forward to this football season.' Don't get me wrong. I just think now everybody is going to expect him to pick up where he left off. So there's even more pressure.
"But knowing Doug, he'll pull through. He thrives under the pressure. He absolutely thrives under it."
Flutie has spent his life scrambling under the pressure, trying to dodge conventional football wisdom. He says there never has been a middle ground where he is concerned. No one is neutral. He might inspire great faith in some people, but in others he breeds a relentless, perpetual doubt.
This year, the doubters say, the defensive coaches in the NFL will catch up to him. You'll see. Given an offseason to study his inventive style, they'll bottle him up for good. He can't get it done near the goal line. He's bound to get hurt sooner or later. Rob Johnson represents the future. Why not make the change now?
His own head coach, Wade Phillips, refused to declare him the starter during camp, referring to him and Johnson as "co-starters." Veteran Thurman Thomas sidled up to Flutie almost every day during camp and jokingly reminded him that most people considered last season a fluke.
Flutie was not amused by his co-starter status in camp ("You'll have to ask the coaches that question," he said). But he's accustomed to such slights. He figures he'll be even better this season. Why wouldn't he? He's a year wiser. Offensive coordinator Joe Pendry has customized his offense to suit Flutie's ability.
"I'm in as good a shape as I've ever been," Flutie said. "Physically, I'm 100 percent. My arm feels great. My legs are fine. I feel a step quicker this year. Last year my back was bothering me a little bit.
"I feel 100 times more comfortable than last year in the offense. I'm in an offense where they're allowing me to throw the ball. We're doing some things I'm comfortable with. Joe knows my talents and knows what things give me trouble."
By playoff time a year ago, the Bills' offense was as potent as any in the AFC. Flutie was his old, inventive self, making plays on the run. But he made a lot of simple, fundamental plays as well. He gets weary of hearing about his "magic," of having his career dismissed as one long improvisation.
"Yes, yes, that drives me crazy," he said. "I like the reputation of finding a way to win and all that. But the bottom line is you have to be consistent and do the right thing every time, and know what you're doing. When things break down, I have the ability to move around and make something happen, which I've always looked at as a bonus. But this impression that I do it with mirrors . . . well, being selected to the Pro Bowl meant a lot to me."
The players vote on the Pro Bowl. It meant that, after all these years as an outsider, Flutie had finally been accepted by his peers. He is a genuine NFL quarterback, not some undersized curiosity, a worn-out college legend from 15 years ago. He belongs. He's loving it. He says he'll play as long as he's capable. One year, two years, four, who knows?
And if the fans want even more, if they won't be content with anything less than a trip to the Super Bowl this time, well, welcome to the club. That's what he wants, too.