Little Big Man

You can keep your Black Friday specials, your retail madness and your “Holy shit, I weigh HOW much? It’s time for a diet,” post-Thanksgiving madness. For me, the day after Thanksgiving will always be tied to the moment I learned to believe that the little guy could come up big.

In planning their post-Thanksgiving football games, CBS spent the early part of the summer of 1984 looking at games they believed would be “bullet-proof.” The night game they chose matched an up-and-coming Boston College program against the defending national champions, The Miami Hurricanes.

The Hurricanes title defense was off to a rocky start that year. They lost the third game of the year to Michigan and had gotten bludgeoned 38-3 at home by Florida State. Leading up to the clash with BC, the team had built a 30-point lead against Maryland at home only to have Frank Reich lead one of the biggest come from behind wins in college history.

After starting the season 4-2, BC wouldn’t lose another game leading up to the Miami game. After a 7-point loss to Penn State, the Eagles knocked out Army and Syracuse by solid margins. The bigger story, however, was if BC quarterback Doug Flutie would become the first major college quarterback to throw for 10,000 yards in a season.

Boxing’s Ferdie Pacheco once noted that contrasting styles made for great heavyweight fights. In the world of football, the same was true.

Sophomore Bernie Kosar led a Miami attack that had defeated the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the 1984 national championship game that January. A 6-foot-5 pocket passer, Kosar had the look of a pro-style quarterback. He led a program built by Howard Schnellenberger and honed by first-year coach Jimmy Johnson. It featured Alonzo Highsmith, Melvin Bratton and dozens of other kids from “The State of Miami,” an inner-city recruiting area filled with amazing prospects.

At 5-foot-9, Doug Flutie started his freshman year fifth on the depth chart at Boston College, the only Division I school to actively recruit him.

By his senior season, he had led the Eagles to back-to-back bowl games, landing BC in the Tangerine Bowl after the 1982 season and the Liberty Bowl after the 1983 season.

Under an increasingly persistent misting rain, the teams took to the grass field at the Orange Bowl on Nov. 23, 1984. The weather put a chill on the fans in the stadium, but not on either team’s offense.

Boston College struck first and charged out to a 14-0 lead. Kosar responded with 11 straight pass completions on his way to setting a Miami single-game passing record.

“They could do anything they wanted,” Flutie recalled years later. “They could run it for 8 to 10 yards at a chunk or throw it for 15 to 20. We had to try to manufacture our offense.”

BC coach Jack Bicknell had seen games like this before. Both teams could score, neither team could defend. Late in the game, he found his team clinging to a three-point lead, but he knew that his leaking defense wasn’t likely to hold.

Flutie had reached a similar conclusion.

“I was telling Jack, ‘Let them score. They’re going to score anyway. Get me the ball back with some time.'”

When Miami’s Bratton scored his fourth touchdown of the day, Miami had recaptured the lead, 45-41.

Flutie found himself down four points down, 80 yards from the end zone with 28 seconds left.

The living room in our old house had this scratchy yellow shag carpeting that made it impossible to drive Matchbox cars on the floor. Every three inches, a wheel would get caught on a loop and you’d have to stop and try to free it. The couches had this odd velour on them that left patterns on your face when you slept on them. In the far left was an old Admiral TV. It’s giant wooden box with ornately carved columns held a 20-inch tube that took about 18 hours to warm up. The set had three knobs: On/off/volume, VHF tuning and UHF tuning. It was hooked to a giant antenna on our roof that years later would break free from its brackets and come crashing through my parents’ bedroom window during a blizzard.

With our bellies crammed full of turkey and Mom’s famous bread stuffing, Dad and I had parked ourselves on the couch to watch the end of this game Dad had been talking about all day.

Mom had finished the dishes and the grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins had all left after a massive meal, leaving us to our own devices.

At the age of 10, I was one of the smallest kids in my class. The boys would often measure me against the girls in the class to make the point that no only was a dwarf by male standards, but that the “weaker sex” had even exceeded my diminutive height.

Dad had always made the point that height wasn’t the most important thing, but he wasn’t the one who once got stuffed in a trash can.

“Watch this Flutie guy,” Dad explained. “He’s really small, but he can really play.”

