The Buffalo years were good to Doug Flutie.
For all that he gained from his college football career, including the 1984 Heisman Trophy and a miraculous touchdown throw — forever known as "Hail Flutie" — to allow Boston College to beat the University of Miami, and those three Grey Cups he won in the Canadian Football League, he considers his time with the Bills the biggest breakthrough of all.
From 1998 through 2000, Flutie gained the acceptance from the NFL that didn't happen 13 years earlier because at 5-foot-10 he was considered too short to play quarterback and was too reliant on his exceptional mobility. What he initially experienced from football's highest level was rejection, beginning with the fact the Los Angeles Rams made him an 11th-round draft pick (285th overall) in 1985: the lowest spot for a Heisman winner to be drafted.
After spending that year with the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League, Flutie spent two forgettable seasons with the Chicago Bears (1986-87) and three more with the New England Patriots (1987-89) before a remarkable run of eight seasons with the CFL's British Columbia Lions, Calgary Stampeders and Toronto Argonauts.
At 35, Flutie received a third NFL chance with the Bills. He made the most of it by supplanting Rob Johnson as the starter six games into the '98 season, proceeding to lead the Bills to an 8-3 record, being named to the Pro Bowl and winning NFL Comeback Player of the Year. The Bills proceeded to lose a wild-card playoff game at Miami. The following year, Flutie led the Bills to a 10-5 mark and another wild-card playoff game, at Tennessee (a.k.a. the Music City Miracle), for which he was benched in favor of Johnson.
"It was my introduction back to the league," he said. "And to be successful, to become a starter, go to the Pro Bowl and even to the playoffs … it was incredible. Shoot, Eric Moulds got me to a Pro Bowl, as far as I'm concerned. Eric was amazing through those years. Anytime he was one-on-one, the ball was going to go to him."
Flutie would have two more stints in the NFL, with the San Diego Chargers (2001-04; he ran for a winning touchdown against the Bills in 'o1) and back with the Patriots (2005), before retiring as a player. Now, his football connection comes from his work as a game analyst for NBC Sports' coverage of Notre Dame.
Though he acknowledges he hasn't paid particularly close attention to the Bills' strong start, Flutie has long kept a spot in his heart for Buffalo and is looking forward to being on hand for the Dec. 8 game against the Baltimore Ravens at New Era Field.
"They love their football in Buffalo," he said. "That town deserves a winner. For them to be in the mix and having a shot, that's awesome. I love it. That stadium rocks, and it's a great atmosphere when the Bills are playing well."
In the latest edition of One-on-One Coverage, The Buffalo News spoke by phone with Flutie about his Bills' memories, the tension between him and Johnson, the dynamic playmaking with Flutie's feet that was ahead of its time in the NFL, and one of the most memorable plays in American sports history when he threw a 63-yard TD pass to Gerard Phelan in the closing seconds to give Boston College a 47-45 victory against the Hurricanes.
Buffalo News: Nov. 23 was the 35th anniversary of "Hail Flutie." Can you believe it's been that long since that happened?
Doug Flutie: I cannot. I mean, I know it was a while ago. I see Gerard a lot. We're still close friends and stay in touch. If we all avoided each other for 30 years and then all of a sudden came back, maybe it would seem like it was 35. But we all bump into each other regularly; it's brought up regularly. You know it's old when you go back and look at the film clip and see how grainy and old the footage looks now. With all the high-definition stuff we have now, it really shows its age.
BN: When you think of that moment, what's the first thought that comes to mind?
DF: CBS did a piece on it recently, and I went back and I've seen a lot more locker room footage, and what comes to mind is the team in the locker room, celebrating, and Gerard and I seeing each other for the first time (after the play) in the locker room. I assumed Gerard had caught it because I threw it in his direction, but I didn't know that for a fact until I was walking toward the locker room. Safety Dave Pereira came up, gave me a big hug and I finally asked Darren (Flutie, Doug's brother), "Who caught it?" And he said, "Gerard." And I said, "That figures." Fast forward another five minutes, 10 minutes later in the locker room, and I see Gerard for the first time. And it's just a nose-to-nose embrace and looking each other in the eye. When it's brought up now, it's more about those moments in the locker room than on-the-field stuff.
BN: What comes up in your conversations with your former BC teammates about that play?
