Life after the Hail Mary

Doug Flutie's life is more than just a single completed pass, but what a pass it was

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“Here we go. Here’s your ballgame, folks, as Flutie takes the snap. He drops straight back.”

— Dan Davis, Boston College radio announcer.

MELBOURNE BEACH, Fla. – The sun peeks through thick Florida clouds, and Doug Flutie studies the American flag that waves outside the Sunny Side Café.  Yes, he decides. The wind has definitely shifted … and you know what that means, right? Today will be an outstanding surfing day.

Doug Flutie is preoccupied with the wind these days. Sharks, too. He has become something of a local expert on sharks; their sizes, their aggressiveness, their migration patterns. Well, sharks petrify him. He won’t surf on particularly sharky days. And a day without surfing is a lost day in the life of the 52-year-old version of Doug Flutie.

“I’m just a big kid,” he says, and he looks at the flag to be sure he’s reading the wind right. Flutie does look the same, mostly. He feels the same, mostly. He can still throw a football 55-yards in the air, and he still feels a certain pang when he’s on the sideline at a college football game. He wants to pick up a football and fling it.

Then he remembers the hits, and he stops thinking about the past, starts thinking again about the surf.

“It’s a rare day when someone doesn’t ask me about the pass,” he says, once he’s convinced that the wind has definitely shifted. “It happens, but it’s rare. Of course, usually, it’s much more than once a day, so I can say for sure that through the years, I’ve been asked about the pass on average more than once a day.”

He shrugs. Flutie wears a baseball cap and a baggy sweatshirt and shorts – the beach bum ensemble. He loves this existence. He surfs. He golfs. He plays in an adult baseball league. He works as an analyst for NBC Sports. He enjoys the moments. He does mostly what he wants to do.

“Do you know how many Hail Mary passes have been completed over the years?” he asks. “A lot, right? So why this one? Why are people still talking about this pass 30 years later?”

* * *

“Has some time. Now he scrambles away from one hit. Looks.”

We don’t get together much as a nation anymore. We used to watch the same stuff, listen to the same music, read the same things. It wasn’t that America was a tighter-knit place. No, it was a matter of choice — there just wasn’t as much to consume. On the day after Thanksgiving in 1984, there was nothing else for a sports fan to watch but Boston College and Miami play football.

CBS had worked hard to give America this game. Boston College and Miami were supposed to play earlier in the season, but CBS saw ratings gold. Here you had the undersized quarterback savant Doug Flutie leading a scrappy Boston College team that constantly punched above its weight. There you had Miami, the bruising and preposterously talented defending national champions, led by their tall, gawky and utterly precise quarterback Bernie Kosar. Every great sports story has at least a little bit of David and a little bit of Goliath, and CBS paid $80,000 to buy Miami out of its scheduled game with Rutgers so that they could present this BC-Miami version to a national audience on the day we now call Black Friday. The biggest college football audience of the year tuned in.

The game was dazzling – if you tuned in, you could not tune out. The teams raced up and down the field. College football was different then; quarterbacks threw the ball less, national championship teams like Georgia and Alabama and Clemson and Penn State pounded the ball more. As Flutie would say, good teams “ran the ball down your throat and there was nothing you could do about it.”

Against that setting, this game was like something out of science fiction. The quarterbacks hit pass after pass. Receivers ran open. Running backs broke into the clear. The whole game left you breathless. The teams ran up almost 1,300 yards of total offense – 900 or so of those passing yards. And the game pinged back and forth, back and forth.

Boston College 14, Miami 0.

Boston College 14, Miami 14.

Miami 31, Boston College 28.

Boston College 41, Miami 38.

Miami 45, Boston College 41.

Then Boston College got the ball on its 20-yard line with 28 seconds left in the game. They trailed by those four points. Flutie threw a 19-yard pass to Troy Stradford. He threw a 13-yard pass to Scott Gieselmen. The Eagles had the ball on the Miami 48. There were six seconds left. Flutie dropped way back on the final play of the game.

