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Elway's Long Bomb

The beefy fortune tellers of the National Football League have gazed into their tea leaves and come up with a prophecy: John Elway will return for another season. One last hurrah. The Final Final. The I-Really-Mean-It-This-Time Actual Blaze of Glory Farewell.

Fortified by umbrella drinks and sunshine, the assembled gladiators at Sunday's NFL Pro Bowl in Honolulu were of one voice when it came to Number Seven's future. Exalted by two consecutive Super Bowl wins, Elway will be unable to resist the temptation to try for a history-making third, his peers believe. The 38-year-old quarterback's medical charts may look like something from the Battle of Verdun--aching rib cage, creaky knees, ravaged hamstrings, nagging bursa sac, lingering carbuncles--but he'd like nothing better than to knock Bart Starr, Bob Griese, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Troy Aikman, the previous two-straight winners, off their high perch.

For his part, Elway allowed that the thrill of beating Atlanta on January 31 had put a "kink" into his thinking...about settling into a rocking chair, or becoming the Emperor of Colorado, or whatever he was contemplating had the Falcons knocked off the Broncos.

The smart money now says Elway will come back in '99. If he does, certain Broncos fans will have to take time out from their careers in beer-chugging, arson and window-smashing to prostrate themselves before him one last time. Hey, no problem. Justifiably, the man with the golden arm is Saint John in these parts, and he has long since elevated the naked bootleg and the two-minute drill into local sacraments.

There's just one problem. If we can believe just .666 of 1 percent of what the lunatic fringe is saying, there isn't even going to be a Super Bowl next year. It's fourth down and very, very long yardage for the entire planet, the sky-is-falling crowd claims, and if we know what's good for us, we won't waste much time worrying about the Minnesota Vikings' pass rush when we should be huddled in our basements with huge sacks of dried figs and three years' worth of flashlight batteries.

The catastrophists can't seem to agree how the world will end--just that it will happen a couple of weeks before next year's AFC title game. Will we be inundated by Flood? Some strict biblical constructionists are going with that one, based on the Noah thing, the preliminary furies visited upon on Mother Earth last year by El Nino and, presumably, that game the Chicago Bears played last year in a typhoon. How about Fire? To be sure, those hoodlums trying to torch overturned cars on 15th Street a couple of Sundays back might be a useful portent. Ever mindful of the zeitgeist, Hollywood has already embraced the destruction-by-asteroid theory and done plenty of its own damage to the pocketbooks of moviegoers foolish enough to shell out $7.50 to watch Armageddon or Deep Impact.

After handicapping his own version of the Final Days Bowl, Reverend Louis Farrakhan is betting a three-team parlay--Earthquake, Hailstorm and Flood. Those of a more secular bent are predicting the end of civilization as we know it due to Cyber-Apocalypse--a massive global computer glitch instigated by the so-called "millennium bug." On January 1, 2000, they say, banks will fail, the flow of electricity will stop cold, and food supplies will vanish, provoking chaos in the streets. According to this scenario, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' team plane has virtually no chance of ever arriving in, say, Green Bay this December 31 for a playoff game with the Packers. It will simply disappear into the vast maw of the cosmos, complete with water boys, shoulder pads and rolls of ankle tape.

Where will all this leave our Mr. Elway, the man trying to make football history before the earth explodes?

Some doomsayers are predicting he'll never get that far. One look at the Broncos' 1999 opponents reveals that Denver will have to be awfully good and awfully lucky if it expects to even reach New Year's Eve in one piece. Thanks to a second-place AFC West finish in 1997, Elway and company got three cupcakes on its sixteen-game schedule last season--the dreadful Washington Redskins, the inept Philadelphia Eagles and the baffled Cincinnati Bengals, all of whom they defeated en route to that 13-0 mark. In addition, the San Diego Chargers couldn't score touchdowns, the Seattle Seahawks underachieved, and the vaunted Kansas City Chiefs self-destructed via backbiting and mutiny. In the end, it took the dog-ass New York Giants, another bunch without a clue, to knock the Broncos from the unbeaten ranks.

Things won't be so easy in this doomsday year. After winning the AFC West in 1998, the conference title and the Super Bowl, the Broncos must this fall face Plague, in the form of the Vikings, 15-1 in '98 and still hopping mad after getting blindsided for the NFC crown by Atlanta, and Green Bay, 11-5 last year and furious that a Steve Young bomb knocked them out of the playoffs.

Care for a little Pestilence? How about a rematch with the dangerous New York Jets, still smarting after losing the AFC title game in Mile High Stadium? Or a visit with the Tampa Bay Bucs, improving with every snap and the only team to beat Minnesota in the regular season last year?

In their own division, the Broncos will see double duty against Seattle, a 1998 disappointment that now comes under the firm hand of ex-Packers coach Mike Holmgren. The Chiefs can only improve now that Elway doesn't have snakebit Marty Schottenheimer to punch around anymore. And if, in this millennial year, you're predicting an infestation of locusts or an assault by flaming serpents, consider this: As always, the Broncos will twice have to contend with the Antichrist himself--Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders.

Oh, and how about Famine? In '99 Denver will also visit Jacksonville. Any orange-blooded Broncos fan with his looting skills intact will always remember Jacksonville. In January, 1997, the Jaguars were the Last Judgment.

So while John Elway rests his weary body parts this winter and contemplates a last fling at football in the 21st century, we might all do well to set aside the Broncos playbook for a moment and take up another volume that is valuable to the present moment. Written in 1841 by one Charles Mackay, this cautionary tale chronicles the terror that seized all Christendom at the end of the tenth century--when professional sport consisted of heaving your opponent into a vat of boiling oil or bopping him on the head with a mace. So convinced were people back then that the destruction of the world and the final reckoning would come at the close of their millennium that thousands trembled speechlessly in the dark, expired of sheer fright, swallowed poison or dashed their heads against rocks.

Come November or December, the title of Mackay's book might even begin to ring strangely true with Broncos fans who were earlier counting on their beloved quarterback to loft them to glory once more in the new millennium. It is called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

Osterreich Uber Alles: If you've been to Vienna, you know about the local pastries--sumptuous delicacies that not even the hautiest French chef could hope to match with an icing gun in each fist.

But there are no cream puffs on the Austrian ski team. Not in the teacherous speed events at the World Alpine Championships, anyway.

On Saturday the fearless Hermann Maier--beloved in his homeland (and at Arnold Schwarzenegger's house) as the "Hermanator"-- destroyed Beaver Creek's daunting Birds of Prey downhill course, shouldering gates out of his path left and right and finishing more than three-tenths of a second ahead of Norway's Lasse Kjus. In ski racing, three-tenths of a second is akin to a lazy afternoon on the sundeck sipping Mosel.

It was Maier's second gold at the Worlds. Earlier in the week he won the men's super-G.

But he's got nothing on the Austrian women. Leaving top contenders like Italy's Isolde Kostner and Germany's Hilde Gerg in their snowy wakes (and injured American Picabo Street in the lodge), the Hermanator's schnell female teammates swept the super-G and downhill on Vail's tricky International course. Among them, Renate Goetschl, Michaela Dorfmeister, Alexandra Meissnitzer and Stefanie Schuster won all six podium spots in the two women's speed events and will not soon forget their visit to Vail.

"We have some good racers on this team," downhill winner Goetschl allowed. Yes, and you can get a pretty fair slice of cake in Vienna.

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