DF: Talking to the offensive linemen, they were like, "I just didn't want to hold. I didn't want to hold." Because I'm not supposed to scramble on that play. It was supposed to be straight drop back, but I've got to buy time. So I just ran around the the right side. I put our right tackle in a bad spot where he could have had a holding penalty. The amazing thing is we all go back to being 20 years old and assume the roles that we had at that time, whether it's the leadership role or the guy that's a comedian. And we don't stop smiling the whole time we're together.
We did a reenactment of it at BC before a game against Florida State (in November). We're 57 years old. I'm throwing the ball about 40-45 yards to Gerard. Gerard's a nervous wreck. His wife's even more nervous. She's like, "Noooo! You're not doing this." Then she said, "You'd better hit him in the chest, because if he moves, he's going to break a hip." And I'm like, "Don't worry, I'll hit him in the chest."
I hit him in the chest; he catches it. He has his moment, raises the ball up, starts walking, and all the guys came out of the back of the end zone. One guy comes running out like we just won a game and jumps on Gerard's back. We actually did get a really nice reaction from the crowd, but it was more about all of us being together and seeing everybody smiling and being back as a team.
BN: What has stayed with you the most from those Buffalo years?
DF: I go back to the first game (of the '98 season) out in San Diego. We're getting beat, Rob gets banged up, I go in. I played well. We had a chance with a chip-shot field goal and we missed the field goal. We didn't win the game, but I knew in that moment, without a shadow of a doubt, "All right, I can do this; this is going to work out." It was football as usual for me. And even though it was in a loss and coming off the bench and a moment that a lot of people, I'm sure, just don't even remember, it was significant to me because it was a moment that, "OK, it's on. I'm going to be able to do this."
BN: Of course, the signature moment of your time with the Bills was your bootleg 1-yard touchdown run in the final seconds to beat Jacksonville, 17-16, in your first start.
DF: When Eric Moulds catches that ball at the 1-yard line (with 28 seconds left), we think we're in the end zone. We're kind of in celebration mode, because they originally called it a touchdown. They decide to mark the ball at the 1. They start the clock, so we line up to spike the ball. We've got half of the kicking team out there for the PAT and we've got half the guys that were on the field. Guys are running off the field and guys are trying to line up. And once we got lined up, we were in an illegal formation because the receivers ran to the line of scrimmage to the right and we didn't have an end on the left side of the line. At the last second, Thurman Thomas, realizing we didn't have anyone on the left side, runs out of the backfield and lines up at tight end next to John Fina, who was at left tackle. Then, I spiked the ball (with 25 seconds left) and we had three downs to get in.
That might, as a single moment, be very important. I was never one that celebrated games and celebrated real well. I didn't know how to enjoy it enough, but I loved the moments after a win, sitting in my locker and looking around the locker room and seeing everybody celebrating. I could picture that like it was yesterday.
BN: You know that Jacksonville win went beyond just a victory for that season. It went a long way toward keeping the Bills in Buffalo at a time when their future was in doubt.
DF: To me, it was just a win. I heard a lot of that talk that season and I heard a lot of that talk later. But I was always living in the moment. Very rarely did I see big-picture stuff.
BN: What did it mean to be embraced as much as you were by Bills fans?
DF: I remember two things that really stand out. One was the Wednesday night before home games, the RVs would be in the parking lot. They were that fanatical that they would be there almost all week long. The other was I had a promotional appearance in Rochester on a Tuesday night. Well, it just happened to time up with when I started playing, the Flutie Flakes coming out and all that Flutie Mania starting. I was supposed to sign autographs from 7 to 9 p.m. I always try to get there an hour to an hour and a half early for appearances and before I even leave, I get a phone call saying people started showing up at 12:30 in the afternoon. They had to close the doors of the place by four o'clock, because they couldn't let anybody else in. I'm like, "Holy smokes!"
So I go around the back way. Now I'm there an hour early and I start signing. There had to be about 2,500 to 3,000 people in the store, as well as people outside. I'm supposed to sign autographs for two hours. I start signing at 6 and I ended up signing for three hours and I hadn't even put a dent in the line. At 9 o'clock, when I was supposed to leave, I said, "Look, get all the kids out of line and bring the kids up and I will sign for all the kids and then I'm done." So I signed for about another hour until somewhere around 10 and sprinted out the back door, jumped in a car, and it was like a riot.
