Little Big Man
Which, as American fans are rediscovering, is high praise indeed. This autumn, after replacing injured Buffalo Bills starter Rob Johnson during the fifth game of the season, the 36-year-old National Football League never-was has racked up a 5-1 record and propelled the Bills into the play-off hunt. America is retaking its measure of Doug Flutie—long thought to be too small to play in the NFL—and finding that what matters isn't his 5'9" stature but the size of his heart. "You've got to love him—he's the miracle midget," says Chuck Dickerson, a former Bills defensive-line coach turned host of a popular Buffalo radio talk show. "Nobody can tell you what you can or can't accomplish in life," shrugs Flutie. "It's limitless."
Certainly on the football field Flutie's grit and inventiveness have often seemed infinite. His thrilling "Hail Mary" touchdown pass with no time on the clock 14 years ago for Boston College against the University of Miami won Natick, Massachusetts' favorite son the Heisman Trophy and a place in college football legend. But his college achievements weren't enough to overcome the doubts of scouts about his size and his arm. Four middling NFL seasons didn't change their minds—nor did the eight record-shattering ones that followed in Canada, where he was the league's six-time Most Outstanding Player.
Mindful of the toll another year split between Canada and their seven-bedroom colonial in Natick might take on wife Laurie, now 35, daughter Alexa, 10, and Dougie, Flutie considered retiring at the end of last season. But then his agent got an offer from the Bills—albeit at a pay free fall (down from the $1 million Canadian he earned last year to $300,000, plus a $25,000 signing bonus). "I took a risk when I left the CFL, and the odds were kind of long to be a starter," Flutie says. "But you just keep plugging."
That's the same attitude that Flutie—who checks in with his family via video phone 10 times a day while on the road—and Laurie are taking with their son, who "spoke in full sentences and was perfectly normal" until age 2½, Flutie says. Then, around his third birthday, "he just stopped talking," says Laurie. "And it got worse and worse." Today, despite intensive one-on-one tutoring, Dougie has the mental development of an 18-month-old. The couple gets some help from Alexa, which "is like having a second mother to him," says her proud father. "She knows how special she is to us."
Fans in Buffalo began to sense there was something special about Flutie himself when he donated his signing bonus to charity. (Half went to start the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism, the rest to Hunter's Hope, established by ex-Bills quarterback Jim Kelly to fund research into the fatal genetic disorder from which his 21-month-old son suffers.) Then he got a chance to work some of his on-field magic, and Flutie Flakes—a locally marketed cereal some of whose profits aid families with autistic children—began selling like antifreeze. "I've never seen the city of Buffalo so excited," says Bills tackle Jerry Ostroski. "His attitude is to cherish it while it's here. Any day it could be gone, and he's been there too."
Should the clock strike midnight, Flutie won't be crying into his Flakes. Dougie's plight, the miscarriage Laurie suffered in early November at three months—those, he says, are the things that matter. "Ten years from now, no one is going to care who won," Flutie observed recently. "Ten years from now, I'm going to have a 16-year-old son who's autistic, who is going to be dependent on me and can't dress himself.... This is a game. I put my heart and soul into it, but it's not the end of the world."
Cynthia Wang and Michelle York in Buffalo