FOXBOROUGH -- In thanking family, friends, and fans for their support through three decades of football, Doug Flutie drew on lyrics from the song ''Lucky Man" by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Certainly many fans in New England consider the good fortune theirs to have been witness to the Flutie Magic from Natick High School to Boston College and through 21 years in three professional leagues.
Yesterday, Flutie, the little quarterback who could, announced his retirement from the Patriots, ending a career that despite a host of highs -- a Heisman Trophy, three Grey Cup championships, six Canadian Football League Most Outstanding Player awards -- fostered debate from critics who felt he couldn't do what he seemed to regularly do: win football games.
Flutie (38-28 as a starter in the NFL) was an impressive 23-9 as a starter in home games and a remarkable 12-2 (including college) as a starter in Foxboro Stadium, including 5-0 there with the Patriots.
''The amazing thing with my career has been, since Day 1, I always felt like I gained strength from the fans being behind me," Flutie said. ''I always felt like the critics were out there, and they were in big numbers, and the jury was always out. And I said to this day, 'I'm going to announce my retirement and they'll say, ''See, I told you he couldn't do it." '
''The fans were the ones that always had no doubt in my abilities and the things I would do on the field, and they enjoyed watching me play. I definitely always gained my strength from the fans.
''Walking out on the field, knowing they were anticipating something great happening, and that we would win, no matter what the situation . . . they didn't give up faith, and you knew you had an opportunity. I kind of felt that obligation to them, that I'd have to pull a rabbit out of the hat or find a way to win."
Of course, the most notable rabbit Flutie produced came on the last play against the University of Miami in 1984. The famous Hail Mary pass that resulted in a 48-yard game-winning touchdown grab by Gerard Phelan is so memorable that it was part of a collection of football highlights Patriots coach Bill Belichick showed his 2006 rookie crop this past weekend.
A picture of a jubilant Flutie in that postgame celebration was among three photos in a collage presented to the signal caller by Patriots owner Robert Kraft at the retirement news conference.
''I can't think of one time when he was on the field where he didn't make us feel proud as sports fans of New England," said Kraft, who also gave Flutie a $22,000 donation to the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism, an organization Flutie created in honor of his son, who has the neurological disorder.
Kraft noted the amount of the contribution relates to the number Flutie wore at BC and with the 22-year span between his Heisman Trophy season and now, plus the bookends of the old- and new-style No. 2 jerseys he wore in two stints with the Patriots (1987-89 and 2005).
But 22 also matches the number of real plays Flutie was on the field for as the backup quarterback for the Patriots last season. He played 25 plays, with three kneel-downs, as almost all of his action came in mop-up duty.
''Every day you want to be the guy on the field," said Flutie, 43. ''It's very difficult [not to play] and maybe that's why over the last three or four years the game has not been as much fun for me, because you have to work just as hard as anyone else and be ready to play. And the preparation is a part of this game. And you just don't quite have the emotional attachment if you're not the guy on the field.
''You still feel the pain of a loss and you still feel the excitement of the win, but that emotional tie with the other players on the team isn't always there when you're not in the battle fighting with them."
Flutie's only play last season in a game still in doubt was one Belichick described as the most fun trick play he has put into a game plan in his career.
It was a dropkick for an extra point in the final game of the season, a loss to Miami. The historic play -- the first dropkick in the NFL in 64 years -- came on the final snap of Flutie's career.
''Bill putting that dropkick in for me to do kind of put the fun back in the game," Flutie said. ''[That], to me, is what the game is all about. It's about competing out on the field, finding a way to win, and having fun doing it. That's been my approach throughout my life and the way I've approached this game.
''I'm just a big kid."
But because he was a shade under 5 feet 10 inches, and less than 180 pounds, many never considered Flutie big enough for the NFL.
He started his pro career in the short-lived United States Football League in 1985, playing for the New Jersey Generals and owner Donald Trump. When the league folded, Flutie found his way to Chicago, where coach Mike Ditka never felt comfortable with him in the lineup.
It may have been even worse in his first stint with New England, which he joined via trade during the 1987 NFL player strike. Then-coach Raymond Berry seemed to do all he could to avoid putting Flutie in the lineup, and when faced with no other option but to play him, he virtually handcuffed the freewheeling playmaker.
Finally, frustrated at not getting a chance to compete, Flutie took his game north of the border in 1990 to the Canadian Football League, where he was named Most Outstanding Player in six of his eight seasons and won three championships. He again found joy in the game.
''I'll tell you what, I had more fun playing football in Canada [than anywhere] in my career," Flutie said. ''I enjoy the game. I enjoy playing. The fact that it's the NFL and it's so many people watching and it's on the big stage, or if it's the CFL, that doesn't bother me. It could be in the backyard as far as I'm concerned."
But Flutie wanted to give the NFL one more go, and in 1998 decided he would give it ''a couple of years." He returned in style, earning a Pro Bowl invitation with the Bills in his first season back, and leading them to the playoffs two consecutive years.
Those ''couple of years" turned into seven seasons -- three with Buffalo and four with San Diego. Then after considering retirement or a return to Canada for a swan song, Flutie was offered the opportunity to finish his career at home with New England, where he could be around for his daughter Alexa's senior year in high school and on hand to watch his nephew help Natick to an unbeaten championship season.
Though he felt at times he would not be ready to play because his knee bothered him, sitting and watching the Patriots play last season, his 12th in the NFL, was not much fun.
''I am at the point to where I enjoy watching my nephews play ball more than stepping onto the field myself," said Flutie, who threw for 14,715 yards and 86 touchdowns (68 interceptions) in the NFL.
So he chooses to leave the game he dedicated so much time and energy to, bringing so many thrills to so many.
''Doug is really a special athlete," Belichick said. ''The way he's taken over this region as an athlete, I think, has been remarkable. Just like the way we see him take over a football game."
Yet Flutie considers himself the lucky man.
''I think, looking back at it, I'm proud of the fact that I've been with my wife for as long as we have and our kids and our family, especially in the lifestyle that the NFL presents a lot of times," said Flutie, who will work with ABC on college football telecasts this fall. ''[I'm proud of] the longevity and being able to be an athletic quarterback and play this game for 21 years. It's doing something over a long period of time . . . to look back and say, 'Every time I stepped on the field, I gave it everything I had.'
''There isn't a single time that I'll look back and say, 'I wasn't prepared for that game' or 'I didn't quite give it all I had.' That to me is one of the things that I am most proud of, is the fact that when I stepped on the field, I think it was pretty obvious that whatever I had, I was giving it out on the field."
Jerome Solomon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
PHOTO GALLERY For photos of Flutie through the years, as well as a career retrospective, go to www.boston.com/patriots