Somewhere between making TIME and the ABC World News Tonight and getting turned into the kind of cuddly American hero people want to hang from their rearview mirrors, Doug Flu-tie lost his baby.
It's all right. He handled it. His wife, Laurie, handled it. It happened two weeks ago. She miscarried at three months, and they grieved at 10 cents a minute, and he missed two nights' sleep flying back and forth between his home near Boston and football practice in Buffalo, but they got through it. Then he went out and beat the Miami Dolphins and smiled for the cameras the way a good little legend is supposed to.
It's just that while America was getting giddy over how Flu tie snatched the Buffalo Bills quarterback job from a guy to whom he gives up six inches, 11 years and $24 million, he was having to deal with the slight inconvenience of being human. What was weird was that he and Laurie knew this pregnancy was going to be worrisome. When you have a severely autistic six-year-old who has to be watched 18 hours a day, nonstop, you think hard before you have another child. "We knew we were going to worry," says Flutie. "We were going to watch that kid like a hawk until he was 21.1 guess all the worrying started six months early."
Some autistic kids whine and wail and shriek. Not Dougie. Dougie is happy and smiling "100 percent of the time," says his father. But another autistic child would mean the end of Flutie's football career. He nearly quit after last season to stay home and help Laurie with Dougie. "He's a six-year-old with the maturity of an infant, but he can open doors and unlock windows and gel out," says Flutie. "So, he's a handful."
It's bittersweet to see Dougie on the living room carpet, eating his frosted Flutie Flakes by the handful, having no idea how much he and the cereal mean to others. A portion of the proceeds from sales of Flutie Flakes goes to the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism, which raises awareness and support for those affected by the disorder. Sales didn't figure to be $5, but then the Bills 25-year-old starting quarterback, Rob Johnson, who has a $25 million contract, went down with Buffalo's record at 1-3, and football's favorite lawn gnome took over. Defensive ends couldn't seem to find Flutie and defensive backs couldn't seem to find his spirals, and pretty soon he had the Bills at 5-3 and the starting job for keeps.
So it became the feel-good story of the season: The man who won three Grey Cups in Canada is the littlest big man in America, but he's not one bit suckered. "Everybody's saying, 'Well, of course. He's always been a winner,' " Flutie says, "but what were they saying two months ago? 'He's too short. If Johnson goes down, Buffalo's in big trouble.' Crap like that. I've heard that the last 10 to 15 years, and it's never been valid."
If Flutie seems a little bitter toward the NFL and the media, it's only because it's true. The league has treated Flutie the way Calista Flockhart seems to treat a ham sandwich: 1) ignore it, 2) maybe nibble at it or 3) spit it out entirely. In 1986 the Chicago Bears took this Heisman Trophy winner and set him next to the door to the toilet. Jim McMahon called him Bambi. A year later Flutie was traded to New England, where he was allowed to throw the ball every other autumnal equinox. Then the Patriots cut him after the '89 season.
"They can write all the Flutiemania stories they want, and they can talk all they want," Flutie says. "I don't read them, and I don't listen to them."
Flutie understands life's divine balance. He's lived it, as have other NFL quarterbacks. To the gifted Dan Marino was born a mildly autistic son, Michael. To the athletic Boomer Esiason was born a son, Gunnar, with cystic fibrosis. To Mark Rypien was born a son, Andrew, who died of brain cancer in August at three. To Jim Kelly was born a son, Hunter, who is terminally ill with Krabbe's disease at 21 months. To Flutie, Dougie. Why?
"When you see kids like Hunter and what they and their families have had to go through," Flutie says, "you're so grateful to have someone like Dougie."