Flutie finds another B.C. where he can target his record talents

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SURREY, British Columbia -- No one here really cares about a Hail Mary pass.

B.C.? Yeah, what about it? B.C. is just one big beautiful province. God's country, they call it. It has mountains rising out of the Pacific, with plenty of skiing up high, and the big city around this part of western Canada is Vancouver. Doug Flutie is a B.C. boy now, playing on a much bigger and more bucolic campus.

Boston College? Chestnut Hill? Eagles? Cowboy Jack Bicknell? That's not the B.C. they know out here.

We're talking Lions, not Eagles, the Canadian Football League's British Columbia Lions, and 5-foot-10 Doug Flutie just happens to be the biggest little man on campus. Again.

"More than anything, I feel like I'm just going on the field and being an athlete again," said the 1984 Heisman Trophy winner, who now has thrown a football for more yards than any other man ever. "I go out there, I play. You know, just relax and wing it . . . and have fun."

But remember, this is Vancouver, not the last bastion of big-time pigskin. Radio talk shows, TV news and the daily papers in Vancouver still hold the NHL's Canucks as the hometown heroes. The Canucks are to this upper corner of coastline what the Red Sox are to a certain stretch of the steely Atlantic. The Canucks had their heyday in the mid-'80s, when they actually met the New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup finals, but have spent their more recent years as the team that everyone loves to hate. Or is it hates to love?

For perspective, let's just say that Vladimir Krutov was Vancouver's Skip Lockwood. Hockey gets the front page of sports and the first irate fire-the-coach, trade-the-best-player calls to the AM station. Football, etc., moves deep into the media backfield. That took some adjusting to for the quarterback from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

"It's everywhere," Flutie said. "Turn on the news and they're talking about the NHL draft and some guy who's in the minor-league system or something. I mean, who cares? Turn on a Bruins game and let's see how they're doing, you know? But I'd say we're a close second this year."

Ah, but this year is not any year. Flutie has made sure of that. Several weekends back, while Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas were filling the airwaves with their own bombs, Flutie also was making history through the airways in front of 54,108 British Columbia fans. Doing his old familiar version of the run-and-gun, the 28-year-old diminutive darling increased his season passing total to a record 5,676 yards in a 45-38 overtime loss to the Edmonton Eskimos.

Connecting on 36 of 55 passes for 582 yards and three touchdowns, Flutie surpassed Warren Moon's 1983 all-time CFL mark of 5,648 yards. The week before, he had shattered Miami quarterback Dan Marino's all-time NFL mark of 5,084 yards. On a not-so-calm Canadian day, with ecstatic Lion-hearted fans cheering him on, Flutie tossed himself to the top of the tossing charts.

"I'd never heard of the record, to tell you the truth," said Flutie, squinting into a sunset at the end of a Lions workout here, some 20 miles to the east of downtown Vancouver. "I knew that Marino had a year of 5,000-something, but people started talking about me beating Warren Moon's record after the first couple of weeks when I threw for 400 yards. And what's nice about the record is, Warren Moon is a quality quarterback . . . in the States, you know?"

Moon, now 34, has been the Houston Oilers' quarterback since 1984. In his years with the Eskimos, 1978-83, he tossed for 21,228 yards and 144 TDs. His figures with the Oilers mirror his Canadian success -- 24,983 yards, 147 touchdowns.

"Doug is a talented player, and he's playing in a system that is conducive to his style," Moon said. "His talents are tailor-made to the system up there, and it doesn't surprise me that he could achieve such a feat.

"I am, and always will be, a Doug Flutie fan."

From afar, everyone, including Moon, thinks it is "the system" that has led Flutie to pass for some three miles of bombs, flares and down-the-middle bullets. Canadian football, with its wider and longer field, its bigger-than-Bubba Smith end zone and its three-down format, gets almost as much credit as his arm. Or so everyone believes.

No doubt, Flutie said, the playing field may be pitched his way. Three downs means a passing game. And a bigger, wider, longer field means more room to work, for a little man or a big man. But he also thinks there is a simpler, more obvious reason that success has followed him across the continent and into a new country after his NFL career with the Chicago Bears and New England Patriots was marred by dismissals that he was too short.

