MUCH HAS been made of Doug Flutie's 13-year-old autistic son, but then, you can never make enough of him. How a boy like Dougie will force you to rethink everything as he wrenches you onto the hardest track. How Dougie's biological quirk renders most of life's travails laughable by comparison. The odds are overwhelming that Dougie will never feed himself with utensils, dress himself or wipe himself without assistance. Forget playing football, he may never even utter the word. And all that makes his father's struggles as a pro--wandering the football hinterlands for 20 years, from the USFL to the NFL to the CFL and back to the NFL and, finally, back home in New England; nine years between NFL starts, the second longest such stretch for a quarterback in NFL history; getting cut, repeatedly, and having to prove himself again and again (nine teams)--seem trivial. So some NFL coaches thought Doug was too short to be their quarterback.
That's a joke compared to Dougie's being too mentally impaired to ever say his own name.
I am in Doug Flutie's kitchen in Natick, Mass. Outside is a swimming pool and Dougie's quarter-acre fenced-in play area full of slides, swings and climbing bars. It is early afternoon, and Doug sits at the counter that divides kitchen from dining room, sipping a Red Bull, talking about returning to his hometown--this house is just a good two-iron from the one he grew up in--and how one of the reasons he is so pleased to be back is that he'll have more time for Dougie. Laurie, his wife of 20 years, has borne the primary burden of caring for Dougie, and caring for a severely autistic child is much harder than raising most other so-called special children. Severely autistic children often progress fitfully, making torturously tiny strides amid steady backsliding. Their parents can feel that they are not teaching so much as merely keeping their children from injuring themselves.
For Doug, after four seasons in San Diego, it had come down to two options last summer: retire or join the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots as backup to Tom Brady. (At least two other teams expressed interest in bringing Flutie to camp; he turned them down.) He was fine with either path because both would lead him right here, to this kitchen, to his home. The house is as gilded as we would expect for an NFL quarterback's: a tan-brick, two-story colonial at the top of a long, curving driveway with lampposts every 20 feet. There is a porch with two white rocking chairs, and next to that is a full basketball court on which are parked an Escalade, a Denali and a Trans Am. In the garage are a black Ferrari, a silver Viper, a white Corvette and a purple Cadillac XLR.
Doug knows that he has been lucky in many ways. Because of his last name and the Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism, which the Fluties run for autistic kids, Dougie is among the most famous autistic children in the world and thus the recipient of extraordinary care and special attention from the best doctors. Doug and Laurie also have a daughter, Alexa, 17, who is lovely, smart and supportive. And Doug truly feels he was blessed that night 13 years ago to have a son, a beautiful boy. In his mind's eye he was already envisioning all the things they would do together.
"I have a nephew who is 14, Brett, a phenomenal little athlete," says Doug. "And Dougie will be 14 this year. As soon as both of them were born, that was what was in my mind. They would have been the same year at school. They would have gone through Little League together. They would have had so much fun. But then--"
When dougie walks into the room, I recognize him immediately. Not because of the striking resemblance to his father but because of how similar he is to my own autistic younger brother, Noah. There is the same tipping of his head as he looks past you; the rubbing together of his fingers and thumbs; the mumbled, repetitious humming--muh-muh-muh-muh--of nonsensical syllables. But there is also the ethereal beauty of the autistic, the innocent, cherubic expression and fixed boyish features. (The vast majority of autistic children, about 80%, are male.) In his perpetual state of suspended infantilism, the autistic retains a little of a newborn's glow.
But Dougie is 13 and Noah is 38, and I suspect I can see Dougie's future and the Fluties' struggles yet to come. Noah, because of three popular books my father wrote about him and a 60 Minutes segment devoted to him, may have been the most famous autistic child of the 1970s. At 13 he was still living at home, just like Dougie. My parents rearranged their lives in myriad complicated and ultimately futile ways to care for Noah, just as the Fluties have for Dougie. And my parents and I maintained the same stoic optimism that somehow, someway, our boy would improve enough so that he could talk or take care of himself or even just get a little "better." Doug and Laurie profess to being similarly sanguine about Dougie, qualifying every expression of despair with a quick "but we never count Dougie out." They insist that their parental hopes will never die, that Dougie talks in their dreams.
Dougie, of course, is receiving the best treatment available, yet I wonder if he is bound to disappoint, as Noah did, because it is in the nature of autism to frustrate almost all who try to treat it or live with it. For Dougie to ever become anything like normal would require a miracle far greater than the one his father pulled off on that foggy Florida night in the Orange Bowl.