Celebrating the Sesquicentennial: Doug Flutie
Few Boston College alumni are as well-known as Doug Flutie ’85, Heisman Trophy winner, long-time professional football player and current NBC television college football analyst.
But Flutie – the diminutive quarterback who captured the nation’s heart as he led the Eagles to a Top 5 ranking in his senior year, capping off the magical season with the famous “Hail Mary” touchdown pass in Miami – might have wound up at Harvard if newly-hired BC coach Jack Bicknell hadn’t offered him BC’s last remaining scholarship for that year.
Flutie went on to become the most prolific offensive player in major college football history, accounting for more than 11,000 yards of offensive yardage. He also excelled in the classroom: He was the University’s sole candidate for a Rhodes Scholarship in 1984 and won virtually every scholar-athlete honor and acclaim available.
In addition to his long and successful playing career — including 21 years in professional football — Flutie and his wife Laurie have founded the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism that funds advocacy programs and provides educational, therapeutic and recreational opportunities to improve the lives of people and families living with autism. The Fluties have helped to raise more than $13 million for the foundation, which is named in honor of their son, Dougie, who is autistic.
The former BC quarterback – who is forever remembered in a life-sized bronze statue outside of Alumni Stadium - shared some memories of his Boston College experience with Chronicle correspondent Reid Oslin in a recent telephone call from the Flutie home in Melbourne Beach, Fla.
How did you wind up at Boston College?
When I was at Natick High, I was a 1-AA type player being recruited by the Ivy League and 1-AA schools. BC’s coach at the time, Ed Chlebek, had decided not to recruit me. Then Chlebek resigned, and Jack Bicknell came from University of Maine to take over. Late in the recruiting season, BC realized they were not getting either one of their top quarterback recruits. BC kept in touch with me, but I was in the last round of guys who visited the school. They did not have a quarterback coming in. I think they saw me as an athlete who could potentially play elsewhere and brought me in, saying “We’ll let you start out as a quarterback then you will probably wind up playing somewhere else.”
I remember sitting around the kitchen table with Coach [Barry] Gallup and Coach Bicknell. I loved Coach Bick from the day I first met him. He had such an easy-going style. I still don’t think they had high expectations for me and I felt I may be been getting myself in over my head, but that I was lucky to be getting a [major college] scholarship offer.
I was probably thinking more about going to Harvard or Brown, because that was where I knew I could play. All of a sudden, when BC did decide to offer me a scholarship, I saw Alabama on the schedule, I saw Penn State on the schedule, and I said, “I want to give this a shot.” Everybody had wanted me to go to Harvard, but I knew deep down that football was important to me, too.
What was BC like when you came as a freshman football player in 1981?
We were integrated into the regular student body. Gerard Phelan and I were supposed to be roommates in Kostka Hall on Upper Campus, but he had some upperclassmen friends who were from his home area in Pennsylvania, so he wound up moving in with them on Lower Campus. So first semester freshman year, I was by myself in Kostka Hall. That wasn’t the ideal situation for a new freshman.
To me, BC’s football facilities at the time were great, because I didn’t know anything different. But to compare ours at the time to the teams we were playing, they really didn’t stack up. I remember Coach Bick laughing about our old locker room [in the former Roberts Center]. He used to say, “Can you imagine Joe Paterno having his team walk across the street and up a ramp to go in to the locker room for halftime?” [laughter]
The funny thing is, that when things got going a little bit, Gerard and I realized that 25 or 30 years down the road, we would be saying that “When we played we had wooden bleachers and there was a track going around the field. There was one level of bleachers; it was like a high school field. When things started to get pretty good in our sophomore years, we were going to be able to say that we played here ‘way back when.’”
On the field, I thought that I was lost in the shuffle. We had nine quarterbacks on the roster, and in that first pre-season, I think I moved up to maybe No. 4. Gerard had been getting playing time as a wide receiver, getting in on special teams or going in on running downs as a blocker, maybe even catching a ball once in a while. I didn’t see any hope of playing. I was getting very close to asking to change positions to get an opportunity to play. I just looked at the guys who were in front of me – they were all bigger and stronger than I was. To me, all the other guys looked like they were 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5.
The only reason that I was even travelling with the team to the game at Penn State in my freshman year is that I was the back-up punt returner. We were getting blown out in the game and Coach Gallup came to me at halftime and said, “Be ready – you’re the next guy up.” I kind of chuckled; I thought he was kidding me. Sure enough, at the start of the fourth quarter, he walked over to me and said, “Warm up.”
What was it like to play as a freshman?
