The Long Goodbye

When it was over, the big, blue-eyed man wearing the beautifully tailored charcoal suit and the pale-gold necktie left a box of Kleenex untouched on the podium and followed his blocker, wife Janet, through one last Sunday-afternoon sea of photographers. They vanished through a side door of a hotel ballroom into bright sunshine--and history. On stage, Pat Bowlen and Mike Shanahan suddenly looked small and vaguely uneasy in gray fabric armchairs. King John had left the building, and the Broncos' owner and head coach could not begin to fill the emotional space their great quarterback had just occupied.

Half a dozen throats cleared, and reporters lobbed a few more halfhearted questions at the secondary participants. But the void was palpable and stinging. It's the same void a football team that has just won two straight Super Bowls is bound to feel when training camp rolls around this summer and when the season opens this fall.

Number Seven is gone. Retired. After winning a National Football League record 148 games, passing for 51,475 yards and starting a record five Super Bowls, the man whose name was a condition of life in this town for sixteen years has hung 'em up.

"I can't do it physically anymore," John Elway said, his voice cracking into a sob. "And that is really hard for me to say."

Physically, of course, he has always been able to do it. He could fling the ball eighty yards downfield. He could sprint right and throw back left. He could dive into the end zone, a safety and a linebacker fixed to him like barnacles, on one of his famous naked bootlegs. In sixteen seasons, Elway passed for an even 300 touchdowns (third most in history), ran for 33 and engineered 47 fourth-quarter drives to win ballgames.

"He may, in fact, ultimately be the greatest to have ever played this game at that position," said Marty Schottenheimer, the former Cleveland Browns and Kansas City coach Elway famously tormented for a dozen years. "The guy is the greatest competitor I have ever witnessed in sport."

In his career, he was also sacked more than 500 times--another record--for losses totaling more than two miles. He always got up, cleared the cobwebs and jumped back into the huddle. But on January 9, Elway says, when the Broncos played the Miami Dolphins in an AFC Divisional Playoff game, he took a huge hit from Miami linebacker Zach Thomas that got him thinking through the pain. "I said to myself, 'These guys are getting too big and too strong.' It felt like he'd knocked my left shoulder blade through my right ear."

At age 38, Elway began to have second thoughts about his future. A strained hamstring had kept him out of a game against Washington in week four, and bruised ribs kept him off the field against San Diego and Kansas City in November. In all, he missed most of five games last year because of persistent injuries. Evidently mortal after all, he decided to retire last month when a long-gimpy left knee didn't respond to off-season conditioning.

Asked if there was any way he'd return for one more year--and possibly a third straight Super Bowl win--Elway brushed back tears again and managed a joke. "Put it this way. It would have to be an absolute, total, 100 percent catastrophe. If Mike [Shanahan] came to me and said: 'Hey, the only guy I got who can take snaps is [oft-surgically repaired guard] Mark Schlereth,' I would say okay. But other than that, I'm done."

Championship-minded fans and Elway's ex-teammates must now ask themselves if the Broncos are also done. Next season, veteran quarterback Bubby Brister, who played well in Number Seven's absence last year, is likely to be the new starter, with backups Brian Griese and newly acquired Chris Miller manning the clipboards. But without Elway on the field and in the locker room, Broncoland is bound to be strange and different.

"You think of all the things that have changed in Colorado in sixteen years," said tight end Shannon Sharpe, "but the one thing that has been constant has been John Elway...He built his mystique, he built his legacy, and you had to respect that. We still have [running back] Terrell Davis back there. But [opponents] had to respect both of those guys. Stop Elway, and Terrell runs wild. Stop Terrell, and John throws the ball all over the field. So we lose that. Now, once Bubby goes out there and proves that he can do it--and we know he can--we're gonna be fine. But John just had an aura about him."

It was the irrepressible Sharpe who, before Sunday's press conference, set the over-and-under (at three and a half) on how many times the retiring quarterback would cry before a room filled with media, family, friends and Broncos players past and present. "I won the bet," Sharpe said sadly. "Maybe there's a new car in it for me, I don't know...I mean, the guy's been playing football probably since he was six, seven years old, and all of a sudden he's walking away, scot-free. He doesn't have to train, he doesn't have to get up in the morning and go to meetings, he doesn't have to go the training camp. And you miss that. When I go away in the off-season, I'm miserable. I miss being with the guys, miss practicing...He'll have no more bruises and no more treatment. But he's going to miss it. He'll miss Sundays."

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