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.
Things weren't always so dreamy.
His All-American career at Stanford encompassed 9,349 yards passing, 77 touchdowns, nine PAC-10 and five NCAA records, as well as some afternoon practices when, with arm strength to burn, he cheerfully helped teammates out with their punt-return drills by throwing the ball a hundred feet into the air and fifty yards downfield. But on draft day, John Elway was picked by the bottom-feeding Baltimore Colts. It was a fate that might have turned him into the next Archie Manning--a great player toiling in obscurity for a hopeless loser.
Came a White Horse, aka Bucko the Bronco, to the rescue. On May 2, 1983, Elway was traded to Denver for--let's hear it, trivia freaks--offensive tackle Chris Hinton, quarterback Mark "Denver's glad it never knew ya" Herrmann and a 1984 first-round draft choice. The Broncos were not exactly the cream of the league, either. They had been to their first Super Bowl six years earlier, but by 1983, speedy punt returner/wideout Rick Upchurch was the club's most dangerous scoring threat.
It would take Elway four seasons to reach his first Super Bowl, and by then he had already assumed the burden he would wind up carrying for twelve long years--nothing less than the entire Bronco offense.
Exhibit A: A partial list of the running backs who carried the ball for Denver between 1983 and 1995. Sammy Winder, Gerald Willhite, Nathan Poole, Gene Lang, Rick Parros, Steve Sewell, Bobby Micho, Bobby Humphrey, Tony Dorsett, Gaston Green, Greg Perryman, Rod Bernstine, Greg Lewis, Glyn Milburn, Leonard Russell.
Not exactly names you'd engrave on plaques in Canton, Ohio, are they? Floyd Little and Otis Armstrong were distant memories by the time Biff got to town, and the otherwise exemplary Mr. Dorsett had lost a step or three in his late-career move from Dallas to Mile High Stadium.
Surprise: Opposing defenses quickly learned that Denver had no running game. So while the elusive Elway was turning himself into a great scrambling quarterback (witness his unsurpassable record, of DiMaggioan proportion: nine seasons with 3,000 yards passing and 200 yards rushing), he was also taking a beating. He's the second-most-sacked quarterback in history, having absorbed more than 500 hits and over two miles in lost yardage.
"You just have to keep picking yourself up," he said amid the dismal 7-9 Bronco campaign of 1994. "Just part of the game." That's not what his compatriot Marino would say: Watch Dan after a sack, and he's distributing Italian curses to the guilty linemen.
Of course, for every faceful of snarling linebacker he got, Elway burned a safety with a bomb or beat a defensive end with a scramble for a first down. It's not for nothing that his once-boyish, kid-next-door face now wears a kind of knowing Zen grin along with its three or four battle scars. It says: Thank God for Terrell Davis.
Exhibit B: The Coaches. If Mike Shanahan, a disciple of the flexible, sophisticated West Coast offense employed by all four of this season's conference-title playoff teams, has always been John Elway's alter ego and his salvation, suffice it to say that Dan Reeves was the control freak who never understood Elway's genius and Wade Phillips was the goofball who never understood much of anything. That Reeves is moldering in Atlanta and Phillips has inherited a locker room full of geezers in Buffalo probably does not cause Elway to miss much sleep.
Great as he is, they took years off his life.
Ask Elway about Reeves and he gives you the 500-yard stare. This is not hatred; it's the acknow-ledgment of fate by a wise man. "Well..." he begins, not wanting to talk.
At least, in the end, the football gods gave him a soulmate wearing a headset. "It's easier. We think alike," he says of Shanahan.
So, then. What now? Does John Elway, when the moment comes, simply limp off to the Broncos archives, where Craig Morton, Marlin Brisco, Steve Tensi and Frank Tripucka are drawing X's and O's in the sky? Does he watch his name go up on the Ring of Fame and call it a day? Does he fade away?
Not likely. Not the greatest player in Denver Broncos history. For fifteen years he's been passing through our dreams. Fifty more, he shall still be passing through. Biff. The Duke. Number Seven. The Standard.
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