BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Doug Flutie, The Little Engine That Could, came to Alabama for his pro debut Sunday with the New Jersey Generals, the weight of an entire football league on his size 38 shoulders and a mission to show network television that a child could lead them.
But for three quarters of a dreary, drizzly day, the United States Football League looked like a first-rate candidate for embalming. Here it was, three minutes left in the third quarter and its savior was still 0 for pro, completing exactly no passes in nine attempts, save for two nicely thrown balls to Birmingham Stallions.
Only a no-huddle offense installed for the final quarter saved the Littlest General from a doozy of a Napoleon complex. Like Johnny Carson, Flutie is at his best in the ad lib and the hurry-up scheme allowed Flutie to squirt and scramble and even throw two touchdown passes, thus turning a blotch mark of a game into one that at least could be called a wash. Birmingham won it, 38-28, which may come as a surprise to those who changed the channel at 31-7.
Anyway, so far, Flutie's numbers will not make you pawn your matching set of Joe Namath bath towels: 12-of-27 for 189 yards, 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.
But Flutie at least had a better day than Brian Sipe, who was shipped to the Jacksonville Bulls eleven minutes after Flutie arrived. Sipe dislocated his shoulder and is out for 6-to-10 weeks.
So it's on to the press conference, where Flutie's duty was to answer every question to the last, bitter drop.
Have you had enough time to get ready?
"Practice time had nothing to do with it. I was ready to play."
Were you nervous?
"No. I was relaxed and calm. I knew what I was doing, I just couldn't throw it on the money for some reason."
Feel up to saving a football league?
"There's pressure in people's minds. I don't care if I have my picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I don't care if the game is on TV. I made no promises coming into this league. I made no promises to win every game."
If that sounded like Flutie was trying to get a small animal off his back, imagine its size early in the third quarter when Flutie had still not made a dent in his $7 million, five-year contract.
Fact is, he had not even come close. His first throw was whipped sidearm and hurried. His second zigged just when his receiver zagged. His third and fourth were too long and his fifth too short. His sixth was batted down by 6-5 Doug Smith. His seventh was intercepted.
End of half.
Flutie returned in the second half to further calamity. His eighth pass was sinfully long and his ninth was intercepted. Was Flutie a Flukie?
Finally, with 2:38 left in the third quarter, on a quick toss to the right, receiver Clarence Collins clutched a Flutie pass to his chest. Six-yard gain. Trumpets, please. The score was 31-7, Birmingham.
If you can forgive Flutie three quarters worth of Mulligans, you were pleased mightily by his play. He then went 12 of 18 and actually made a game of it. "Something about that helter-skelter atmosphere (of the no-huddle offense) I like," Flutie said. "For some reason, I react better."
Outside the locker room, Flutie's mother, Joan, was thinking the same thing. "Doug has always loved to do the things he's not supposed to do," she said. "That's when he's having the most fun."
If the Generals' success with anarchy was a harbinger of good things, so was what was said by Birmingham defensive end Don Reese, a fellow Sports Illustrated cover boy. Flutie made it for his arm, Reese for his tongue in a first-person expose on the NFL and drugs. After a short prison sentence and a three-year layoff, Reese made his comeback Sunday by harassing Flutie to within an inch of his life.
"I think he's going to be great in this league," said Reese, who is 6-7 and thus provided the 5-9 3/4 Flutie with an excellent view of his sternum. "For a while, you could tell he was nervous. You could see in his eye that he was a little jumpy. But he's a winner. He showed that at the end."
Reese said he sees no handicap for Flutie, height-wise. "He threw a couple balls today under my arms. He'll fake like he's going to throw it over you and then zip it under."
So Flutie is tricky, but is he all they say he is?
You have to go back to the inception of his legend--The Pass that beat Miami with no seconds left--to find Flutie's last good game. After Miami, Flutie played only marginally in a win over Holy Cross, was mediocre in the Cotton Bowl, was marginal in the Hula Bowl, was worse than mediocre in the Japan Bowl, was back to mediocre in the Generals' first exhibition game against the Orlando Renegades (his first two passes were intercepted), and then made his less-than-glorious unveiling Sunday.
Flutie's string is at six and still alive. Of course, this could be less an indictment of his skills than the result of playing football under the national microscope.
"I know that I have the talent to win in this league," Flutie said. "The last quarter and a half today proved it to me.
"But the press won't go away," Flutie said. "Now the story will be, when will he win one?"