It’s been 15 years since Doug Flutie’s final play in the NFL, but a week doesn’t go by without someone asking him about it.
“All the time,” said Flutie, who turned 58 in October.
Fifteen years ago Friday, the former Boston College quarterback put an exclamation point on his football career when, against the Dolphins, he became the first NFL player in almost 65 years to drop-kick a ball between the uprights.
After a season sitting behind Tom Brady, it was a way for him to feel like a contributor on a team that would advance to the divisional round before bowing to the Broncos.
It also was a notable final scene for the New England football legend, a unique way to cap off a remarkable career.
“It was just a really cool moment,” Flutie said. “The one moment where I could make the guys smile.
“And maybe Bill [Belichick] realized it — being Bill — that would be the last play of my career.
For his younger teammates, who would watch the 43-year-old play basketball on his off-days or spend time with the special teamers on trick plays at practice, it still stands as an epic memory.
“He was Doug Flutie, man,” remembered long snapper Lonie Paxton. “Making magic. What more can you say?”
The fuse is lit
Flutie’s extra point on Jan. 1, 2006, wasn’t the byproduct of some Belichick special-teams fever dream.
Flutie had been working on drop kicks for several years, including during his first stint with New England in the 1980s. While playing in the Canadian Football League, he’d have fun before and after practice trying them out.
After the Patriots signed him for the 2005 season, Flutie would routinely join the special teamers for a game of “Can you top this?”
“I’d try and snap it 25 or 30 yards and hit the crossbar,” Paxton said. “Doug, from what I remember, he would take a few holds as the backup quarterback. He started seeing us doing these trick-shot things, and started with the drop kicks.
“Of course, people started seeing this, and Brady wanted to try it. [Mike] Vrabel wanted to try it. It kind of turned into this competition. They couldn’t do it, but Doug could always pull it off, and was super accurate.”
The idea of using a drop kick in a game started to gain momentum later in the season.
ESPN’s Chris Berman had struck up a relationship with Flutie when the quarterback was in Buffalo in the 1990s, and while Berman is cautious about taking credit for the idea, he acknowledges he was the one who “lit the fuse.”
“I don’t know if Doug was doing them in practice, but the subject of the drop kick and how it was used in the CFL came up,” Berman recalled. “I remember him saying that there was no real application for it in the NFL, and that it was too bad.
“Then I asked him if he could still do that. He said, ‘I fool around with it from time to time.’ ”
In late October 2005, Berman was in Foxborough to do a piece on the Patriots. He was talking with Belichick and relayed his old conversation with Flutie.
“His antenna went up,” Berman said.
According to Berman, Belichick asked, “You think he can still do it?”
Belichick, Berman, and Flutie talked it out
“I said I could still do it, and so Bill said we’d practice it tomorrow,” Flutie said. “So I come back the next day and we did three of them. I think I hit one line drive through the uprights, once I hit the center in the [butt], and one I hit off an upright.”
“My [butt] isn’t hard to miss,” said Paxton with a laugh. “He had a nice big target there.”
According to Flutie, the initial plan was to try it as a field goal in the Dec. 26 game against the Jets.
On the sideline that night in the Meadowlands, Flutie said, he was a “nervous wreck,” and felt some relief that he wasn’t called on to try the kick, especially given that the Patriots were contemplating a nearly 50-yard attempt, and his range was around 43.
Meanwhile, Berman quietly placed a call to the Pro Football Hall of Fame to ask executive director Joe Horrigan about the last time anyone executed a drop kick in a game.
Berman recalls saying to Horrigan, “I need you to look something up for me. But I can’t tell you why.”
Something fishy is afoot
Horrigan got Berman an answer the following week, when the Patriots were facing the Dolphins in the regular-season finale. With playoff seeding decided, Brady saw limited action before giving way to Matt Cassel.
Miami pushed out to a 25-13 lead with just under 10 minutes to go, but New England responded, and when Cassel hit Tim Dwight for a 9-yard touchdown pass, Flutie was on.
