At the end of training camp practices, many of the San Diego Chargers follow humbly as future Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau leads a series of voluntary conditioning drills. In late-afternoon sunlight players carry, throw and retrieve 14-pound, beach-ball-sized medicine balls while running 100-yard sprints on the grass, adding to the day's fatigue. "It shows dedication, willingness to work hard " says Seau. Late last week quarterbacks Drew Brees and Doug Flutie shared a medicine ball because there weren't enough to go around. While Flutie sprinted with the ball in his right hand, Brees ran behind him, turning cartwheels. At the 50-yard line Flutie shouted "Halfway!" and tossed the ball blindly back to Brees, who snagged it and carried it to the goal line, where both men arrived in stitches.
Theirs is one of the fiercest intrasquad training camp position battles in the NFL, but it looks like recess. Consider the disconnect: Flutie, who will turn 40 in October and has played professional football for 17 seasons since heaving the Hail Mary in his penultimate regular season game for Boston College, is fighting Brees, the Chargers' second-round 2001 draft pick and 23-year-old quarterback of the future. By September, one of them will instantly become the most important element in the Chargers' attempt to turn around a franchise that hasn't reached the playoffs since 1995. First-year coach Marty Schottenheimer declared the job wide open in January and has promised equal practice snaps. "Every day in practice it's on for both of them," says wide receiver Tim Dwight. Yet Brees and Flutie are such compadres that it seems their workouts shouldn't end with the customary ear-splitting air horn but with their mommies calling them home to dinner.
This duel would be arresting under any circumstance but is especially interesting considering Flutie's recent history. Refresher course: From 1998 through 2000 in Buffalo, Flutie and Rob Johnson waged one of the ugliest quarterback feuds in NFL history, dividing not only the team but the Bills' manic fans. Johnson once accused Flutie of manipulating loyalties by planting anonymous quotes in the media. In an interview with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED last summer Johnson called Flutie a "self-promoter" and accused him of trying to curry favor with Bills teammates. "This is different," Flutie said last week at the Chargers' training camp in La Jolla, still irked by the subject. "This is legitimate competition. And I respect Drew."
Brees and Flutie were thrown together in the spring of 2001, when new Chargers general manager John Butler, who had brought Flutie to Buffalo in 1998, signed him as an unrestricted free agent and then took Brees with the first pick of the second round of the NFL draft. Their careers overlap on the quarterback's time line, Flutie near the end of his career, Brees just beginning his. "I was five years old when he threw that [Hail Mary] pass to beat Miami," says Brees, wide-eyed. "My stepmom is a big fan of his."
Yet from the first minicamp a year ago they were kindred spirits. Flutie took the opening set of reps with the starters, and when he jogged to the sideline, he approached Brees and pointed out several subtleties in the routes he had just thrown. It was a revelatory moment for Brees. "When I got drafted, people warned me about Doug," he says. "They said, 'Watch out for him. You know what he did to Rob Johnson.' But here he was, sharing things right away. And it was no big deal. Totally natural."
Age aside, they found themselves similar in many ways. Flutie, 5'10", 180 pounds and the 1984 Heisman Trophy winner, could write a treatise on the ways a player is impugned for being too small. Brees, 6 feet, 212, wasn't recruited out of high school in Austin by his hometown Texas Longhorns (among others) in part because they thought he was too short. (He ended up at Purdue, breaking virtually all the school's passing records and finishing third in the 2000 Heisman race.) The two quarterbacks share a passion for all things competitive, and they quickly began playing golf together away from the team and inventing daily tests on the field: throwing at trash cans, blocking sleds and goalposts, and dropping pooch punts inside the five-yard line. Every day a dozen games to play. "We have very similar personalities," says Flutie, who dragged Brees out to play off-season pickup basketball at San Diego State. (To date they have turned down wild man Dwight's offers to teach them to surf San Diego waves.)
Their friendship was cemented a year ago on coach Mike Riley's sinking ship, when Flutie started all 16 games, including the nine straight losses that ended the season and sealed Riley's firing. Brees appeared in only one game, but that was enough to whet the rabble's appetite. On Nov. 4, after Flutie suffered a concussion in the second quarter with San Diego trailing the Kansas City Chiefs 16-0, Brees completed 15 of 27 passes for 221 yards and rallied the Chargers with 20 consecutive points before they lost 25-20. It was a stunning debut, even to his teammates. "Just walked right into the huddle and started calling plays, totally cool," says wideout Curtis Conway, a 10-year veteran. "Very impressive."
San Diego fans remembered the performance when the season was clearly slipping away. They chanted for Brees and wrote his name on placards. The usual stuff. There was speculation in the media that Butler was telling Riley to keep playing Flutie. ("I've never told a coach who to play, and I never will," says Butler, who last week went public with the news that he is undergoing treatment for lung cancer). Microphones and notebooks were pushed under Brees's nose, giving him the opportunity to plead for a shot, but he didn't take the bait. Down the stretch Riley gave him equal practice reps with Flutie and kept telling him to be ready. Still, he sat, saying only that he'd love to get some experience but not at Flutie's expense. "Doug was playing just fine," says Brees, even now. "Plus, I'm smart enough to know that everybody loves the backup quarterback."
Brees's restraint earned Flutie's respect. "In that situation it's very easy to stir things up, undermine somebody," says Flutie. "Drew knew how to handle himself."
The quarterbacks' mutual admiration has forestalled the formation of Flutie and Brees camps within the team. "It would be easier if one of them was a d—-, I mean jerk," center Cory Raymer said on live radio last week.