By Joel Warner
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It seems impossible--doesn't it?--that on the first day, he was terrible. Facing the Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium, he completed just one of eight passes for a measly fourteen yards. He got sacked, hard, four times, and by game's end looked like a deer in the headlights. Because those weren't the USC Trojans across the line of scrimmage, or the Cal Bears, guys with early classes to make Monday morning. The Steelers were single-minded, fire-snorting Godzillas who played football for a living. Professional killers with real zest for their work.
Later, he admitted to thinking for a mad moment that he'd made a big mistake. Maybe baseball in the Yankees organization was the way to go. Run around in the sunshine. Shag flies. Take BP. On the other hand, a sparkling college-football career and a degree in economics from Stanford weren't the worst things you could bring to the job market.
This is ancient history, of course--a blip on the screen, an odd footnote. Since that first September afternoon back in 1983, John Elway has become one the greatest quarterbacks in National Football League history and the single most recognizable human being in the city of Denver. Not the mayor, not the governor, certainly not the conductor of the symphony. Not Dante Bichette. Elway. For fifteen years, little boys here have tried to walk his walk--that muscular, slightly stiff-kneed gait that speaks of body knowledge and bravery. Kids in the park still try to imitate the thing only he could do--sprint full speed to his left, cock his arm and unleash a 45-yard rocket to his right, all the way across the field. Six-year-olds want his jersey, Number Seven, hanging down to their ankles. They want his very soul inside them.
Plenty of grown men, too, imagine themselves in his shoes. Out there on the emerald grass--Biff, Mr. Ed, The Duke, the Comeback Kid--coolly engineering another fourth-quarter miracle for the history books. There have been 44 of them. Most memorable? We've got 'em right where we want 'em, Elway joked to his huddle in the dimming light of January 12, 1987. Little matter that they were 98 yards from the Cleveland goal line and an AFC title. It was a done deal: The Drive.
So grown men also get sheepish grins on their faces when they run into him as he sips a beer at a neighborhood saloon, or retrieves his luggage from the airport carousel, or does that little imploring dance with his blue eyes, the one that says: Please, not today. Don't bug me. Today I need a break.
The grown men sprout sheepish grins because Elway is larger, somehow, than even they have imagined. In this town, he's a condition of life.
Amazing. Four AFC titles. Five pro bowls. League MVP in 1987 and AFC Player of the Year in 1993. This season he surpassed the great Minnesota Viking quarterback Fran Tarkenton's career marks in total offense (50,677 yards), passing (47,003) and completions (3,686) to reach second place on the all-time NFL list in those categories. Now he trails only his 1983 "classmate," Dan Marino, as the greatest passer ever--as long as you don't count a fellow named Joe Montana, who wears all the rings. But this season Marino visibly lost firepower, and the Miami Dolphins watched the second round of the playoffs from their living rooms. Marino's career could come to a crashing halt next season as coach Jimmy Johnson looks around for a new leader.
By contrast, Elway led the Broncos to three astonishing playoff wins this year--at home versus Jacksonville, on the road at Kansas City and Pittsburgh--prompting a vast printing of "Revenge Tour" T-shirts. Amazing. In light of the man's history of crushed bursa sacks, gimpy knees, bruised shoulders and torn biceps, how does he still do it? It's certainly time to acknowledge his mortality, but also to remember a hard-nosed fact: He's always been tough as dirt. In fifteen pro seasons, Elway has missed exactly nine games to injury.
"Never in my life have I seen another quarterback do what Elway does with a football," former Cincinnati Bengal Bob Trumpy once said. "I'll put him up against any quarterback from the last fifty years."
By the way, have you heard? On Sunday afternoon last, in San Diego, John Elway beat back all the demons of the past and finally won a Super Bowl in his fourth attempt. He and the Denver Broncos upset the mighty Green Bay Packers 31-24, and Number Seven can now--if he so chooses--pass into history as a man who has accomplished his ultimate mission after 225 games.
Before the big game with the Packers--his last shot at a ring--Elway had already grown philosophical. "When I was younger, in the early days, I thought about nothing but winning the Super Bowl," he said. "Now I'm not quite so concerned with that. I feel good about my career, comfortable with it. Some people might never let me forget about those Super Bowl losses, but that's just the way it is. I'm enjoying my family, and I'm more relaxed than I've ever been."
Why not? He's 37 years old and reluctant to scramble these days, but he still has a rifle arm to go with his ever-deepening game smarts. He's raised millions for charity. He has seven car dealerships and the hearts of football fans everywhere--except in Kansas City and Oakland. His family is content and complete. And because these are the Nineties--the age of celebrity culture--he might one day soon find it easier to become Senator Elway or Governor Elway or Emperor Elway than to beat the 49ers in the slop at Candlestick.