The more Tony Nickinello spoke of selling dirt, the more his diminutive limo driver liked what he was hearing. Meeting clients at their ball fields and golf courses, talking sports, working outdoors—that had to beat shuttling customers to and from Boston's Logan Airport. When Nickinello finally introduced himself, the limo driver had his opening. "Hi, I'm Darren Flutie," he said.
Nickinello's shock was hardly unexpected, and Flutie, prepared for such a reaction, used Nickinello's moment of surprise to brief him on what the life of a Canadian Football League player includes: a second job and no fame. Flutie counts meeting Nickinello, the owner of Read Custom Soils, four years ago as one of his luckiest days. He soon became a part-time salesman for the company, a job he has held since January 1998.
At the same time Flutie is busy trying to become the CFL's alltime leading receiver, which is what he could be next season, his 12th in the league. With one game remaining in the 2001 regular season Flutie had 79 catches for 1,194 yards through Sunday as the slot receiver with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and the soon-to-be 35-year-old was 59 receptions and 1,453 yards shy of Allen Pitts's career marks of 966 and 14,891. This year Flutie also tied a league record for most 1,000-yard receiving seasons (nine).
"Week after week he gets clobbered on crossing routes," says Ron Lancaster, coach of the Tiger-Cats, who'll face the Montreal Alouettes in the first round of the playoffs this weekend. "He has no business getting up from some of those hits, but he does. Everyone knows we're going his way, and they can't stop him."
Flutie dismisses talk of his place in history, revealing a perspective gained while toiling in a relatively anonymous league and in the shadow of his famously shortchanged brother, who happens to have been the best player in CFL history. "People always wonder if it was tough being Doug's brother, but he's my biggest supporter, my confidante. What more could I want?" Darren says. "Maybe the records would be nice, but they don't make a difference. I can't take them on the field with me. They're not what I'm about."
"More than anyone I know, Darren deserves to be remembered for his accomplishments," says Doug, the starting quarterback for the San Diego Chargers. "He's a great athlete-he could've played pro baseball, and he was Boston College's alltime leading receiver. But no one knows about him. That's why I want him to have those records."
There's a sort of Zen calm to the 5'9", 180-pound Darren, no doubt formed by a career that has been as trying as it has been satisfying. In 1988 he made the Chargers as an undrafted free agent and caught 18 passes, including two for touchdowns, as a third-down receiver. San Diego cut him before the '89 season, and the following year he joined the Phoenix Cardinals, who dropped him before the '91 season. Finally, Darren was coaxed north by Doug, who was playing out his own NFL exile in Vancouver, with the B.C. Lions.
Once in Canada (he played five seasons with the Lions, including one with Doug, and two with the Edmonton Eskimos before joining the Tiger-Cats in 1998) Darren had an epiphany. Weary of life as an NFL team's 53rd man—"I couldn't handle thinking that every day might be my last," he says—he found that playing every day, every down, had restored his love of the game. "I never seriously thought about the NFL again," says Darren, who spends the off-season in his hometown of Natick, Mass., with his wife, Terri, and their two children, Taylor, 6, and Troy, 5. "I've become a better person, and I've matured as a husband and a dad. Sometimes I wonder how different fame or NFL success might've made me."
The big negative to playing in the CFL has been the money—or lack thereof. Although he makes around $100,000 per season, for most of his career he was earning far less. Off-seasons were spent selling Christmas trees, tending bar, driving limos or hawking dirt. "He's the prime minister of peat moss," says Tiger-Cats quarterback Danny McManus. "I can't believe how much he knows about dirt."
When his football career ends, Flutie says he will have no regrets. He plans to play the occasional gig with the Flutie Brothers Band—he on rhythm guitar, Doug on drums, and three non-Fluties rounding out the quintet—hit backyard grounders in Natick to his kids and punch the clock at Read Custom Soils. "I'll always look back on my football career and smile, but I have to admit, I love my job," says Flutie. "I love selling dirt."