“They stopped, probably thinking, ‘Doug can’t throw the ball that far,’” Boston College coach Jack Bicknell would say after the game. He shook his head. It was an understandable mistake.

“Doug,” Bicknell said, “can throw it as far as he has to.”

* * *

Dan Davis: “Uncorks a deep one to the end zone. Phelan is down there.”

Gino Cappelletti: “Oh! He got it!”

Davis: “Did he get it?”

Cappelletti: “He got it!”

Davis: “He did it!”

Most people begin this way: “I remember EXACTLY where I was.” That’s the most common icebreaker when strangers approach Doug Flutie. They remember exactly where they were sitting, where they were standing, where they were watching. It was the day after Thanksgiving, so most people were at their family’s house. Leftover turkey had taken over the refrigerator. Uncles and aunts and grandparents told old stories. Christmas music began to warble on AM radio stations. Our memories of Thanksgivings past are rich and alive, and in the middle of them all is Doug Flutie, escaping a defender, running away, rolling to the right, chucking the football downfield with everything in his body.

Almost 11,000 days have passed since Flutie threw that pass to his teammate and friend Gerard Phelan. It’s a fair guess that 25,000 people have come up to Flutie talk about that play, many of them beginning just that way: “I remember EXACTLY where I was.”

“Do you ever get sick of it?” I ask him.

He pauses. Flutie wants to say this just right. He says, no, he doesn’t get sick of people coming up to him to talk about the play – often called the Hail Flutie — he really doesn’t. “People who legitimately get excited talking about that play, that really never grows old,” he says.

But he does grow tired sometimes of being reduced to that one play. People sometimes say, for instance, that the play won him the Heisman Trophy. That irks him. Flutie had already won the Heisman Trophy. Heck, he’d finished third in the Heisman voting the year before. He wrapped up the 1984 trophy early in the season when he led BC to a stunning comeback at Alabama — the Eagles had trailed, 31-14. “Doug Flutie,” the story on the wires began, “is rapidly becoming more famous in Boston than clam chowder.”

The next week he threw six touchdown passes on national television against North Carolina and the Heisman race was over. It didn’t matter what Flutie did that game against Miami, he was the winner. Most of the Heisman votes were already in by that Thanksgiving Friday –  the play had absolutely nothing to do with it.

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So that gnaws at him a bit. It also gnaws at him that his wondrous football life, which includes Donald Trump, Canadian glory and the only NFL drop kick in a half-century, is pruned to one desperation heave. That play was wonderful, but it wasn’t the whole story. Do you know how big-time football began for Flutie? He was a kid told again and again that he was too small to play big-time college football. “I believed them,” he says. “I didn’t think I was a Division I guy. You’re 17-years-old, and people tell you that you’re too small, hey, you must be too small.”

He ended up at Boston College only because two other quarterbacks the Eagles wanted went to Syracuse and Holy Cross. Flutie worked his way up to fourth- or third-string quarterback, he wasn’t sure which, and the team went to play at No. 2 Penn State, which featured a dominant defense. Late in the game, Penn State led 38-0, and the coaches sent Flutie into the game.

“I wasn’t even supposed to travel to that game,” Flutie says. “But I’m the backup punt returner, and the starting punt returner had a real iffy hamstring. … So when they tell me, ‘Be ready, you’re the next one up,’ I’m thinking that’s ridiculous. I’ve never run a snap in practice. I’ve never run an offensive play.

“But they put me in. It was a beautiful sunny day. I remember thinking: ‘Wow, I get to tell my kids that I played in front if 85,000 people at Penn State.’ Cause I’m thinking I’m going to go out, get killed, I’m never going to see the field again. I’m out there with the mentality that this was the last time I’m ever going to see the field, and it’s pretty cool.

