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THEY MEET AGAIN

The National Football League schedule lists it simply as: Oct. 28, Buffalo Bills at San Diego Chargers.

Wrong. It's Johnson at Flutie.

It's the tall, younger, laid-back Southern Californian with the headband, against the short, older New Englander with a gym rat's love for the game. It's a clash of styles and personalities, pitting the younger guy with the stronger arm against the savvy veteran with a reputation for willing his team to victory.

The Doug Flutie-Rob Johnson debate has hit full throttle in Western New York, dominating conversations on the sports-talk airwaves and at corner-bar stools all across the region, stretching to Rochester and into Canada.

"It's the biggest (Bills) game since the last Super Bowl," said Chuck Dickerson, the "Coach" on WGR-AM. "Everyone has chosen sides, and those who deny it are BS'ers."

Eleven days before Election Day, few people seem undecided about the Flutie-Johnson race, though some feel torn in their loyalties.

Such as Chris Mulderig, 31, of South Buffalo, who's flying to San Diego for Sunday's Bills-Chargers game.

Mulderig's a Flutie guy, but he'll be rooting for the Bills.

How about when San Diego has the ball?

"I'm going to hope we put good pressure on Flutie, he eludes tacklers and finds Curtis Conway or Freddie Jones in the end zone," Mulderig said. "I'm going to root for San Diego to score every time, but at the end of the game, I'll root for Buffalo to score the last touchdown. I want my cake, and I want to eat it, too."

Mulderig's heading to San Diego with Dan Bohen, 31, his good friend since their grammar school days. Bohen's a Bills fan and a Johnson guy.

"We've been in a couple of good arguments after we've had a few beers," Bohen admitted. "I think we've debated it pretty much to death."

So has much of Western New York.

Flutie-Johnson, a dream matchup for sports talk shows and lonely bartenders.

"Let the arrows fly," said Mike Schopp, afternoon talk show host at WNSA-FM, as he framed the debate for critics on both sides. "Flutie's too short, too old, too self-absorbed, too arm-weary to win a big game. Johnson's too brittle, too dumb, too unmotivated, too skinny to survive and win in the NFL."

There are subplots aplenty in this game, enough to make a decent soap opera out of a game between two teams with records of 4-2 and 1-4, not exactly a marquee NFL matchup.

Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. fired General Manager John Butler in December, and Wilson has suggested that Butler was plotting his departure when the owner tried to negotiate with him before the 2000 season.

When this year's schedule was announced in April, many Bills fans circled Oct. 28 on their calendars, especially after Wilson said, "I'd rather beat the Chargers this year than win the Super Bowl."

Then, just to add a little more spice to this stew, the Chargers, with Butler as their general manager, signed not only Flutie, but also former Bills Marcellus Wiley, Sam Rogers and John Holecek.

Meanwhile, this backyard brawl will be played out in San Diego, where fans are less interested in the subplots and more interested in their team leapfrogging over the Oakland Raiders and into first place in the AFC West.

San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Nick Canepa poked fun at Wilson this week -- "Is this the same Mr. Wilson driven batty by Dennis the Menace?" -- for making such a big deal about the Chargers game.

Canepa jokingly called Wilson's comments inspiring and historic. The columnist's new list of famous historical quotes includes:

"Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes."

"Give me liberty or give me death."

"I shall return."

And now, "I'd rather beat the Chargers this year than win the Super Bowl."

The Bills want the focus back between the lines, away from all the Flutie-Johnson hype. They want to focus on the game itself, on the young Bills building on the momentum from their first win, last week in Jacksonville.

Wilson, in his remarks about wanting to beat the Chargers, wasn't jumping into the Flutie-Johnson battleground, but reacting more to the circumstances surrounding Butler's departure.

"It was said in April, but he hasn't backtracked from it," said Scott Berchtold, the Bills' vice president for communications. "I'll let his comment stand."

So why is this town so pumped up about Flutie-Johnson? You don't need a psychology degree to answer that one. So many Western New Yorkers relate to Flutie, the departed hero. Just listen to the men who field the public's calls.

"Flutie is the personification of the little guy who did well but wasn't supposed to, the David versus Goliath, the little engine that could," said Dickerson, who has made Flutie a frequent target.

Doug Flutie is "so Buffalo," an underdog who has felt slighted over the years, Schopp said.

And Johnson?

"Johnson is Adonis," Schopp added. "Johnson is California. Johnson is perfect in his build. He is not Buffalo."

There's another argument for Flutie's being up on the pedestal, despite some insiders' claims that he's a selfish guy who puts himself way ahead of his team. Some observers believe Flutie magic helped the Bills sell enough luxury boxes and club seats in 1998 to save the franchise here.

Others are Bills fans, period, and they believe it's time to let go of the Flutie obsession.

"I think people around here need to get over it and realize Johnson is the quarterback," said James Foster, 28, of Buffalo. "Either root for him or root for another team."

The issue may linger for a season or two, until Flutie is out of the league, the Bills become strong contenders or Johnson leaves Buffalo, whichever comes first.

"Maybe in two years, when Flutie will be off selling phone cards and enjoying his farewell tour as a B.C. Lion, the Bills will contend," Schopp said. "Maybe then they'll meet the Chargers in a game that actually means something. Save the pride and the sex appeal, Sunday's game matters little.

"And I wouldn't miss it, either."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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