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Former CFL star quarterback Flutie feels commissioner Ambrosie's pain

TORONTO — Doug Flutie can feel CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie's pain. Ambrosie continues to discuss potential contingency plans for the 2020 CFL season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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TORONTO — Doug Flutie can feel CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie's pain.

Ambrosie continues to discuss potential contingency plans for the 2020 CFL season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The league has already postponed three combines and the opening of training camps while pushing back the start of the regular season — originally slated for June 11 — to at least July.

But no decision has been made to cancel the entire 2020 season. That's not a surprise given the impact such a move would have on the CFL, which is a gate-driven league.

Flutie, 57, knows that all too well, having spent eight of his 21 seasons as a pro quarterback in Canada (1990-97).

"I think all of the leagues are struggling with that right now and all of them want to be on the field," Flutie said during a telephone interview. "Obviously, the CFL is very dependant on the gate, on the ticket sales.

"I don't know enough to be able to say whether it can happen or not but even if it's a reduced season and you start late, you've got to do something to maintain that fanbase, obviously salaries and everything else. That league works year to year. They're dependant on (ticket) sales coming in to pay bills."

It's been suggested that some pro sports will play in empty stadiums upon their return. But Flutie, who has been a colour commentator for Notre Dame Football on NBC since 2014, agrees that scenario would be a challenge for the CFL.

"Major League Baseball could play in front of an empty house and still be all right because of their TV contract," he said. "But the CFL, you need the ticket sales and people buying beer at the stadium and everything else.

"I don't know what the answer is, it's the same everywhere. It's the same for the guy who owns the pizza place down the street. He's fighting to find a way to make ends meet, doing takeout and delivery only, curbside, he's delivering to areas he never delivered to before . . . you've got to find ways."

Flutie enjoyed a stellar tenure in Canada with the B.C. Lions (1990-91) Calgary Stampeders (1992-95) and Toronto Argonauts (1996-97) before returning to the NFL with the Buffalo Bills. The five-foot-10, 181-pound former Heisman Trophy winner at Boston College was the CFL's outstanding player six times, won three Grey Cups and was named the game MVP each time.

In 2007, Flutie became the first non-Canadian elected to Canada's Sports Hall of Fame and the following year was a first-ballot selection into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. Flutie was inducted into the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.

"I say this all the time, the CFL put the joy of playing football back into football for me," Flutie said. "Every time I'm up there for something, it's just a big, warm hug and I love those years.

"In B.C. I got to play with my brother, Darren. I wish that had lasted longer but there are just so many things that were special about the days in the CFL. I still keep in touch with people from Toronto, I still keep in touch with people from Calgary . . . I was flipping through Instagram not long ago and there was something going on with the B.C. Lions and I just jumped on. It's just a lot of fondness."

Flutie said the longer, wider field and passing nature of Canadian football were both good fits for him. But he also credited his coaches for allowing him to do what he did best.

"I think the No. 1 reason I was successful is the coaches I played for realized my strengths and left me alone," he said. "They put me in a position to be successful and said, 'Hey this what you do well, go.'

"I started when we were in Calgary talking with Huf (former offensive co-ordinator John Hufnagel, now the Stamps president/GM) that whenever we got into no-huddle we did really well. So a couple of times we just started the game with no-huddle and we did a lot of that type of stuff."

Flutie was given carte blanche by head coach Don Matthews upon his arrival in Toronto, where he won his final two Grey Cups.

"Don was the all-timer for that," Flutie said. "He was like, 'Doug, this is your football team. If you throw five interceptions, guess what? You're going to have a chance to throw six, you're not coming out.'

"That just made me more confident on the field and never looking over my shoulder and being afraid to take a risk or anything like that."

Matthews, nicknamed "The Don," was a larger-than-life character with a sharp wit who thrived in the spotlight. The Hall of Famer, who passed away in 2017 at age 77, registered 231 career head-coaching wins and was part of 10 Grey Cup-winning teams.

"When you played for another team against him, he seemed like a brash, arrogant guy," Flutie said. "You hated Don if you played against him.

"But Don had a knack for deflecting pressure off his players. He took a lot of it on himself, part of it was his big personality. But when you played for Don, you didn't have a care in the world. We just went out and played and we loved it."

 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2020.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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