The Buffalo fans were that fanatical, and so were the Rochester fans. When we moved training camp to St. John Fisher, the number of people that started coming to practice and all that, that Rochester fan base was crazy. Overall, the support was overwhelming and I still love it, to this day.
BN: What were your thoughts on the quarterback controversy that developed between you and Rob Johnson and became a divisive force within the team?
DF: My thoughts were I was just happy to have a spot on the roster when I made the team, and that's the honest truth. And I've always felt that way. Anytime I was in the league, I just tried to make a roster. Rob was the starter and I was the backup. Like I said, when I stepped on the field in that San Diego game, I realized, "This is different." I think what happened was, when I was in Canada, I really regained my confidence and I knew what I did well and didn't do well, to speak up a little bit game-plan-wise of how maybe I could do things and things like that. And all of a sudden, it clicked and it was like, "Oh, this is good."
Rob went right back in, but we continued to struggle and when I took over, we started winning. I don't want to bad-mouth Rob at all. But when I started playing and playing well, then there was tension because Rob was brought in to be the starter. I'm not going to go out and not try to play well. I never said anything, I never did anything behind his back to try to undermine anything. I just was trying to play football. When he was on the field, I was as supportive as I could be. You just fight your butt off to play football.
BN: Do you feel any animosity toward Ralph Wilson for ordering Wade Phillips to go with Rob Johnson rather than you as the starter for the wild-card playoff game at Tennessee?
DF: I'm just a little frustrated that it was Ralph. I know how Wade felt, because we were together in San Diego two years later, when I was there and he was our defensive coordinator. And we talked a lot. I knew, in the moment, it couldn't have been Wade's decision, so that was very frustrating for me. My years were getting numbered. I was already an old quarterback by then. And that was maybe my best shot at taking a run at a Super Bowl.
BN: What was it like to watch that game from the sideline?
DF: I thought, before it was all said and done, there would be a spot for me to still be a part of that. I had no doubt we were going to win that game. But if Rob was playing, whether I was playing, whether it was a combination of the two of us, I thought, "We're going to make a really good run at this thing." And we managed to find a way to have a game in pocket and it just didn't happen.
I remember, when I was told, how frustrating it was to be in that position because it reminded me of 1988 when I was with New England and we were getting ready to play Denver. I had made a nice run for us to get in a position to be in the playoffs, and they went back to Tony Eason as the starter at the last week of the season. And we wound up losing to like a 2-14 Denver team and don't make the playoffs.
I really wanted to play (in the meaningless 1999 season-finale against Indianapolis). I told my wife, when I sat for the Indianapolis game, "The writing is on the wall here (for the playoff game at Tennessee)." But whether I'm on the field or not, these are the guys I played with all here. This is our team, this is my team, our team. I had gone through all the prep and the reads. I'd go over to Rob and we'd talk through reads. As much as everybody wanted to make a big deal about (their not getting along), Rob and I still talked on the sideline all the time. Like, "What did you see?" And, "What did you see?" You did all that stuff. All I wanted to do was find a way to win that game and keep it rolling.
BN: Seeing all the success that Lamar Jackson and other quarterbacks are having these days in offenses that take advantage of their tremendous mobility, do you ever think how different things might have been had you come along later?
DF: I'd love for people to go look at some of the film we had in the late '90s. That's all the stuff the NFL is doing: spreading people out, using the quarterback as a runner, the zone-read thing. The zone read started in Edmonton. Damon Allen, Marcus Allen's younger brother, was in the shotgun. He did it from under center, too. But he ran all the running game out of shotgun. And if that defensive end chased, he'd pull that ball down and take off on a naked bootleg.
Then I saw him doing it, so I started doing it. But I took it a step further and I told the receivers, "Look, run a route. Because if they blitz off the edge and we can't run it, I'm just going to throw to the flat route or the fade route. But if I run it and he comes off to tackle me, I'm going to throw it to you." It wasn't in a playbook, all written out, "If this, that, that." It was just what we did. And I remember Chip Kelly came up to watch all our Toronto film at one point when he was at the University of New Hampshire and then he took all the stuff to Oregon and did his thing. But all that spread, I'd love to run a lot of the stuff out there now.