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The 50,000-Yard Man

To hear the assorted hairdos on the boob tube tell it, you would have thought getting the Broncos onto that snowbound plane to balmy Buffalo Saturday night was a social imperative akin to feeding malnourished babies or keeping nuclear terrorists out of the Pentagon lunchroom. Forget about the sleepless expectant mothers or the little boys in need of organ transplants standing in long lines out at DIA to score a lukewarm Big Mac. David Diaz-Infante and Jason Elam are late for a very important date with the Buffalo Bills, so clear the decks. Closed, hell! We got a game to play.

Anyway, fans lucky enough to be stranded this weekend in their fire-lit living rooms instead of on the Pena Boulevard tundra saw their heroes slip by the punchless Bills 23-20 in overtime. They saw Terrell Davis rush for another 200 yards--207 yards on a team-record 42 carries, to be exact. And they saw their man John Elway come within a biceps tendon of the 50,000-yard mark in total offense--a milestone only Dan Marino and Fran Tarkenton have reached. Maybe the state's favorite car dealer wanted to go those last three yards on his home field this Sunday against Seattle. In any event, the low-wattage 133 yards' passing and 14 yards' rushing Elway put together against the Bills brought the tally to 49,997 for his career.

That's more than 28 miles of scrambles and fourth-quarter comebacks and sixty-yards-in-the-air cross-field darts. When it's finally all over for Elway--most likely about the time your kindergartner takes her honeymoon on Pluto--they probably shouldn't bother installing Number Seven's game jersey in the Hall of Fame at Canton. They ought to send the complete, navy-blue-clad physical unit--the Biffster himself, in the flesh--so that scientists decades from now can study the components: head, heart, bionic arm.

Meanwhile, thank heaven for the exemplary Mr. Davis.
Just when Elway needed a career extender most, Terrell bubbled up from the anonymous bottoms of the 1995 draft (he was the 196th player taken) to become one of the league's best running backs. How good? He had 1,117 yards in his rookie year, a team-record 1,538 in 1996 and has set a 2,000-plus-yard pace this season--something accomplished only by the O.J. Simpsons of this world. As long as those migraine headaches don't return and his offensive line doesn't start hanging out with Marv Albert and Charles Barkley, Davis is destined (if he isn't already) to become the Broncos' best running back ever--better than Floyd Little (8,741 yards and 43 touchdowns in nine seasons), better than Otis Armstrong (1,812 all-purpose yards in 1974), more valuable than all the Willhites and Winders and Humphreys and Gaston Greens and Blake Ezors put together.

Take Sunday. While Elway struggled through his second straight off-game--he was out of whack in that not-very-shocking team clunker out in Oakland, and he completed just one pass in a dismal second half against the Bills for six yards--Davis galloped merrily along with the entire team on his back until kicker Elam won the thing with a field goal in overtime. This is a refreshing change, of course, and one that has been duly noted in the league's dressing rooms. Where once the Broncos had to depend on Elway to pull games out of the fire (42 game-winning fourth-quarter drives!), Davis usually puts them out of reach in the third quarter. Has he got a future? You decide: The former Georgia running back, who played in the shadows of Garrison Hearst, turned 25 on Tuesday.

Supplied with a miracle drug like Terrell Davis in his golden years, the 37-year-old Elway could play on for a while. Some are even speculating that he could roll up 60,000 career yards and still be running around out there when the great drop-back purist Marino isn't passing anything but Cadillacs on the Florida Turnpike.

This blizzard weekend was also a good time for another sort of contemplation. While longtime Denver fans cozied up to their hot toddies Sunday afternoon, they probably couldn't help noticing a couple of things about the Buffalo Bills, a team whose fortunes (particularly at the Super Bowl) have run so parallel to those of the Broncos that it's spooky. For one thing, Bills running back Thurman Thomas, now 31, is well past his prime and is giving way to a youngster named Antuwain Smith; for another, quarterback Jim Kelly, four months older than Elway and the third honors graduate in the great quarterback class of 1983, is nowhere to be found. Without winning a Super Bowl, Machine Gun Kelly has retired, and without him, the Buffalo offense suddenly looks rudderless and indifferent. When distracted Andre Reed, one of the great Buffalo receivers of all time, dropped two passes in the open field Sunday, you could feel the energy of a once-great team seeping out into the ozone.

Could that happen to the 50,000-yard Man and the Broncos? If there's another Jacksonville Jaguars-style ambush in the works come this post-season, it could. If Terrell Davis gets hit by a bus or decides to join the priesthood, it could. If owner Pat Bowlen's push to extort public funding for a new stadium--the cost is now up to a cool $300 million--becomes a major distraction, it could. If the sky falls, it could.

Otherwise, a 7-1 start seems to mean another awfully good year for a team and a quarterback who need to make good on good years before time runs out and the fellows in the white smocks roll the wheelchairs up to the locker-room door. When John Elway gets his 50,000th yard in the first moments of the Seahawks game Sunday afternoon, he will deserve every bit of the tremendous ovation he gets. When Terrell Davis, Elway's Secret Sharer, tears off another 100- or 150-yard day, he'll deserve the cheers, too.

But before everybody shouts themselves hoarse, consider this: The real game will be played January 25, 1998, in San Diego. If the 50,000-yard Man and his mates aren't in it, they may never get another shot. After 1997 they may find themselves marooned in a snowstorm, with their flight to glory grounded.

It became pretty fashionable last week to say how worthless the World Series has become, how low the quality of play had fallen, how dull the competing teams were. Nonetheless, a lot of people who don't know a squeeze bunt from a sac fly were suddenly writing the book on Omar Vizquel, analyzing the wrist snap of Kevin Brown and second-guessing the double switch.

When the city of Cleveland had the gall to scatter snow flurries on games three, four and five, NBC's yappy announcer Bob Costas did little but carp about how cold he was. Fine. From now on, cover volleyball in the Bahamas. The game's bogus "interim" commissioner, Bud Selig, complained about the length of one game. Good, pal. Some of us have an equally strenuous complaint about the length of your stay in office.

Assorted pundits started braying about a neutral, warm-weather site for future World Series. There's a great idea: Clevelanders haven't enjoyed a Series win in half a century; let's ship 'em out to sunny Los Angeles for the next try.

But, hey, if you saw games six and seven, you saw drama. You saw baseball beautifully played. You felt the tug of the decades and the weight of the Big Game. The Nielsens may have dropped off--even NBC execs had been praying for a four-game sweep and were likely tuned in to America's Funniest Home Videos--but the tensions of game seven, in particular, were exquisite.

High on the hill stood the Indians's Jaret Wright, a 21-year-old who started the season pitching for the Akron Arrows of the Double-A Eastern League. Now he held the World Series in his hands. At third for the Marlins stood veteran Bobby Bonilla, disabled by a sore hamstring but full of game-day desire for his skipper, Jim Leyland, who has 34 years in the game. In the Cleveland dugout stood stoic manager Mike Hargrove, still thinking about the two young Indians pitchers who were killed in a boating accident in 1993.

At the plate stood Marquis Grissom, whose World Series batting average had dropped to .381. At second stood Craig Counsell, former Colorado Rockie.

By the way. While America was watching the movie of the week, Florida, which had trailed 2-0, managed to tie game seven of the 1997 World Series 2-2 in the ninth. In the bottom of the eleventh the crippled Bonilla followed up his seventh-inning solo homer with a clutch single. Counsell's slow roller moved Bobby to third, an intentional walk loaded the bases and a forceout at home plate retired Bonilla. Then Edgar Renteria stepped into the box and...oh, forget it. Apparently, nobody's interested.


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