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The Curse

For someone who has two Super Bowl rings and his own football team and who fronts seventeen car dealerships, John Elway is a pretty modest guy. All right, so maybe the activity the Colorado Crush labors at is not really football, but you get the idea. Elway is not the sort who stands up at parties and announces to the drink-wobbled hordes that he always had more game than Dan Marino and Nintendo put together, or that he could be mayor of Denver or Colorado's next U.S. senator if he wanted to. Although he could be if he wanted to.

So it came as no surprise in the last few weeks when Elway declined to grant interviews about his impending election to the National Football League Hall of Fame before the actual vote, which was conducted on Saturday -- five years to the day since he beat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII and won MVP honors. "John thinks it would be presumptuous to talk about it," his personal assistant gently explained. Little matter that Elway's "presumption" would have been akin to the governor of Alaska predicting that Fairbanks might get a little snow this February. Actually, he did talk about the Hall of Fame -- on ESPN's SportsCenter, and on the ill-named Fox Sports Net blabfest Best Damn Sports Show Period and a few other places.

In any event, Elway's election to the Hall in his first year of eligibility turned out to be a landslide of predictably huge proportions. It had to be. After all, KOA renamed itself "Your Elway Station" in honor of its week-long "Countdown to Canton," and every TV outlet in town ran nightly clips chronicling the star quarterback's greatest moments, along with buckets full of praise from coaches, owners, former teammates and opponents. George W. Bush and Mystic River can only dream of such adulation.

For his part, Elway remained true to form once the inevitable became fact on Saturday. "I'm really kind of speechless, to be honest with you," he said.

What the Denver Broncos and Broncos fans now have -- or will have, once the actual induction ceremony is held, on August 8 -- is their first-ever NFL Hall of Famer. After 44 seasons of play, many of them dreadful, a few of them sublime, the Broncos will finally have a bronze bust on a shelf in Canton, Ohio. A matter of some controversy is the fact that the first one does not depict pioneer Broncos running back Floyd Little -- a laborer in the fields of Bronco futility for nine years and 6,323 yards' worth of punishment -- especially if you ask Floyd Little. That linebacker Randy Gradishar, a stalwart of the heralded Orange Crush defense of the late 1970s, is not the first Bronco enshrined at Canton rankles others. As for defensive end Rich "Tombstone" Jackson, forget about it. He was sensational when he played, but a career cut short by injuries -- take note, Terrell Davis fans -- does not often merit bronze. Tackle Gary Zimmerman, a tower of fury who served the Minnesota Vikings for seven seasons before his five seasons (1993-97) with Denver, may yet join Elway in the Hall (he's been twice nominated), but don't bet your season tickets on it. Tight end Shannon Sharpe is a sure thing, but first he has to retire and then wait five years.

From the moment he arrived in Denver back in 1983, looking like a Malibu beach boy in shoulder pads, Elway was undeniably special. Tales of his prowess at Stanford preceded him, of course: how he could zip a sixty-yard pass downfield with the dead-on ease of an office worker flicking a spitball into a wastebasket; how, when the Stanford punter missed practice with an injury, Elway filled in, casually throwing punt-like bombs high and deep into the Palo Alto sky so the return guys wouldn't lose a day of work; how the big blond kid teammates called "Elwood" took charge in the huddle, scrambled with abandon and played every minute of every game as if being chased by wolves -- or destiny.

Poor Baltimore. Drafted by the Colts in 1983, the same year fellow quarterbacks Dan Marino (Miami) and Jim Kelly (Buffalo) entered the league, Elway refused their crab cakes and their contract and, in a moment that might have changed the history of the NFL, talked instead about returning to the New York Yankees organization. As an outfielder with the Oneonta Yankees of the Single-A New York-Penn League, he had shown a predictably powerful arm and an average bat -- no guarantees that he would one day supplant Mantle or DiMaggio in Yankees lore. But Elway might have vanished into baseball, nonetheless, were it not for the advice of his lifelong mentor -- his late father, Jack Elway -- and the public-relations savvy of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. Rozelle saw greatness in the young quarterback and eased the way for the "trade" that brought Elway to Denver and sent two players (come now, charter-level Broncomaniacs, you know they were Chris Hinton and Mark Herrman) to Baltimore.

You know the rest, don't you? How Number 7, 6'3" and 215 pounds, lifted an entire, long-perturbed franchise onto his substantial shoulders. You know about the 47 fourth-quarter comebacks he engineered and the 300 touchdown passes he threw and that self-sacrificing blast he took from the Green Bay defense on a crucial run late in the day on January 25, 1998, en route to the Broncos' first Super Bowl victory. You know about "The Drive" against the Cleveland Browns and the friction with coach Dan Reeves and the 51,475 yards of completions and the 500 crunching sacks he endured for yardage losses totaling more than two miles and the nearly extrasensory bond he shared with coach Mike Shanahan.

You remember with furrowed brow the three agonizing Super Bowl losses, in 1987, 1988 and 1990, when the New York Giants, Washington Redskins and San Francisco 49ers destroyed the Elway-led Broncos by a combined score of 138-40. You know about the sixteen seasons of courage and the dozens of surgeries he endured and the unvarnished praise the man he so often tormented, coach Marty Schottenheimer, lavished upon him: "Elway is the greatest competitor I have ever witnessed in sport."

After 1994's losing season, Elway contemplated retirement. But his hunger for a championship -- just one -- wouldn't go away. That took three more years of pain and trying -- Super Bowl XXXII ended in a shocking upset: Denver 31, Green Bay 24 -- and then, as though the football gods had relented at last and given the man his due, he got the Vince Lombardi Trophy into his hands once more, on January 31, 1999. Denver 34, Atlanta 19. What becomes a legend most? While celebrating the victory with his teammates at a LoDo restaurant several days later, John Elway's SUV was towed for overtime parking.

The end was as sudden as the beginning. On January 9, 1999, in an AFC divisional playoff game, Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas laid a huge hit on Elway that got him thinking through the pain. "These guys are getting too big and too strong." he said later. "It felt like he'd knocked my left shoulder blade through my right ear."

In May 1999, John Elway retired at age 38. When it was over, he followed his blocker, wife Janet Elway, through a sea of photographers and well-wishers crowding a suburban hotel ballroom and vanished through a side door into bright sunshine. "I can't do it physically anymore," he had said, his voice cracking into a sob, "and that's really hard for me to say." For sixteen years, his very name had been a condition of life in Denver. Now it was over.

Five years later, Elway and his wife have divorced; his father has died; and he owns an arena football team that didn't win a home game last year. Meanwhile, the Faithful, the Broncomaniacs, find themselves facing facts about the greatest player they have ever known. Denver has not won a playoff game since Elway retired, and the unfortunate quarterbacks who've tried to fill his shoes -- the discarded Brian Griese and the seemingly uneasy Jake "The Snake" Plummer -- soon discovered how difficult it is to follow a legend and to fulfill the distorted expectations of a city that got used to winning and is now capable of turning on failure as ferociously as any Philadelphia or New York crowd. Thanks to one of those unexpected ironies that sport produces, John Elway is not just a beloved icon, but, through no fault of his own, a kind of curse -- even as the final moment of glory he so deserves looms before him.


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