Considered too small to play football, Flutie has become an icon of "heart" overcoming physical limitations, and of a man with a penchant for magic finishes.
So many adjectives have been used to describe the diminutive gridiron "legend." Words like gritty, gutsy, heroic, clutch, magical, and other superlatives. He was relegated to playing minor league football in Canada until his meteoric return to the NFL with my Buffalo Bills. Even 6 years after he left the Bills, he is still deified in Western New York.
Let's just take a quick look at the reasons he has somehow been placed in the pantheon of clutch athletes.
- The famous Hail Mary play in the 1984 University of Miami vs. Boston College game.
- His six Canadian Football League MVP awards, and three Grey Cup Championships.
- His return to the NFL with the Buffalo Bills, San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots.
But a closer look reveals that Flutie's accomplishments and achievements don't necessarily merit the cult status that he's achieved.
Now, you will never hear me say anything negative about the Hail Mary. It's one of the best plays in the history of football and one of the most iconic moments of 1980s sports, period.
The CFL stuff, however, while very impressive, is hardly the kind of achievement that usually garners much attention this side of the 49th parallel. Do you think that the average casual sports fan can name any other single CFL Most Outstanding Player? (I can name three others: Tom Clements, Rocket Ismail, Jeff Garcia. But then again, I'm a huge geek.)
Also, let's further examine Flutie's return to the NFL for a moment. His 1998 season with Buffalo cannot be taken away. It was one of the most fun seasons of football that I can remember and he really took that team on his back. I will not begrudge him that. But by 1999, defensive coordinators had gotten wise to his shenanigans and he became very stifled, offensively. In fact, the reason the Bills made the playoffs that year is because they had the #1 defense in the league.
But by this time, so many blue-collar simpletons were so enamored with Flutie that he could do no wrong. So when Flutie was pulled for the Bills' first playoff game, Bills fans were aghast. How could they possibly bench the great Flutie? Most people forget that Rob Johnson actually had that playoff game won .... until a little thing called the Music City Miracle happened. (Imagine if that play had never happened. The Bills go onto the Super Bowl, Rob Johnson becomes a local hero, my brother doesn't destroy a lamp in righteous anger immediately after the game, I don't contemplate driving head-on into oncoming traffic later that day.)
What was interesting about this little turn of events, though, is that Flutie subsequently became Machiavellian in his desire to turn the team against Johnson and in favor of himself. He talked trash about Johnson, asked teammates to back him, and became an overall non-team player. (If you read interviews with Flutie from this time period, sucesses were always measured in "me" and "I," and failures were spoke of with "we" or even "they." You can read a full account of Bucky Gleason's original account of Flutie right after he left the Bills in 2001 here.
Ironically, Bills fans, who had so long championed the character-laden philosophy of Marv Levy and Bill Polian, looked the other way at Flutie's Phonyness. Instead, people clamored for Flutie's return to the suddenly-mediocre Bills in 2000, and when he left the Bills for the San Diego Chargers before the 2001 season, Bills fans in Rochester (mostly women, for what it's worth) petitioned the local radio and TV stations to broadcast Chargers games, even if it meant not showing Bills games. It was a sad, pathetic time, and I was ashamed to be a Bills fan.
After Flutie left the team, the Bills did not return to their former glory, and haven't made the playoff since. So maybe this is why I am bitter against the little Napoleonic prick. But I'd like to think it's that I reject phony people who try to manipulate their own image to look better.
What is amazing to me is how the legend of Flutie still lives, especially in Western New York. Here is a guy who did win the Heisman Trophy (as did O.J. Simpson, by the way), had an incredible play in college, and then really didn't do much. He was a bust in the NFL (save for that one season), and never won a playoff game. After his one great NFL season, he fizzled out as a backup in San Diego and New England, notably making the first drop kick in 64 years in 2005.
So considering the fact that Flutie's list of actual accomplishments is brief, it is clear that the power of selective memory and the phenomenon of legend-over-reality is influential. Since Flutie will continue to be on TV doing college football analysis for ABC/ESPN, his continued exposure will only add to his legend. The guy's 21-year football career is nothing to sneeze at, but I wonder if people who love him so much remember why they actually loved him in the first place.