Doug Flutie heads for New Jersey and USFL spotlight

A new chapter in the Doug Flutie Chronicles has begun. Boston College's storybook quarterback has left school and his amateur days behind to become a multi-million dollar enlistee with the United States Football League's New Jersey Generals. Efforts to play the Generals' bid off an offer from a National Football League team never really materialized. Determined to keep salaries from escalating totally out of sight, the older league basically refused to engage in a bidding war. If Generals' owner Donald Trump wants to pay the scrambling Flutie $5 to $7 million over five years, let him, the NFL seemed to say.

Under the circumstances, this refusal to engage in cash warfare came as a mild surprise. After all, the NFL team that owns first dibs on Flutie's draft rights is Buffalo, which needs a drawing card. The Bills kept 80,000-seat Rich Stadium just a little over half full last season, when they were a 2-14.

There's more than meets the eye here, however. Though Buffalo has never been a free-spending team, its lukewarm interest in Flutie stems partly from the fact that the Bills already own the rights from a previous draft to former University of Miami QB Jim Kelly, whom some regard more highly than the smallish (5 ft. 93/4 in.) Flutie. Kelly spurned the Bills' offer to sign with the USFL's Houston Gamblers, but if the USFL should fold, he would have to bargain with Buffalo.

A bird in hand is worth two in the bush, though, and Buffalo still needs a good, young quarterback, and the NFL has let another Heisman Trophy winner get away. The two previous Heisman recipients, running backs Herschel Walker and Mike Rozier, also brought their ``best college player'' reputations to the fledgling league, which launches it third ``spring'' season Feb. 23. (The USFL will play a fall schedule beginning in 1986.)

It's safe to say that the NFL hasn't missed Walker or Rozier that much. And given the number of outstanding young quarterbacks in the NFL at this point, even Flutie would represent icing on the cake.

The Generals, however, are gambling that Flutie could mean much, much more to their league. As the most celebrated college player in recent years, he could have an impact on the very survival, if not the growth, of the 14-team USFL.

Joe Namath's flamboyance once helped establish the old American Football League. Flutie's charisma might just do the same for the USFL.

Like Namath, he will be playing in the nation's media capital and for what is clearly the league's flagship franchise. The Generals appear intent on fielding a highly marketable team, one that has helped lure network TV coverage for the league and ensures large crowds at the Meadowlands, as well as on the road. Herschel Walker has already made them an attraction.

One star-laden team doesn't make a strong league, however, and no clearer illustration of this exists than soccer's New York Cosmos, who share the same artificial turf with the Generals.

As the USFL's knight in shining armor, Flutie is burdened by tremendous expectations. Some envision him performing at the same, almost mythical level he did this past season, when he became the college game's first 10,000-yard career passer. That seems unrealistic.

His immediate challenge is to prove himself to his new teammates in the Generals' Florida boot camp. Veteran Brian Sipe, 35, still owns the job as far as Coach Walt Michaels is concerned, but the coach is sure to feel pressure from Trump, and indirectly from the rest of the league, to get Flutie on the field.

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