Doug Flutie answers the side kitchen door of his suburban Massachusetts home, a little dog barking eagerly behind him. His winding driveway sprawls up through a gate and across the front of the big house designed by his wife, Laurie. There is a pool out back and a basketball court off to the side.
It's a quiet day at home, and Flutie is hanging out in jeans and a T-shirt that reads Natick Redmen, the nearby high school where he was a standout athlete, the same school where he sometimes coaches his nephew Troy, now its star quarterback.
During the fall months, the 50-year-old retired quarterback spends the early part of his week at home researching NCAA football teams, and doing appearances for things such as the autism foundation he and his wife established in honour of their autistic son, Dougie. The latter part of Flutie's week is spent in Stamford, Conn., or New York working as a college football analyst on NBC Sports Network.
Flutie eases onto a comfy stool in his wide-open kitchen and reminisces about his more than 20 years as a fiery scrambling pro signal-caller, seven spent smashing records in the CFL, one in the now-defunct USFL and 13 in the NFL before his 2005 retirement. Many have called him the greatest to have played in Canada's league. He's bashful about that title, but calls his seasons in the CFL his fondest, especially the three when he hoisted the Grey Cup.
Flutie says his first Cup, in 1992, is his favourite moment.
It was even better, he says, than when he threw one of the most memorable Hail Mary passes in U.S. sports lore at Boston College in 1984 during his Heisman Trophy-winning season.
He grins as he flips through his phone and locates a photo he's cherished for years. It's a shot of himself celebrating that first Cup victory as a Calgary Stampeder with receiver and long-time friend Dave Sapunjis. He's had numerous requests to attend 100th Grey Cup week in Toronto and plans to attend.
"My first two years in the CFL, all I thought of was getting back to the NFL – it was like 'I'll put my time in up here and go back.' But then I started enjoying it," said Flutie, who was the CFL's highest paid player by far from the time he entered the league with the B.C. Lions in 1990 through his return to the NFL in 1998. "Then I went and signed a nice contract in Calgary and was like 'hey, I can make a living up here, this is great football, and I'm having a blast.' I won my first championship and thought 'I believe I can hang out with you fellas for a while.'
"You can't explain it to someone from the States how important it was to win the Grey Cup. People are like, 'oh, that's nice, do you play that in an arena up in Canada? I'm like 'No, it's real 12-man football."
Natick is 27 kilometres west of Boston, and it's been home to the Flutie family since they moved there when he was 13. He married his high school sweetheart Laurie, and he kept returning to Natick in the off season. His siblings live in town, too. Flutie plays baseball with his brothers Darren and Bill and some of their high school buddies in a local men's over-30 league that's ultra-competitive, dotted with former minor-leaguers and a few who spent time in the majors, several who can still hurl upward of 90 miles an hour.
"From the moment he wakes up on a day when we have a baseball game, he treats it like a Grey Cup game. To him, it's no different than trying to win a professional football game – he's extremely competitive," said his brother Darren Flutie, who is No.3 among the CFL's career receivers. "We've all been lucky to call Natick home our whole lives, always coming back to our family and our best friends."
The still-youthful looking quarterback hasn't aged much in appearance. He pitches, plays second base and even volunteers to do the field maintenance. Flutie might have been a novelty in the league a few years ago, but now he's just one of the guys. He says he's not giving anyone a reason to go to work the next day and brag about beating Doug Flutie.
"It's such a blast and we sit around in the dugout until 1 a.m. afterward and rehash every play," Flutie said. "It replaces that lockerroom feel guys miss when they leave sports."
Many of Flutie's old CFL teammates seem to describe the years they shared with him as the most fun they ever spent playing football. Legendary Argos running back Michael (Pinball) Clemons calls Flutie his all-time favourite teammate.
"Doug had physical and mental excellence merging at the same time, and that doesn't happen for athletes very often," Clemons said. "He could instill a huge level of confidence in everyone around him because we knew how intelligent he was and how much harder he had studied than anyone else."
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound quarterback was often overlooked or sidelined by NFL teams for being undersized. He often felt his talents were stifled by coaches or offences that didn't suit his talents. But in the CFL, Flutie felt liberated when coaches frequently let him call his own plays. It became his playground. He could masterfully scramble, improvise, and often moved offences down field for epic game-winning drives. He smashed single-season passing records.
"Doug was knocked for his size, but he was a winner. I don't care where you put him, in whatever league, on whatever team, he was going to find a way to win," said Sapunjis, who used to room with his Stampeders teammate on the road. "He would watch NFL games and see players in the NFL that we all knew he was better than, teams that would have had a better chance to win the Super Bowl if he was leading them. But he was never bitter, and when he got another shot, he went back to the NFL and proved himself."
Today, as Flutie analyzes college football games, he sees glimpses of his signature quarterbacking – improvising in the pocket, throwing over-the-shoulder stuff. When asked if he would garner more NFL buzz if he were graduating today, he says he suspects he would.
He and others have drawn frequent comparisons between Flutie and current Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the Heisman candidate who just orchestrated an upset of top-ranked Alabama. Flutie says he's sensitive when critiquing college kids on TV, remembering how it felt to take criticism about his height or flack after losing the CFL's 1993 West Division final in extreme cold.
Flutie wanders into a room off the kitchen, which has a tall picture window and a grand white piano. The walls are filled with floor-to-ceiling display cases packed with Flutie's trophies, cherished game balls, photos and commemorative boxes of Flutie Flakes. He points out a Miss Massachusetts banner draped among the awards, one earned by his daughter Alexa, now 24 and a San Diego Chargers cheerleader.
He raves about his wife's leadership with their Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism, which raises $1-million a year for services needed by families living with autism. Their son Dougie is turning 21 and has Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, a low functioning form of autism. He's non verbal and needs their care, but Flutie says he has made progress and is happy.
The couple shares a few of their favourite CFL memories as she heads out the door for a lunch appointment. They remember the Grey Cup celebrations most, Flutie usually sitting back watching his teammates dance and sing while he felt relief, a contentment with proving he was worth the money and the hype the CFL invested in him.
"When I go back to NFL functions today, I feel a bit on the outside looking in. I played 13 years in the NFL, and I loved it – made a Pro Bowl and went to the playoffs – but I always felt like I was having to knock the door down to get in," Flutie said. "It's not quite the same feeling as being on close championship teams in the CFL, the way the league felt about me being there. I felt comfortable in the CFL and I still feel that way when I see my CFL teammates."