It's July. You return to the office after a little vacation. Well, not a vacation, exactly--more like another trip to the welding shop. They cemented fourteen new bones into your body and bolted an Erector Set to your right elbow. Without making a big fuss about it, they also fulfilled a long-standing request and sent one of your knees to the Smithsonian, where (don't let this get out) the assembled scientists recoiled in horror at the sight of all those cruel fractures, gory ligaments and tortured tendons. Kind of stuff only Boris Karloff or the Oakland Raiders could love. Old hands report the boys in Washington haven't run for the exits that fast since back in the Thirties, when they got a gander at John Dillinger's severed privates immersed in two gallons of formaldehyde.
So now you're back at work. Reconstructed, restitched, refurbished and renewed. Half your body is now made of state-of-the-art polymers, and you're ready to do it for the fourteenth straight year--hey, the thirtieth year, if you want to count everything going back to Pee Wees. You're John Elway, Number Seven, and the oft-quashed hopes of an entire franchise still ride on your bionic right arm. They've offered you--let's see here--$29.5 million to endure five more years of abuse. And you've said yes. At the age of forty, when most guys are nodding off in the electric cart before teeing it up, you'll still be out there dodging 295-pound linemen who run the 40 in about three seconds. You'll still be putting on the orange play clothes. Most likely, you'll still be wondering what The Ring feels like.
That's the question every get-a-life jock-sniffer addicted to the talk shows was asking last week. Every psychiatrist in his right mind, too. Why? Why would a nearly 36-year-old quarterback who's already surmounted every hurdle but one and endured incredible pain in the process of draping himself in glory decide to carry on for another half-decade, right into the next millennium, in one of the most dangerous jobs in America? Why? Why would a man who owns four or five dozen perfectly good automobile dealerships continue to risk his very life by standing in the road every Sunday afternoon while fleets of runaway beer trucks try to knock him flat?
Is it the quest for 50,000 passing yards? Maybe. Only Elway and Dan Marino (both Class of 1982) are ever likely to reach that impossible plateau: At his usual brisk clip, Elway would come due sometime in 1998.
Is it the money? Please. "When you get to be my age..." he began last week, but even before the ballplayer cliches could tumble out in neat little rows, the real quality of the man had already dwarfed them. You could see it in his eyes. They may put 29 million bucks' worth of new parts into the guy--already have--but one thing carries no price tag: John Elway's heart. If there's a harder-working athlete on the planet, or one who cares more, he hasn't shown up yet. Most likely, that Super Bowl thing isn't going to happen--is it? If the football gods understand justice, they'll give him another shot...
What'll you bet that a certain Mr. Bowlen is banking on the same set of emotions? Last week Elway signed his fourth and last contract with the Denver Broncos. But the man who offered it up to him (complete with deferments, delays and the usual legal rigmarole) clearly has an agenda of his own. Consider:
* What would Bowlen's chances be for getting that new stadium he wants so badly if his marquee player --the marquee player in the history of this city--were no longer on board to re-energize the dreams of the fans? Right. Zilch. Same chance the Tampa Bay Bucs have of winning the big one. Whenever a Joe Montana hangs 'em up or a Michael Jordan shocks the world by wandering off to shag fly balls for a year, some irreplaceable tonic drains out of the people who love him, who've always loved him. When Elway finally goes, presumably after the 2000 season, this town will be heartsick. If he were to go sooner, the Broncos just wouldn't be the Broncos, and Pat Bowlen's stadium vote would surely be dead.
* There is no other monument. Quick--what number does Dikembe Mutombo wear? And how's that hook shot of his? Could you pick Peter Forsberg out of a group of six guys with muscles? Okay. Dante Bichette: Does he like the ball in, because he has to pull, or can he go the other way with the heater on the outside corner? Patrick Roy? Sure that isn't Roy Patrick? The junkies can answer all this; the casual fans can't. But even the people who watch NFL football only in January can tell you that Number Seven engineered The Drive, that Cleveland paid the price, and that Biff took the Donks to three Super Bowls. In a world of rapid, sometimes bewildering change, even an aging John Elway gives comfort to those in need of symbols and solidity. The man can still bring it--throw it seventy yards on the fly or flip it forty cross-field while he's running for his life in the opposite direction--but his value as a tradition in Denver's cutthroat pro-sports marketplace may now outweigh his abilities. With or without a world championship, he's the D&F Tower of Denver jocks. Everyone else is still second-drawer.
* Frankie Strongarm will love the learning. On what Sunday afternoon will the final blow come? Thirty-nine- and forty-year-old quarterbacks don't suddenly announce that they're tired and trot happily off to aerobics class. They usually take a blinding shot from some hungry young blitzer and it's over, just like that. But by then the Broncos may have Elway's successor on the roster, out of BYU or Baylor or Backwater State, and the old pro's guidance in his final weeks or months could become as valuable as the Delphic oracle. Who would Frankie Strongarm rather learn from? A quarterback coach who piddled around for parts of six games with the Colts a 120 years ago or one of the great players of all time? As Bowlen and company must know, if their timeless star does go down one afternoon, he'll get up and help the kid, you can count on that.
And the 29 mil will have nothing to do with it.
At this writing, the Colorado Avalanche is tied 2-2 in its playoff series with the Vancouver Canucks, which means there's a pretty good chance the thing could go seven games. And that's only the first leg on the run to the Stanley Cup.
Great. Keep this up and the city's hockey fans won't be able to buy shoes for their kids or put pork chops on the dinner table. There's no fanatic like a hockey fanatic (or so we're told), which means that shelling out twenty bucks a pop to watch playoff games on the boob tube takes precedence over refilling great-grandma's prescription or paying the Public Service bill. Among puckheads of modest means, there's a lot of Top Ramen coming out of the microwave this week.
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Why would Ascent Entertainment Group, the Avs' owners, put first-round home playoff games onto pay-per-view and thus out of reach? Because they're greedy pigs, that's why. Of the NHL's 234 or so "playoff teams," only the New York Rangers (who won the Stanley Cup two years ago) and the St. Louis Blues are also charging their fans for the playoffs. Of course, nothing is free in New York--not the last set at Bradley's, not that second basket of bread in a high-handed Tuscan joint in the East Fifties. As for St. Louis--who knows? Somebody's gotta pay Gretzky's salary. May as well let the fans do it.
But here? In the first year of play? Just months after the Quebec Nordiques fell out of a parallel universe in the frozen north and landed in McNichols Sports Arena? Clearly, the great minds at Ascent have looked into their hearts and found them obscured by their wallets. Some kind of technical screwup in the pay-per-view apparatus (let's hope it was sabotage) "gave" Game One to Colorado's fans for free, which must have driven the Scrooges to distraction. Don't count on that happening again: The Ascent boys have had Heinrich Himmler keeping his eye on things ever since. Not one eight-year-old will slip under the tent flap Thursday night, you can bet on that.
And the thing itself, the game? If Forsberg and Roy and Ricci and the rest rise up and, through some minor miracle, survive all 23 rounds of the playoffs to win the Cup, we expect the suits who own the club will use all the excitement as a diversion while they pick pockets up in the mezzanine.