“It was almost matter-of-fact the way Bill said it: ‘We score here, you’re kicking it,’ ” Flutie recalled. “And don’t you know it, he didn’t get the sentence out of his mouth and we were in the end zone.
“Now, I’m 43 years old. I’ve been standing around for 3½ hours in the cold. This won’t be easy.”
Flutie recalled asking Belichick, “Are you serious?”
“Yeah, go get it,” the coach replied.
Flutie told Paxton to let trash-talking Miami defensive lineman Keith Traylor know what was coming.
“I was just like, ‘Tell him what we’re doing,’ ” Flutie recalled. “And Bam Childress is out on the edge, and he has Sam Madison on him, and I can hear Madison out there telling him we were running a fake: ‘Watch the slant.’
“All Bam says is ‘Check this out. You have to see what we’re going to do.’ ”
Paxton remembers the Dolphins’ Zach Thomas and Junior Seau catching his eye, giving him a look of confusion about the offensive formation.
“I grinned at them and said, ‘Just sit back and watch this one, boys. This is going to be history,’ ” Paxton said.
While the players were confident, Patriots special teams coach Brad Seely remembered a mild sense of unease.
“I think there was always a little trepidation,” Seely said. “We didn’t know how fast Doug would be able to kick it, and he was deeper than we would be for an extra point, where the holder would put the ball down. The blocking scheme was more like it would be for a punt, and we anticipated a wider rush.”
But he also thought the Dolphins not rushing meant they could pull it off.
“I really don’t think they knew what we were doing,” Seely said.
Gillette Stadium had a grass surface that season, and there were more than a few divots by that time in the game. Flutie had to pick a spot for the right bounce.
“I picked my spot, got a good drop, and hit it square,” he said.
The crowd, in a bit of a chilly New Year’s Day haze, cheered when the ball went between the uprights. On the field, the players went crazy.
“They were running at me just like we won the Super Bowl,” Flutie said. “It was definitely a cool reaction from the rest of the team. I remember running to the bench and seeing Bill had a smile on his face.”
That smile didn’t go unnoticed.
“It was a neat thing,” Seely said. “Bill is such a fan of the history of football, and he had schooled everyone up about what was going to happen.
“I remember someone coming up to me after the game and saying, ‘Congratulations. I think that was one of the first times I saw Bill smile all season.’ ”
Miami won the game, 28-26, but the drop kick was the story.
It was the first time someone had executed one in the NFL since the 1941 championship game, when Ray McLean of the Bears connected in a 37-9 win over the Giants.
“It sure screwed me up,” Miami coach Nick Saban told reporters after the game. “I couldn’t figure out what they were doing. I had to use a timeout.
“I’m kind of pleased to hear that somebody can still drop-kick. Flutie showed his age on that one.”
Flutie didn’t know it at the time, but the kick would end up as his final play in the NFL.
After the loss in the divisional round against the Broncos, he met with Belichick and took stock of his future.
“He said, ‘We don’t know what we’re going to do next year,’ ” recalled Flutie. “My arm was still good, and I was considering resting up for one more year.
“Bill said, ‘Look, I’m going to look around, and if I don’t like what I see, I don’t find a guy I like, I may be calling you.’ But that didn’t happen.
“My other thought was that maybe I go back to Canada for one last year as a thank you. But ultimately, that was it for me.”
Fifteen years later, the drop kick still resonates with fans.
“People love it because it was something they never saw before, and haven’t seen done successfully since,” said Berman. “It ties the history of the game together in a unique way. It’s a bridge — the world’s longest bridge — to an earlier era of leather helmets and dirt fields.”
For Flutie, it was the perfect career bookend to his remarkable Hail Mary pass that beat the University of Miami in 1984.
It wasn’t exactly Ted Williams homering in his last at-bat, but for Flutie, who had an unorthodox football life, it was a fitting coda.
“I think everyone saw the Hail Mary, but the drop kick, that was something special,” he said. “I always felt that true fans recognized the drop kick for being something special. Something different. Something fun.”
Christopher Price can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at cpriceglobe.