Doug Flutie passed for more than 58,000 yards in his pro football career. That’s more than Hall-of-Famers Joe Montana, John Elway and Jim Kelly.
His goal was to round that number off to 60,000 with one final season in Canada. At the age of 44.
Flutie amassed his passing yardage in three different leagues -- the USFL, CFL and NFL. He began his career as the highest-paid player in pro football in 1985 with the USFL New Jersey Generals and finished with eight seasons in the NFL, including the 1998 season in Buffalo as a Pro Bowl quarterback.
But in between Flutie spent eight seasons in the CFL. Eight brilliant seasons. He was named the CFL Player of the Year six times and quarterbacked his team to three Grey Cups. He resurrected his career in the CFL to the heights of his Boston College days. Football became fun for him again. So much fun, in fact, that he planned to play a final season in professional football back in Canada.
“The Patriots had released me (in 2005),” Flutie told The Talk of Fame Network, “and (Patriots owner Bob) Kraft came to me saying, 'We always think of you as a Patriot. If you want to retire a Patriot, we could do the one-day contract thing so you can retire a Patriot.' I told him, 'You know what, I want to keep my options just in case.' ”
That option was Canada.
“I forget what I was doing, but I somehow tweaked a tendon in my elbow and I couldn’t throw for a little while,” Flutie said. “I did have a few phone calls from Toronto on a couple of different occasions to go back. But I turned it down because of my elbow, and my back was getting bad… So I retired instead. My elbow eventually cleared up, and then I had back surgery. It took a few years, but I’m healthier now than I was when I retired.”
Flutie was without a league when the USFL went under after the 1985 season and spent four unfulfilling seasons in the NFL as a backup in Chicago and New England before heading to Canada to play for the British Columbia Lions. Football was different there – the field is longer and wider, and there are only three downs of offense.
But Flutie came to love the CFL game.
“They turned over the reins to me offensively and it was, basically, 'What do you want to do?' ” Flutie said. “After the first half of the season, I was calling my own plays, and I was running my own offense. It wasn’t rocket science. I repeated plays more than anyone in the history of the game. I ran what I knew I did well, pass patterns that I was comfortable with.
“So you were never questioning a call coming in. In the NFL, when you get a (play) call come in, your first thoughts are, `What are we looking for? What is the coach looking for when he calls this play?’ I had none of that. I was calling a play because I knew what I was looking for. I wanted to do this. Now you’re vested in that play call. You want to make it happen. If I wanted to change a play, I just did it because it was my play in the first place that I called. I didn’t need to answer to anyone about my decision-making. So I played free. And loose. I took a lot of risks.”
It was like Flutie was back on the sandlots of Natick, Mass., playing football with a bunch of friends. There were no puppeteers pulling the strings from the sidelines or coaching box. He was in control of his own game – a lost art in today’s NFL.
“I was having a blast on the field,” Flutie said. “If I saw something… Picture this: If it’s third-and-short, I’d look at the offensive line in a running situation and ask them, `What do you guys want to run?’ They know who’s blowing each other off the ball. They know the weak link on the defensive line. They’ll say, 'Run it here or call this.' I asked for suggestions all the time. There was a lot of give and take. It was awesome.
“Receivers were always coming back to me, telling me how wide open they are. They’d say, 'Run that same play. Run it again.' I’d go, 'Why?' He’d say, 'Well, they’re losing so-and-so coming underneath and they end up doubling me.'
"Sure enough, I call it again and threw it underneath, and it was a walk into the end zone. That was another receiver calling a play for another guy, which you don’t see. There was a lot of give-and-take. In the NFL you have a radio in your head. All of a sudden, the coach is talking to you between plays. There’s no interaction going on the field.”
Flutie passed for 41,355 yards in his CFL career. He also threw for 2,109 yards in the USFL and 14,715 more in the NFL. In 2006, Flutie was voted the greatest player in CFL history. When he returned to the NFL in 1998 with Buffalo, he was a different quarterback. He was the CFL Doug Flutie now, not the NFL Doug Flutie.
“When I came back to Buffalo, that’s the mentality that I had,” Flutie said. “Those were my most productive (NFL) years because I was playing free and easy and loose. I was throwing laterals, pitching the ball on the run, all that kind of stuff. But slowly the coaches are there in the back of your mind, and you start worrying about running everything foot-work wise correctly. Within 3-4 years that gets coached out of you in the NFL.”
For a quarterback that stood only 5-9, Flutie needed to play an unconventional style to succeed. That unconventional style won him a Heisman Trophy in college, recognition as the greatest player in CFL history and Pro Bowl acclaim in the NFL.
Flutie recalled a 2003 game against Green Bay. He was in San Diego by then, riding the bench behind Drew Brees in the 19th of his 21 professional seasons. But he had someone to look up and something to say that Sunday afternoon.
“Brett Favre and I were out at midfield a couple of hours before the game,” Flutie said, “and I remember thanking him for validating everything I do -- throwing off the back foot, falling away, taking chances, whatever. He played the game the way I played it, but he’s in a bigger, stronger package.”