I do remember walking out on the field at Penn State, and thinking to myself, “This is probably the only time I will ever get out on the field.” It was a beautiful, sunny day; the stadium was full and I said to myself, “I will be able to tell my grandkids someday that I played in front of 85,000 people at Penn State.” But when I stepped on the field, the game was no different than it had ever been: guys were getting open and I just threw them the ball.
All of a sudden, five plays later, we had completed five passes in a row and we were in the end zone against the best defense in the country. It didn’t seem like anything special at the time. Later, I realized that the irony was that I had never taken any offensive snaps throughout practice, I was always running the scout team against the defense down the other end of the practice field. That’s why I thought nobody was paying attention to what I was doing. Later, we found out I had been running some option against our first-team defense and breaking some big plays, throwing the ball and making plays against the first defense. I didn’t think that the coaches had ever noticed.
Your position coach at the time was Tom Coughlin, now head coach of the New York Giants. What was he like?
His nickname was “Technical Tom.” The great thing about Tom was that he was so hard on you and demanded so much in practice that the games were like a day off [laughter]. On game day, he was up in the press box calling plays and I was dealing with Jack [Bicknell] down on the field. You could relax and have fun. In my very first start [vs. Navy, the week after Penn State in 1981], Tom gave me a package that he felt I could handle. I had a really mediocre game and we got beat. He brought me in the office the next day and said, “I am throwing everything at you.” He gave me all of the audibles, all of the checks, the entire offense.
We went to Army and started lighting it up. He realized I could handle it – no, he made me handle it – no matter what. I learned more about reading defenses, making audibles, how to prepare, all of it – from Tom. I have always said that he taught me more football than any other coach.
Who were your favorite teachers at BC?
My No. 1 was Rev. Leonard Mahoney, SJ. He was a history professor, but he was always there as a chaplain with the football team. He realized that in the first semester of my freshman year I was living by myself, and so he would always stop by to check in with me. He was very caring, he worried about everyone. I loved Fr. Mahoney. He really looked after me when I needed it.
The other would be Professor Marilyn Matelski in the Communication Department. I had switched into a communication major [from computer science]. I had several courses with her, but I really appreciated how she went out of her way to help me out with my own public speaking, interviews and television appearances.
I remember watching an interview of me after the high school all-star game and realizing how shy and quiet I was; I wouldn’t even look at the camera. Between taking courses, Marilyn’s help, and just by doing all of those interviews, the difference from freshman to senior year was amazing.
Your senior year was a “whirlwind” of activity – from nationally televised football games to a Rhodes Scholarship interview. How did you handle it all?
I remember that it became crazy at the end of the year, going from the Cotton Bowl, to the Hula Bowl and then to the Japan Bowl. Right at the end of the regular season, I had gone to Nashville to accept the NCAA Scholar-Athlete Award. [Former Athletics Director] Bill Flynn was waiting at the airport when I landed in Boston and told me I had to go with him right away to the Rhodes Scholarship interview down on Commonwealth Avenue. We drove straight to it.
I had been wearing casual clothes on the flight and didn’t have time to change. Everybody else was all decked out in jackets and ties, all dressed up, and I had a golf shirt or something on. I walked in, and you know what? Football had given me the confidence to handle anything. I went in, I felt comfortable, and I did my best. That probably would not have happened in my freshman or sophomore years.
In January of your senior year, you signed a contract to play with the New Jersey Generals. After the season was over that summer, you came right back to BC to finish your degree. What made you do that?
I always want to finish what I start. I think, too, that my Dad had always impressed upon me how important my BC degree would be. So on principle alone, I wanted to finish and get it.
I didn’t like the way I had left BC either. The second semester was just starting and boom, I was gone. I had never gotten a chance to say my good-byes. I never had the chance to enjoy the final semester of senior year with my friends. This was a way to come back to campus and to tie up all the loose ends.
Now that your playing days are over, what keeps you busy?
You would be surprised how much work goes into the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation. We hold four or five big events each year and the people who work and volunteer for the Foundation are fantastic. People down here in Florida want to start doing some events, too.
The NBC thing is actually pretty intense throughout the fall, but the rest of the year I try to keep in touch with college football. College football has become so big – it’s a constantly changing landscape. You can’t disappear from it for six to nine months and then show up in the beginning of the fall and expect to be up to speed. Everything is changing.
What has Boston College meant to you over the years?
I have always liked being around campus. My brother Darren was there right after I left, so I enjoyed being able to watch him play. I always loved going to BC basketball and hockey games, too. I always felt I was a part of BC. It’s been a big part of my life.
I look back on my BC experience constantly – not just once in a while. We have reminders all over our house of Boston College, whether it’s the Heisman Trophy or an old helmet or pictures or whatever. Those were some of the best times of my life. There is no doubt that I get a lot of strength from the people at BC who were such a big part of building what became my life.