Boston College's 'Little Big Man' of football

Doug Flutie, Boston College's sensational quarterback, was spending a relaxing Sunday afternoon at his parents' home watching pro football on TV. He wasn't expecting to be provoked by the pregame show, but he was.

As so often happens in football circles these days, the conversation among the TV commentators turned to Flutie, who already this fall has engineered a startling, come-from-behind upset of Alabama and thrown six touchdown passes in a 52-20 win over North Carolina.

Pumped for an opinion by CBS football anchor man Brent Musberger, color commentator Jimmy the Greek concluded that despite his obvious skills, the Eagles' 5-foot, 9-inch, 176-pound field general was too small to play in the big , bad National Football League.

''They said I'd get killed,'' the usually unflappable Flutie relates. ''Can you imagine sitting there and hearing that? It just irritates me.''

Flutie has never held his breath waiting for an NFL career, but the thought ''has become more of an obsession lately because people are saying I can't do it.''

Here in New England, where Boston College is the region's only major football-playing school, such faithlessness is the exception.

In four years on the scenic Chestnut Hill campus, Flutie has written an open-ended Cinderella story that just gets better and better. He is a hero with no curfews.

He has gone from the rags of being a basically unwanted high school recruit to the riches of magazine covers and All-America status. He has a shot at becoming the first major college player to compile 10,000 career yards. And after finishing third in voting for the coveted Heisman Trophy last year, he is an overwhelming favorite to be selected the nation's outstanding 1984 player later this season.

''Doug's not the best small quarterback in America,'' says Boston College coach Jack Bicknell. ''He's the best quarterback in America.''

Bicknell goes further, claiming his compact star is a genuine pacesetter. ''He has broken down the physical stereotypes for his position. Now you're going to start seeing a lot more shorter quarterbacks.''

There certainly wasn't much of a market for them during Flutie's senior year at Natick High School, west of Boston. The Ivy League schools came knocking, as did a fair number of I-AA, or second-tier, teams, but the only big-time football program that offered him a scholarship was Boston College, the country's largest Roman Catholic university.

Even then, he wasn't exactly a prime recruit. No one promised him the keys to the team; in fact, he began that 1981 season as a lowly reserve quarterback and punt returner. But he made the traveling team, which led to his storied debut against Penn State several weeks later.

Bicknell hadn't anticipated throwing a fourth-string freshman signal caller to the mighty Nittany Lions, of course - especially not on the road before 85, 000 spectators. But when all else had failed, and with Penn State en route to an easy 38-7 victory, why not? So Doug came off the bench, completed seven passes for 135 yards, and served notice that he might be something special.

A few weeks later, Flutie proved that it had been no fluke by putting together a near-upset of second-ranked Pitt. He also displayed the freewheeling ability to escape would-be tacklers which has become one of his trademarks.

Since then the BC football program has made steady and dramatic progress. After a 5-6 record in Flutie's freshman year, the Eagles have gone 8-3-1 and 9-3 , played in the Tangerine and Liberty Bowls, and climbed well up in the national rankings. The current squad (which some are already comparing to the school's undefeated 1940 Sugar Bowl team) is 3-0 and ranked fourth in the Associated Press writers' poll.

A lot has happened during Flutie's four years at the Heights. Asked at the end of an interview recently what he feels best about during his tenure, he replies, ''The fact that we've earned the respect of everyone nationally and gotten to those bowl games. And I've enjoyed myself. To me it's fun.''

He also makes the game quite exciting to watch, with an uncanny improvisational knack that rivals that of Boston Celtic Larry Bird on a basketball court.

''It's like when you were little; if you were getting tackled, you'd turn around and pitch the ball to the next guy,'' he says of the sandlot inventiveness he still retains. ''At this level, you just have to play a little bit smarter and not take as many chances. If I'm ever being tackled and I see (running back) Troy Stradford or somebody else on our team, I'm going to pitch him the ball - unless there are five guys around him.''

If Flutie seems an Impressionist on the field, it may partly be because so many other players have their individuality trained out of them in today's highly specialized game. ''Everything is so regimented,'' he says. ''People are afraid to make mistakes, too.

''I think that's one reason why we've done as well as we have; because we have the attitude that we're not going to worry about mistakes. Mistakes are going to happen, but play hard and play loose.''

Bicknell, whose philosophy is a good match for Flutie's, has kept from suppressing his pupil's talent.

''To stifle his natural instincts would have been the dumbest thing I could have done,'' says the Eagles' amiable coach. ''We've adapted our style to Doug's. You really learn to let him go.

Flutie has been called the ''King of the Broken Play.'' That's a fancy way of calling him a scrambler. He doesn't really like the label, since it seems to stereotype him as some sort of Mad Hatter who hasn't cultivated the classic drop-back passing technique.

''Doug is a real student of the game who has worked on being disciplined,'' Bicknell observes. ''As he's matured he has shown better judgment, too. But when things break down, that's when he's most dangerous.''

Flutie's escapades behind and beyond the line of scrimmage were a virtual necessity in earlier years, when the Boston College blockers sometimes seemed to practice passive resistance - and sometimes none at all.

The defensive charge doesn't get to him nearly so often these days, and even when it does, of course, the threat of his getaways gives pause to any defense. His ability to play a versatile, wide-open game also makes him especially dangerous in rallying his team from behind. He prides himself on these late surges, which his favorite quarterback, Roger Staubach, so often produced for the Dallas Cowboys.

The most recent example of this knack occurred in the nationally televised Alabama game, when an underdog BC team - down 31-14 at Birmingham and apparently hopelessly beaten - stormed back behind Flutie to pull out a 38-31 victory.

One of the drawbacks to being in the limelight occurred in the locker room afterward. ''That was a wild scene,'' Flutie relates, ''with everybody celebrating one of the biggest wins we've had in a long time. I wasn't really part of the excitement, though.'' Why not? Because he was swamped by reporters.

Frequently, he says, he finds himself, still in uniform, answering questions after his teammates have cleared out.

He says he enjoys doing interviews, however, and hasn't turned anyone down yet. But now he's starting to ''learn a few tricks'' to cope with all the media demands.

Reid Oslin, Boston College's assistant athletic director for sports publicity , sought advice before the season from other schools that have previously had Heisman Trophy candidates. One strategy that's been adopted is to have Flutie in for a weekly interview session for whatever reporters wish to speak with him.

The questioning, which Doug fits in between classes, runs well over an hour and covers everything from his brother Darren, a freshman pass catcher and running back for the Eagles, to his public appearances for GUARDD (Governor and Universities Against Reckless and Drunk Driving). He is refreshingly quotable, an admirable trait for a speech communications major who is interested in a broadcasting career.

Flutie expects to graduate on schedule next spring. By that time, Sports Illustrated estimates, his presence on campus will have meant somewhere between ticket revenues.

Years from now, Flutie says, he may look back with pride upon his financial impact. For the time being, however, BC's ''Little Big Man'' says ''the school can worry about the money. The players are not getting paid for this, and we don't care to be paid. We just want to play.''

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