The illusion was that 41,355 career passing yards and 270 touchdown tosses came easy. The only plays that ever were highlighted were the spectacular, the imitations of that 48-yard, last-minute rocket in college that beat Miami 47-45. Flutie must do that all the time. What kind of competition could he be playing against? No one ever saw the succession of handoffs and passes from the pocket. No one ever saw the collisions.
"I'd get that all the time when I came home, that it all looked easy," Flutie says. "It was never easy. I was taking a lot of good licks. It was football, good football. It was legit. That's what got me about the CFL televised in the U.S. It was never packaged right. It never looked good."
He had gone to the CFL in 1990, but not before testing the waters in the States. Flutie was an 11th-round pick of the Los Angeles Rams in 1985, but he had already signed with the USFL. The league folded after his rookie year, so Flutie caught on with the Chicago Bears, starting the '86 regular-season finale and a first-round playoff loss after Jim McMahon and Mike Tomczak were injured. He was traded to New England in October 1987 and spent three weird seasons with the ball-control Patriots, beginning when he crossed the players' picket line during the second NFL strike and ending early in 1990 when, he recalls, new coach Rod Rust told him, "There's a minicamp at the end of the month, but you're not invited."
He had been stymied by the conservative game plans in the NFL, always forced to work in offenses designed for someone else. His numbers were mediocre: In 22 games he completed 166 of 341 passes, with 14 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, but he was 8-5 in 13 starts for the Patriots. There were a couple of offers to come to training camp for "a look," but what good was a look? He wanted to play.
"That's all I've ever wanted anywhere, to be a contributor," he says. "I didn't want to just be on a roster. The way it's always been for me in the NFL is that I'm a risk for a personnel director, for a general manager. I don't fit the mold. If they take a chance on me and I fail, they also fail. If a guy is 6'5", 230 pounds and he fails, well, he's the only one who fails. The personnel director and the general manager had it right. The quarterback was the one who didn't do the job."
Canada was the answer. After sharing the British Columbia Lions' starting job with veteran Joe Paupau in 1990, Flutie was on his way. The larger field—10 yards longer and 1½ yards wider than the NFL surface—helped and maybe the slightly smaller players helped, but what helped most was the control. The ball at last was in his hands. He could improvise, call audibles, make suggestions to the coaching staff. He also could flat-out throw the ball. He always has been able to throw the ball.
"The first play he ever ran for us was supposed to be a screen pass," says John Hufnagel, who was the offensive coordinator for Flutie's four years with the Calgary Stampede. "The screen was covered, so he threw a 40-yard bullet down the middle for a touchdown. I remember saying, 'Hmmmm, I think this is going to work.' "
Flutie became the league's little millionaire. Maybe the millions didn't always arrive—bankrupt former Calgary owner Larry Ryckman still owes him about $800,000—but he was the drawing card. The CFL always has been a minor league with major league pretensions, so Flutie was working with an ever-changing roster in big stadiums and bad practice surroundings, a buzz of chaos around no-frills, old-time football. It was real, and it was fun.
"You can see anything in the CFL," says Don McPherson, a quarterback in Hamilton from 1991 to '93. "The season starts early, in June, so once the NFL training camps start to make cuts, guys can be arriving and departing at any time. There was this running back, Michael Richardson, in British Columbia, who was the rookie of the year. He showed up late for a game, and the trainer had run out of socks. Richardson had no socks. He put on his shoes, no socks, with the rest of his uniform. He walked out of the stadium, across a street, into a mall, in his uniform, as people were coming to the game. He bought a pair of socks in a Foot Locker, put them on in the store, walked back and was on the field for the opening kickoff."
"A lot of guys aren't making much money," Flutie says. "They live three guys to an apartment, and when they go to a restaurant, they read the prices on the menu. Guys will go to some function—45 miles in a snowstorm—just for the free meal and the beer."