Too bad T.O. never embraced Flutie

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:47 AM ET

The best years of Doug Flutie's football life were played in a Toronto that didn't appreciate what it had until he was gone.

He talked about that yesterday upon announcing his retirement from professional football.

He spoke about his favourite seasons -- the two years he played and won Grey Cups for the Argonauts -- he called them the most fun he had playing the game. He mentioned his favourite players and people in Canada.

"Pinball Clemons, Don Matthews, Allen Pitts," Flutie said. "I had an opportunity to play with my brother (Darren) for a year. That meant so much for me."

The first game Flutie ever played for the Argos drew 13,200 at what was then called the SkyDome.

It didn't get a whole lot better after that.

GONE TO BUFFALO

The team did nothing but win when he was here. It didn't seem to matter. The market didn't notice or embrace him.

Not until he had gone to Buffalo.

Then he became Our Doug.

Like words from the Joni Mitchell song: "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got til it's gone."

That was Flutie in Toronto.

A strange chapter of sport that isn't easily explained: Flutie may be the most successful athlete on the most successful team this city has ever seen but he was a victim of the times.

Flutie loved the Argos, the city, his teammates and, like most players, loved playing for the irascible Matthews. But he hated that empty stadium. He hated the lack of atmosphere. He would ask the PR people after games: "How many today?" They would give him a number and he would shake his head in disbelief.

"I was ready to retire after Toronto," Flutie said. "And here it is almost nine years later and I'm finally retiring."

Had Flutie not played here, there would have been no second time around in the National Football League. There would no televised news conference yesterday for him to say goodbye.

The first NFL shot didn't exactly go his way.

He tried playing quarterback in Chicago and Jim McMahon ostracized him, calling him "America's midget."

He tried playing quarterback in his beloved New England, but his coach, Raymond Berry, suggested he might be better off becoming a coach.

He was given up on for all the usual reasons -- his size, his height, he didn't fit the mould. It didn't matter that all he did was win. Most football people only could see what he couldn't do, never what he could.

It was only after he made his way across Canada, from Vancouver to Calgary to Toronto, that Flutie was geographically fortunate to get another opportunity.

Just so happens that Toronto is a close car ride from Buffalo and in those days, almost every Argos home game was staffed by a Buffalo Bills scout named A.J. Smith.

In truth, NFL teams don't do a whole lot of live CFL coverage.

But Smith was a regular back then.

He was among the 18,000 or so -- announced, of course -- who could claim to have seen Flutie play in Toronto. He went back to his boss, the late John Butler, and not only suggested the Bills sign Flutie, but crazily suggested that Flutie could be their starting quarterback.

Butler, the general manager, was more reticent. He saw Flutie the way most football people saw him -- too small, too short, always too something. Smith wouldn't give up. He convinced Butler to sign Flutie and the Bills did. But almost immediately after that, the same team paid huge money to sign another free agent, the 6-foot-4 Rob Johnson, who actually looked like a quarterback.

Flutie played three seasons in Buffalo, had a 21-10 record as a starter, and the Bills went to the playoffs twice. They haven't gone to the playoffs since he left to follow Butler and Smith to the San Diego Chargers.

FORGETTABLE

In all, Flutie only started 66 NFL games in 12 different seasons on four different teams. A long list of forgettable quarterbacks started more. But most impressive was his home record of 23 wins and nine losses.

That was Flutie Magic.

It could be a Hail Mary or a sandlot play or something completely improvised at the last moment. But right to the end, it was forever exciting.

The last touch of Doug Flutie's pro football ride came, naturally, on a trick play last season with the Patriots. The first drop kick in the NFL since 1941.

A perfect ending to a career both improbable and enlightening.

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True story. Miami coach Nick Saban loves Ricky Williams.

"If I was going to say who were the five guys you enjoyed coaching the most ... about the guy being a good person, a hard worker, a team player, a competitor, in my coaching career, Ricky would be one of the top guys I have been associated with," Saban said before the NFL draft.

HIDEKI HURT

The injury that will keep Hideki Matsui out of the Yankees lineup for the next three months is a large factor in the race in the American League East. Matsui is a star who doesn't always get star billing on a team with Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. But with Gary Sheffield already out, the Yankees suddenly are thin and vulnerable.

NEW NHL

Yes, we now know it's a very new NHL. We know it because should the Edmonton Oilers advance, the final four teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs will have one thing in common: None of them made the playoffs prior to the lockout. Buffalo was ninth, Carolina 11th and in the West, Edmonton was ninth and Anaheim 12th.

A new era is indeed upon us.


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