“They call a sprint out for me to the left. Guy’s open, I throw him the ball, he catches it. Then, a little play action, I look right, guy’s open, I throw to him, he catches it. Next play, look left, guy’s open, I throw it to him. We go straight down the field and we’re in the end zone. And I realized: This is the game I’ve always played. All these guys had told me how tough it was, that I’m too short, that I’m not good enough. But it’s the same game.”

Flutie became the starter. The next year, the Eagles went to their first bowl game in 40 years. The next year, the Eagles beat defending national champion Clemson in Death Valley. The next year, Flutie’s senior year, he won the Heisman Trophy and Boston College won the Cotton Bowl.

“It was pure fun for me,” Flutie says. “It was a game. We were too stupid and too naïve to fear the big stage. When we played Clemson, we didn’t know any better – everyone warned Jack Bicknell that it was very intimidating, a sea of orange, you don’t want to be on the field when they touch Howard’s Rock and run the hill. He was like, ‘No, I want to see this.’ We all did.”

This is how Flutie remembers those college years – full of innocence and joy and friendship. Then, yeah, it changed some. The Heisman hype made football a bit less fun. He signed with Donald Trump of the USFL, and football became a business. He dealt with the death of that league. He endured NFL coaches who did not believe in him. He went to Canada – that was a blast – and he won six CFL Most Outstanding Player Awards. Then he came back and played in the NFL until he was 43, beating odds at every step.

Yes, he is content to talk about the Hail Flutie because it means so much to so many people. There are even those who think it altered the entire landscape of college football, made it much more or a national game. But in Doug Flutie’s life it was just one play. That’s that hard part to explain to people. He has lived a life. And it was just one play.

* * *

“Touchdown! Touchdown! Touchdown! Touchdown! Touchdown Boston College! He did it! He did it! Flutie did it! He had Phelan in the end zone! Touchdooooooowwwn!”

Flutie has seen replays of the pass so many times now that he half expects Gerard Phelan to drop the ball in one of them. But Phelan never drops the ball. It was an impossible catch you know – ball coming in, out of the dark, on a line, over the hand of a leaping defender. Phelan didn’t even see the ball until it was on him. Impossible catch. “I keep telling people, all I did was throw the ball,” Flutie says. “Gerard did the hard part.”

But no matter how many times they show the Hail Flutie, Phelan catches it.

Then, Phelan has never dropped the ball in the numerous reenactments either. There was one time, 10 or so years ago, Flutie and Phelan decided to reenact the play in a Boston hotel ballroom for charity. The two had practiced earlier in the day, but it turned out that things were a lot different once people were in the ballroom. The tables were closer together, silverware was on them, the lights were down. Flutie had to throw a ball over three chandeliers about 45 yards into a six-foot open area. Phelan had to catch the ball as it emerged out of darkness.

“It was so much like the real thing, it was ridiculous,” Flutie says.

And then, unexpectedly, as Flutie threw the ball, a kid – maybe 12 years old – jumped up on a chair and tried to knock down the pass. Even then, though, Phelan caught the ball.

“There is something magical about it,” Flutie says. I ask him when he knew this play was going to last forever, and he says that at first he thought it would last a day or two at most. Yes, the locker room afterward was jubilant in a different way than any other game of his college career. The Boston Globe’s Leigh Montville was there that day, and he found himself talking to two of the Eagles offensive linemen.

“That wasn’t Gerard Phelan who caught that ball,” said Mark MacDonald, an All-American tackle for the Eagles. “God caught that ball.”

“No,” Jim Ostrowski corrected him. “God threw it.”

So, sure, there was overstatement and overwhelming excitement, but understand, college football wasn’t quite the national phenomenon then that it is now. On the plane ride home, things settled down. Emotions leveled. Sure, it was a great victory, but the season wasn’t over – Boston College still had Holy Cross to play and then they would play in their first ever New Year’s Day game, the Cotton Bowl. It was just one play.