Of course, shortly after he said this, Bratton scored, putting the game seemingly out of reach.

“Well, that’s the end of that,” Dad said as Flutie had maneuvered BC from the 20 to the Miami 48 with six seconds left. He arose to head to the kitchen for a beer.

“But there’s six seconds left,” I protested.

Dad picked me up and plunked me down on the floor right in front of the TV.

“Here,” he said. “You watch this and maybe you’ll learn a little something about reality.”

Reality I knew, but faith I had and there’s something about being a boy, being told you’re too small and being shown someone who was too small as well and hoping against hope he’ll succeed once again.

So I sat. And I watched.

The play was called “Flood Tip.” Three men to the right side of the formation, one to the left. They’d streak down the field as fast as possible while Flutie tossed one last desperation heave. The field had been chewed up under the relentless pounding the two teams had put upon it. The damp had crept into every inch of the players on the field.

Flutie took the snap and dropped straight back, bouncing on the soles of his feet as his receivers raced toward the end zone. Miami rushed three and dropped eight to defend against the Hail Mary. Even with only a small rush, a Miami defender broke through the offensive line and chased Flutie out to his right. An offensive lineman impeded the rush just enough to give Flutie a chance to escape.

He paused for a brief moment at his own 37-yard line and launched a pass toward the heavens.

Brent Musburger had the call as the pass sailed through the air. It covered 63 yards in the air, starting its descent around the 30-yard line. It coasted through the arms of three defenders and hit Gerard Phelan, Flutie’s roommate and good friend in the hands. Phelan cradled the ball and fell into the end zone.

“I rolled over and saw colored letters and I knew I was in the end zone,” Phelan would recall years later.

I remember leaping up and down in the living room, crashing to the ground and rolling around like a dog scratching its back on that crappy yellow rug.

Dad came storming back in, beer in hand, demanding, “What happened? What happened?”

Musburger had hollered, “CAUGHT BY BOSTON COLLEGE, I DON’T BELIEVE IT!” failing to mention the name of the receiver because his spotter had gone nuts with excitement and failed to identify Phelan right away.

Flutie was jumping in and out of the frame on that Admiral set as the enormity of the event settled in on my father.

“Wow!”

In the years that followed, I followed Flutie and Kosar as they went their separate ways. Flutie had trouble gaining traction as a QB in the NFL before he headed north. Kosar went back to Ohio and led his hometown Browns to the AFC championship game, but never the Super Bowl. He eventually got his ring as a back up with the Dallas Cowboys.

Flutie spent much of his prime in the Canadian Football League, becoming the league’s most exciting player. He earned multiple most valuable player awards and led several teams to Grey Cup championships.

When he returned to the NFL in 1998 with Buffalo, I became a Bills fan. When he headed west, I followed the Chargers. When he finished up with New England Patriots, I grudgingly liked Bill Belichick’s teams.

Flutie’s last scoring play was another quirky moment in a quirky careers: the first successful drop kick since 1941, tacking on an extra point after a Patriot touchdown.

From time to time, I’ll catch him on a college football show or the clip of him making that miraculous heave will show up on ESPN and I’ll go back to that moment with him, marveling at how a big a little man had become.

And how he inspired a generation of others to do the same.

4 thoughts on “Little Big Man

  1. adrastos says:

    Fine post and a great moment in sports history. Saw Flutie interviewed about the Sandusky mess and he said: “This is not a football story. It’s a human story and should be about the victims.”

  2. robertearle says:

    I went out to ‘the mall’ for a while (it wasn’t nearly as crazy a thing to do as it is now). A bit tired when I got home, I turned on the TV and settled in on the couch, just about the start of the 2nd half. A lot of people don’t know or remember that, while the end was fantastic, the rest of the game leading up to it was pretty damn entertaining, too.

  3. Steve says:

    I’m not even a football fan but I have to give a tip of my hat to your fine prose. I won’t say I felt like I was there with you; instead it reminded me of the similar times I had in a just-as-shag-carpeted living room with an old TV back in my youth. Nice job and thanks for the clip. You don’t have to like sports to enjoy a fine performanced, and that throw was something else.

  4. the banana says:

    Great story.

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