For love of the game

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Yahoo! Sports celebrated the return of America's true passion with "Football Nation," a weeklong series featuring this year's most intriguing figures from the preps to the pros. National columnist Dan Wetzel finishes things off with a profile of Doug Flutie.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – It started in the youth football leagues outside of Boston and continued through Natick High School, a Heisman Trophy and a Hail Mary at Boston College, the USFL, the NFL, the CFL and finally the NFL again, from backup to starter to backup again.

The teams, the leagues and even the spot on the depth chart hasn't mattered as much to Doug Flutie as the chance to play a game he loves to play, quite possibly, more than anyone else in America.

"It has been 35 years having something to do every fall, playing football," said Flutie on Tuesday at the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots' home, where at 42 (43 in October) the 5-foot-10 water bug is still the most enthusiastic backup quarterback in the NFL.

Tom Brady is not only entrenched as the Patriots' starter but also as a cultural icon in New England – an even greater icon than Flutie, whose heroics at Boston College over two decades ago are still celebrated. What Flutie is here to do now is help, and help only.

Which is fine. There is no amount of "I should be the starter" pride that can keep this guy away from the Patriots' season opener against the Oakland Raiders on Thursday. He knows the opportunity to play is too precious for ego.

"A couple of years ago we [his team then, the San Diego Chargers] went to K.C. and opened up," Flutie said. "You get through training camp sometimes and you are just sort of plugging along.

"[But then] you come out of the tunnel on game day, opening day and the crowd noise, 80,000 people in the seats and [you say], 'Yeah, this is why I am still playing. This is what it is all about. Let's go out and have some fun. Go out and play.' "

Go out and play.

Now that is Doug Flutie for you.

That he is a backup again should not be seen as a sign of resignation. Flutie knows the reality. Brady has three Super Bowl rings. But it hasn't stopped Flutie from trying to win the job, win some more snaps and win at just about anything.

You don't enter pro football as an undersized QB with a questionable arm and last until you are pushing your mid-40s unless you are insanely competitive and ignorant of the word "no."

"I think he loves the competition whether it is golf, pickup basketball, pro football, marbles – he is a competitive guy," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "No matter what he is involved with, he will compete at a high level."

Still as fit as can be, the 180-pound Flutie can run circles around some of his much younger teammates. That's why there is no lack of respect in the locker room. Just a lot of awe.

"I was five years old when he came into the league," wide receiver Deion Branch said.

It gets worse. Rookie safety James Sanders was born during Flutie's junior year of college.

"When I was in San Diego," said safety Rodney Harrison, "after every practice Doug would be the last guy out there running around the track. He was just unbelievable. We would do our sprints and after I am walking out of the shower he is still running around.

"He is a warrior. He is not doing it for the money. He is doing it because he loves the game, he loves the locker room, he loves football."

Flutie is ready to play; there is no question about that. He started the Chargers' season finale last year and if anything should happen to Brady, the man wearing No. 2 will take the Gillette Stadium field to the roar of the crowd and the support of his teammates.

That said, Flutie has played just 10 games the last three seasons. A lot of what he brings to the table is in the locker room, meeting room and film room.

"He is still into it," Branch said. "We were just in the meeting room going over some plays, and for him to step up to me and say, 'That was a good route, but do it this way,' you have to listen to him because the guy has been playing a long time."

Flutie's teammates say he would make an exceptional coach because he knows not just how to play quarterback, but also how to play football. Flutie smiles at that notion. His passion for playing may be unmatched. But coaching?

"I don't know," he said. "If I do, it will be at the high school level just having some fun. I have seen the job, the hours these guys put in. They are in here 5:30, 6 in the morning [and] going home at 1, sometimes sleeping in the office.

"It is kind of like being a mom. I've seen the job and I don't like it."

What about one day coaching his alma mater, where he would be a recruiting juggernaut?

"When I am done playing, I want to be able to enjoy being around my family," Flutie said. "I could come down [to a high school] on a part-time basis, help the kids a little bit, but not make it my life. When you are a coach at this level, it is your life."

Natick High School. Boston College. New Jersey Generals (USFL). Chicago Bears. New England Patriots. British Columbia Lions (CFL). Calgary Stampede (CFL). Toronto Argonauts (CFL). Buffalo Bills. San Diego Chargers. New England Patriots.

That is the Rand McNally of football careers, with Flutie always trying to prove himself to coaches who stubbornly preferred bigger, stronger, more traditional quarterbacks.

The exile to the Canadian Football League from 1990 to 1997 – his fleetest-of-foot days – was the most disappointing because Flutie believed he could be a NFL starter. But rather than quit or pout, Flutie looked at that oversized CFL field and just went out and scrambled.

He wound up having the time of his life.

"My two years in Toronto were the most enjoyable I've ever had playing football," Flutie said of his 1996-1997 tenure with the Argonauts. "The team, the coaching staff, [the] two championships. It was just fun to go in and hang out with the guys. The CFL kind of lends itself to that a little bit, but for some reason that group of guys was special."

Now he is trying to rekindle that unforgettable fire in New England. On Tuesday, Flutie clowned around with Brady in front of their lockers. He wore a perpetual smile. He talked excitedly about being back home. He played college games in the Patriots' old stadium here.

Mostly, he just talked about how lucky he is to get to play football. Nothing has changed from year one to year 35.

"The reasons to play [is] I enjoy the game," Flutie said. "The other part has become work for me. No doubt about it – the preparation. Over the past 10 years, the game has changed quite a bit with the level of preparation and that takes the fun out of it sometimes. But you get to game day and, yeah, that's fun."

Could this be his final year?

His teammates hope he just goes on and on.

"Why not?" Harrison said.

"He ain't going to play until 50," said Branch, before correcting himself. "Actually, Flutie may be the one to break that record."

Flutie said 50 is unlikely. But nothing was ruled out. He said he will know when he knows. His outside interests include playing the drums in a rock band with his brother Darren and running a foundation for his autistic son.

"You get to a point where you don't want to work that hard," Flutie said. "And that is what all the guys [who] have [retired] said."

He thought about it for a second and shook his head. Here on the eve of his 35th football season opener, the work load didn't seem so bad.

"[Former Patriots QB] Steve Grogan and I talked this offseason and he said, 'Hey, if I could play another season I would. Play as long as you can.' "

Go out and play.