If the president and CEO really wanted to please his 17,483 shareholders Sunday afternoon -- and we know he did -- he might have jumped up from his luxury box with four minutes to play. Amid a huge burst of fireworks and a brain-numbing blast of heavy metal, he might have leaped down onto the field, tearing off his navy-blue business suit and orange necktie to reveal a football uniform beneath. Number Seven. Then, as in days of yore, he could have strapped on a helmet and calmly thrown a couple of trademark touchdown passes for another miracle finish
Instead, John Elway visibly squirmed in his seat Sunday as his team's nine-point lead turned into an eleven-point deficit late in the fourth quarter. The orange tie was still neatly knotted about his throat. Down on the green plastic rug, quarterback John Dutton twice fumbled the ball away, then threw a nervous interception -- incidents that provided even distant lip-readers ample opportunity to behold Elway uncensored. Next, the defensive coordinator drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. Then, while the Bronco icon turned executive grimaced, his kicker boinked one off the overhanging scoreboard. For those unaware of the peculiar game's peculiar rules -- including the sellout crowd and the man who'd struck foot to ball -- that constituted another infraction. Game over: Georgia Force 44, Colorado Crush 40.
"It was a classic example of beating yourself," Elway said afterward.
Classic examples aside, this was just the beginning. Fortunately -- or unfortunately, depending on your tolerance for gaudy trapeze acts, paratroopers in camouflage shinnying down ropes and a relentless soundtrack about two decibels lower than a nuke exploding in your rec room -- Elway and the Colorado Crush, newcomers to the Arena Football League, have fifteen more chances to make good in their debut season. Why, as soon as this Friday night, something called the Grand Rapids Rampage will show up at the Pepsi Center. Nine days after that, watch out for the Los Angeles Avengers. And let's not forget Sunday, April 13, when the Colorado Crush hosts the Chicago Rush. Don't be surprised if Attila the Hun sacks the concession stands and they burn a few cheerleaders at the stake during halftime.
For Elway, arena ball is a road to the heady realm of pro-sports ownership, and he doesn't really know where it will lead. The retired quarterback has chosen this path in the wake of an ill-timed dot-com failure that also burned Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky, as well as a brief flirtation with the notion of a new NFL team for Raider-less, Ram-less Los Angeles. Today, the most beloved figure in the history of Colorado sports finds himself gazing down at a fifty-yard mini-strip of AstroTurf, watching in a state of self-acknowledged "helplessness" (because he's no longer a player) as a willing but none-too-talented collection of undrafted college strivers, NFL burnouts and poorly paid arena-ball veterans play a sped-up, downsized version of eight-man pass-and-catch football on a carpet the size of a back yard. The scores are huge, defense almost non-existent. Ninety percent of the players go both ways, offense and defense; all are required to sign autographs and chat with fans for thirty minutes after every game -- strained knees or no strained knees.
This is the AFL's seventeenth season (Denver's previous team, the Dynamite, folded after four seasons, in 1991), and for most of those years, it's been widely regarded as a trash sport, heavy on special effects but short on talent: real pro football's demented little cousin. A few NFL stars like Kurt Warner and Tommy Maddox have risen from the arena ranks; most AFL players have no shot. But in an era when oddities like indoor lacrosse, trampoline basketball and roller hockey all find a box-office niche, an increasing number of investors see arena ball as profitable. It's a way to satisfy the basic bloodlust of the skateboard-and-superpipe set, the hearing-impaired multitudes slogging up from the nation's mosh pits, and every embittered, pro-football-loving grownup who was ever shut out of an NFL stadium for lack of a season ticket that would cost more than his car -- if tickets were even available.
"Rock-and-roll football," AFL commissioner David Baker calls it.
Elway likes the game's youth-oriented demographics. He liked them even more when the league signed a broadcast contract with NBC Sports that will give arena ball higher visibility. Little matter that NBC's most recent pro-football foray, the XFL, degenerated into a $50 million fiasco. Full of adventure, Elway last year became a one-third partner in the new Crush franchise with two other Denver sports heavyweights: Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and Avalanche-Nuggets-Pepsi Center owner Stan Kroenke. The price tag? Crush officials won't say, but anyone shopping for an AFL club right now should bring along $10 million to $12 million. In the Denver Dynamite days, you could get it done for a mere $250,000.
As anyone with cable can tell you, Elway has been tirelessly promoting his new product. He appears, wielding a chainsaw, in the league's overheated TV spots. Last Friday he talked up arena ball on the Today Show, but he's also flogged the team to small-town newspapers and on any radio station with a ten-watt pulse. He shows up at every Crush practice, giving tips to quarterbacks and pass receivers. Talk about hands-on. When the players posed for an official team picture at the Pepsi Center last week, Elway not only directed the positioning of the rows, but he helped adjust the risers, too. After kicking down some lumps in the AstroTurf, he got with arena workmen to discuss the dimensions of the players' bench.
"This is a chance to bring another football team to Denver," he said. "Because we know there are a lot of football fans that don't get a chance to go to Broncos games. Now they can come and watch us play. We have seats for as little as $7 -- the same price as a movie ticket. It's been a great experience for me, learning the business side of sports from the ground up and also having a chance to be involved in the football side, getting back to competing on Sundays." Translation: The CEO in the expensive suit makes the major personnel decisions.
Denverites love their sports, but Elway's godlike local image is certainly the thing that sold 10,300 season tickets before Sunday's opener -- five times as many as some AFL teams, and a couple of thousand more than this year's Denver Nuggets. The former Super Bowl MVP also has an extraordinary effect on little-known players who practice at the dog track, live together in the Holiday Inn and earn, on average, more than TV imposter Joe Millionaire but less than a competent plumber. "This is John Elway," one team official says. "When he talks, they're all ears."
Not surprisingly, many of those ears are attached to members of the family. Head coach Bob Beers is a former college scout for the Broncos, but Elway has known him since he was ten, when his father, Jack Elway, coached Beers at the University of Montana. Crush players Cyron Brown, Butler B'ynote' and Andre Cooper are all former Broncos getting a second chance; ex-Broncos quarterback Jeff Lewis is on the practice squad. The offensive coordinator is Mike Perez, another former Elway teammate, and the line coach is Keith Kartz, who played with Elway for eight years. Former receiver Michael Young is marketing director for the Crush; ex-lineman David Diaz-Infante is the color man on radio.
Even the team name -- supposedly chosen by a fan ballot -- is, in part, a throwback to the famed Broncos defense of the late 1970s. Just ask the grizzled old troupers who wore tattered "Orange Crush" T-shirts and huge orange-foam cowboy hats to Sunday's debut against Georgia. One of the serious alternatives, by the way, was "Colorado Wildfire" -- a name rejected as "insensitive" in the wake of last summer's raging forest fires.
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For Kartz, a witty, playful guy who hung up his predominantly orange jersey in 1994, coaching is a blast. "I love it," he says. "It's a great deal, and a learning experience for me, too. Most of these guys are defensive players, and we're trying to make them offensive players, too. With only three linemen, the pocket's that much tighter, and we have to be more aggressive. Everything happens a lot quicker. I love it. This doesn't pay as well [as playing], but it's a lot more fun."
And what's it like working for his old teammate?
"We've been together for a long time, and it's good to see him," Kartz says. "We get along very well. It's hard for me to consider him the boss. But that's what he thinks he is" -- here Kartz bursts into laughter -- "so we'll just let that go."
After all, the president and CEO is only a rookie, and he has a lot to learn.