Then the plane landed and thousands of people were waiting at the airport. They swarmed Flutie and Phelan and their girlfriends – the two had to be escorted out by state police. “Hey, Gerard,” Flutie said. “This is a little bigger than we thought.”

The excitement for the play never ended, not for three decades. It followed him to Canada. In his first game while playing for British Columbia, he completed a Hail Mary pass at the game’s end. The team’s center Ian Sinclair ran up to him. Sinclair had been on that Miami team. “Hey!” Sinclair yelled as he hugged Flutie. “You did one for me! You did one for us!”

Every day, the Hail Flutie came up, somehow, some way. It hasn’t always been happy for him. In those early NFL days, especially, coaches brought him down. They told him again what he couldn’t do. He couldn’t throw over the line. He couldn’t run out of the pocket. He couldn’t improvise against NFL defenses. He couldn’t make plays. Again and again, they told him. “I was a band-aid,” he says. “Everyone was like, ‘We can win and be competitive with Doug, but he’s not our guy. We need to find our guy.’”

It was almost like NFL people thought all his success was wrapped up in one lucky pass.

“Yeah, my confidence was shot,” he says. “I was so mentally beat up being told what to do, what not to do. … When you have enough people tell you that you can’t do something you start to think, ‘Well, they’re smart, they know what they must know what they’re talking about.”

Confidence came back in Canada, with receivers in constant motion, on that big field. Football was fun again. He remembers the first time he scrambled on the CFL field that is 65 yards wide (an American field is 53 1/3 yards wide). He turned up and realized … he still had another FIFTEEN YARDS to the sideline. “I used to think, ‘If I want to scramble, it’s almost like cheating.’” Flutie led his teams to three Grey Cups.

And when he came back to play in the NFL, he was 36 years old … too old to believe any coach who told him he was too small to play. He had a couple of pretty good years in Buffalo, started for a year in San Diego, finished his career as a third-stringer behind Tom Brady in New England. He had a breakfast cereal named for him (Flutie Flakes). He and his wife, Laurie, raised almost $20 million dollars to help families affected by Autism – this in honor of his son, Doug Jr., who suffers from the disorder.

All the while, the play never went away.

* * *

“I don’t believe it. Whoo! My goodness! What a play! Flutie to Gerard Phelan! Forty-eight yards! No time on the clock! It’s all over!”

There’s something about the Hail Flutie that few people know. Just before the snap, there was an inadvertent whistle. Flutie ran over to his freshman tight end Peter Casparriello and told him not to stay in and block. “I saw that they weren’t blitzing,” Flutie says. “So I told him to just go down the backside.”

Flutie’s plan was to roll out, look for his receivers and then, at the last second, take a peek to see if Casparriello was open. As the play developed, Flutie sprinted to his right and was about to look left but a Miami defender closed fast on him. So, he simply hurled the ball 63 yards on a line to the end zone, where Phelan and destiny waited.

If Flutie had looked left, he would have seen that Casparriello was standing at the 15-yard line and he was absolutely, categorically and utterly wide open.

“If I had thrown it to him,” Flutie says, “I would have completed the pass. There’s no doubt I would have completed the pass. Then it would have been a race to pylon. I don’t know if he would have gotten there.”

One play. Thirty years later, he’s still asked about one play. Life goes on. His two kids are grown – his daughter, Alexa, is a San Diego Chargers cheerleader. He surfs every free day, and he and Laurie still live and die with the Red Sox, and 10 or 20 times every week he tells the story one more time. Well, what the heck? The play stays young.

And what happens if he had peeked left and seen Casparriello open?

“I would have thrown it to him,” Flutie says. “There’s no doubt in my mind I would have thrown it to him. I don’t know if he would have scored. I’ll never know.”

And if he had looked left, one of sports’ most memorable plays never happens. Doug Flutie’s life would have been very different. College football itself might have been different. Well, that’s a funny thing about life. Sometimes you look left. Sometimes you don’t. And then, as Dan Davis said, it’s all over.