For me the Friday after Thanksgiving will always be about a shared cultural experience that might be the last of its kind. In 1984, CBS aired a college football game, featuring the defending national champion Miami Hurricanes against the upstart Boston College Eagles. In a back-and-forth affair that had each team scoring more than 40 points each, BC trailed 45-41 after Melvin Bratton scored his fourth touchdown of the day for Miami. It left QB Doug Flutie just 28 seconds to take the Eagles 80 yards for the winning score.
After two short passes and one incomplete, Flutie had pushed BC just over midfield with 6 seconds left to play. (At this point, my father declared the game over and headed to the kitchen for a beer. When I pointed out in my youthful ignorance that there were still six seconds left, he propped me in front of the TV and said, “OK, you watch and maybe you’ll learn something about reality.” Dad, to this day, disputes this…) Flutie called Flood Tip, which basically meant “OK, everybody go long.” He avoided the rush, rolled out to his right and launched a gift to the heavens. The ball travelled 60 yards in the air and found its way through the arms of three defenders to rest safely in the hands of Gerard Phelan, Flutie’s road trip roommate. BC 47, Miami 45.
In that instant, Doug Flutie became folk hero to me. My closet is crammed with Flutie jerseys from his various pro stops, and my book shelves are lined with his football cards and Flutie Flakes cereal boxes. Autographs, magazine covers and more are littered throughout my house. When he played in Buffalo, I loved Buffalo. When he moved to San Diego, I loved the Chargers. I followed him when he played in Canada, not an easy feat given what U.S. papers tend to think of Canadian football.
What I found in the following years is that I wasn’t the only one who found religion that day. Whenever I bought a Flutie item, the seller always had a story about what he or she was doing on that day in 1984. Whenever a group of us would watch football on Black Friday, talk always came back to Flutie and his Hail Mary. No montage of last-minute plays was complete without the 5-foot-9 sprite launching his spiraling act of desperation, complete with the overdubbed radio call from the Boston College announcers who were screaming, “He did it! He did it! Flutie did it.” (That still gives me chills; it’s about two minutes into this clip.)
In the years that followed, other games were more important in the national title race.Hail Marys were asked and answered.More dramatic endings took place, to be sure. However, none of them has the same staying power or reach as Flutie’s wing and a prayer. I think the reason for that is because those of us who saw it shared in it. 1984 was one of those last years in which cable TV wasn’t ever-present. We had three channels and only one of them was showing football. ESPN hadn’t taken over the planet and given us 239 games to watch, showering us with football to the point where we’re getting radiation burns from the TV. Remote controls weren’t ubiquitous, so we tended focus on something for more than six seconds. VCRs were not every-home appliances and thinking to record the game probably didn’t occur to most of us. Many folks had the day off and decided to treat themselves to a day on the couch and it was BC/Miami or a rerun of something.
These days, we don’t experience things like that anymore. We TiVo the game, or catch the highlights later on cable. We watch it unfold online through a Web site that tracks the game play by play, much like the old tickertape parlors of the 1920s. (For some reason, the line “Flutie completes pass to WR Phelan: 48 yards, time: 0:00, touchdown” doesn’t cut it…) We get text alerts that give us results, but often extract them from the context or meaning of the event.
We don’t just do that with sports, but with a lot of other events (9/11 being one of the larger exceptions). The terrorist attack in India doesn’t have us camped around our TV sets the way the Munich Olympic attacks did. We watched the election unfold, but we didn’t all get the same broadcast or the news. It was more about the punditry after a while than who won. We don’t even watch TV shows together, as the water cooler chatter over “Can you believe who shot J.R.?” has been replaced with “Don’t talk about ‘Lost.’ I don’t watch that until Friday.” We get things virally now, moving from person to person over time. It’s no longer the type of culture where we all have a singular point of time as a shared referent.
As much as I enjoy the YouTube, FaceBook, TiVo conveniences of life, I wonder if technology has cheated my kid out of having those “I know exactly where I was when…” moments. (Ask someone in their 70s where they were when they heard World War II ended; they’ll nail it without thinking twice.) I wonder if we’ll share again like this in a moment that serves as a cultural touchstone. I wonder if we’ll ever all experience something at the same time the same way.
On this day after Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for having seen that last-gasp moment some 24 years ago and hopeful we’ll have one more just like it sometime soon. If a culture is strengthened through the sharing events, I think we need more chances like the one Doug Flutie gave us.