"More than anything, it's this feeling of confidence and control I've got out there," he said. "I'm the guy who goes out there now and says, 'OK, here's what we're going to do.' We've got a lot of young guys on our team and they're looking for you to be in control. I'm in there directing traffic. And yeah, the field helps, the size helps create bigger holes and more lanes to throw. It's a little easier.

"But a lot of it, no matter what anyone says, is confidence . . . confidence, and my arm just feels great. I didn't throw well in the NFL, and I think a big part of it was that I was always on a lifting program. This year is my second year with no weightlifting. I could bench-press 180 pounds at B.C., and I did that only once, I think, because they said I had to do it. Now I'm throwing as well as I've ever thrown. I can just flick it with my wrist and the ball will go 40 yards on a line."

And 40 more . . . and 40 more . . . and 40 . . .

There is no telling where this will all lead. Last Sunday, the Lions beat Edmonton, 38-37 in overtime, which puts them in first place in the Western Division. They have two games left and hope victories in those will lead them to the Grey Cup, the CFL's Super Bowl. If he maintains his average of 378 yards per game, Flutie will finish with around 7,000 and undoubtedly another NFL team will come calling. Maybe not the Patriots again. Maybe not the Bears again. But someone.

A man who can throw a ball 5,676 yards, on any field, will undoubtedly hear his phone ring when he gets back to Natick, Mass., perhaps around Thanksgiving.

"I've thought about that," said Flutie, whose wife, Laurie, headed home last week because she's due to have the couple's second child Nov. 24 -- the day of the Grey Cup. "But I don't anticipate anything [with the NFL] happening. And besides, I think this league is coming on a little bit. The potential to make money here is good, and I'm enjoying the whole thing. I'm the starter. I pull the trigger. If I went to the NFL, maybe I'd be in a backup situation . . . banging my head against the wall, for what?

There also have been rumors recently that millionaire Bruce McNall, owner of the NHL's Los Angeles Kings and the CFL's Toronto Argonauts, will pay Flutie -- now making about $350,000 a year here -- a king's ransom to come to Toronto and team up with Raghib "Rocket" Ismail. If so, the balance of Canadian football would be heavily tipped to Ontario, but then, so is most everything in Canada.

Could Flutie come back to the NFL and be successful?

"I'm sure his arm feels great and all that, but a lot has to do with the style of play up there," said Dick Steinberg, now the New York Jets general manager, who was in the Patriots' front office when Flutie came to Foxboro, Mass., in 1987 -- his first of 17 games with the hometown team over three seasons. "How many people find that kind of success in the NFL? I think there are teams, maybe the Redskins for one, where he could function and be effective. It would have to be one of those single-back-style teams, with an attack that has a lot of running and rollouts.

"But to be a drop-back, conventional, NFL-style thrower . . . I really think his height is a very big disadvantage. It's not just that the quarterback can't see, but the receivers can't see you. All of a sudden, here comes the ball. We always felt he was one of the greatest college quarterbacks of all time. We also felt that he'd be a tremendous CFL quarterback."

The here and now has Flutie, No. 22, rolling and throwing. Brother Darren, a wide receiver cut by the Phoenix Cardinals, wears No. 82 and has caught 38 of Doug's passes for 633 yards.

They're just a couple of Boston College kids having a great time here at The Heights of Canadian football.

"The USFL was fun," reminisced Flutie, thinking back to '85 and the New Jersey Generals. "Like here, I was the guy, the starter, but we didn't throw much because Herschel Walker was running for 2,000 yards. There wasn't as much enjoyment and self-satisfaction. In New England, that first game was a blast, but then it became similar . . . we weren't throwing the ball a lot and the self-satisfaction wasn't there.

"Up here, it's great, though some things are different. There's this mentality up here that Americans are kind of lazy, and that makes me think that Canadians are maybe a little insecure about their own identity. And then there's the pizza. It took me the longest time to find the right pepperoni. They've got this thing for ham and pineapple pizza -- Hawaiian pizza -- and they can't believe it if you say you don't like it.

"But finally, Domino's came in and they've got the good stuff."

They deliver, too.

:. "That's big," said the little quarterback.

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