He has fed the whales at Sea World, bodysurfed in the Pacific and shown up to work wearing a T-shirt, jeans and sandals. Yet there are staples of the local diet that Doug Flutie, the San Diego Chargers' new quarterback, refuses to sample. "Have I tried a fish taco?" he asked, incredulously, after practice last Thursday. "No. And I won't, ever."
You can forget about raw fish, too—Flutie's stint as Terry Bradshaw's sushi-bar buddy in a recent TV commercial notwithstanding. "Sushi was in front of me during the filming, but I didn't touch it," Flutie explained. "I'm not a seafood guy."
As far as Chargers fans are concerned, Flutie can eat whatever he pleases. In a city starved for gutsy quarterback play, Flutie need only be himself to be loved. Dougie Fresh is the big fish in town and the free-agent catch of the year—not to mention the prime reason the Chargers, coming off a 1-15 fiasco of a season, are 3-0 and the AFC's only remaining undefeated team.
On Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium, Flutie guided the NFL's most surprising team to another lopsided triumph. The Chargers' 28-14 victory over the previously undefeated Cincinnati Bengals gave them a one-game lead over the Denver Broncos and the Oakland Raiders in the AFC West. In a development not even Nostradamus could have predicted, San Diego is one of only three teams (along with the Green Bay Packers and the St. Louis Rams) to enter October without a blemish. "Please, please, don't tell anyone about us," star linebacker Junior Seau pleaded after Sunday's game. "Let the nation think of the Chargers as that 1-15 team."
Sorry, Junior, but the transformation is obvious: These Chargers still feed off the physical play of their inspired defense, but their offense is now buttressed by a stud halfback, a game-breaking speedster and a play-calling wizard. The key to everything, however, is Flutie, who, a few weeks shy of his 39th birthday, is finally getting the unfettered affection he deserves. Although his numbers against the Bengals weren't spectacular—12 completions in 19 attempts for 133 yards and a touchdown—he was in command from start to finish.
For so long skeptics have been preoccupied with what Flutie is not: tall, slingshot-armed or especially comfortable playing the role of the loyal scrub and unobtrusive understudy. Perhaps, finally, we should focus instead on what he is: a winner who handles his business and makes everyone around him more comfortable about theirs. " Doug Flutie is the missing piece to the San Diego Chargers, the thing we've been lacking these past few years," Seau says. "This is probably the first time he has felt that he has a team to embrace him, and his comfort level is rubbing off on everyone."
Oh, there's one other thing Flutie isn't—Ryan Leaf, perhaps the biggest bust in NFL history. After three years of watching Leaf throw interceptions and tantrums, the Chargers had fallen into an emotional abyss. When newly hired general manager John Butler released Leaf last Feb. 28 and signed Flutie nine days later, it was as if the San Diego locker room had turned from black and white to Technicolor. "A dark cloud was lifted from over our heads," says standout strong safety Rodney Harrison. "One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. The crap we were dealing with can bring down an entire organization, and it took John Butler to get rid of it."
Harrison made a point of attending the press conference to announce Flutie's signing, becoming the first of legions of San Diegans to express his gratitude. Barely a day goes by that a stranger doesn't approach Flutie and thank him for, among other things, not being anything like his predecessor. Says Flutie, "Even if I played mediocre, I think the fans would be appreciative of me, given the headaches they've had to deal with."
Flutie, too, has had a disproportionate share of hassles. Because of his height, generously listed at 5' 10", the 1984 Heisman Trophy winner never got much love from NFL personnel types. From 1990 through '97 he was out of the country (being named the CFL's Most Outstanding Player a record six times and winning three Grey Cups] and out of mind. Signed by the Buffalo Bills in '98—Butler was the general manager—Flutie spent three seasons locked in a contentious competition with Rob Johnson. By the end of last year, the gulf between Flutie and Johnson was wider than Niagara Falls, and one had to go. Did new Buffalo general manager Tom Donahoe make the right call? Though younger, taller and more of a pure pocket passer, Johnson is struggling with the 0-3 Bills, while Flutie is less than two weeks removed from a 353-yard passing day against the Dallas Cowboys, the second-highest total of his NFL career.
When Flutie was stunningly benched before Buffalo's wild-card playoff game against the Tennessee Titans in January 2000, he glumly mused, "All of a sudden, I'm five-foot-nine again." He'll never be a 6-footer, but it is time we start looking up to him for his many gifts. He is not 33-14 as an NFL starter by accident. In addition to his leadership skills, deceptive speed and improvisational genius, Flutie has a far better arm than most casual observers realize. Just ask the Bengals. Coming off a 21-10 upset of the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati's defense looked lost on the game's first score, Flutie's 19-yard touchdown pass to Curtis Conway with 10:43 left in the second quarter. Following a play fake to rookie running back LaDainian Tomlinson, Flutie waited for Conway to drift across the back of the end zone, then whipped a spiral tighter than Jay-Z's latest rhymes.