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The Long Goodbye

When it was over, the big, blue-eyed man wearing the beautifully tailored charcoal suit and the pale-gold necktie left a box of Kleenex untouched on the podium and followed his blocker, wife Janet, through one last Sunday-afternoon sea of photographers. They vanished through a side door of a hotel ballroom into bright sunshine--and history. On stage, Pat Bowlen and Mike Shanahan suddenly looked small and vaguely uneasy in gray fabric armchairs. King John had left the building, and the Broncos' owner and head coach could not begin to fill the emotional space their great quarterback had just occupied.

Half a dozen throats cleared, and reporters lobbed a few more halfhearted questions at the secondary participants. But the void was palpable and stinging. It's the same void a football team that has just won two straight Super Bowls is bound to feel when training camp rolls around this summer and when the season opens this fall.

Number Seven is gone. Retired. After winning a National Football League record 148 games, passing for 51,475 yards and starting a record five Super Bowls, the man whose name was a condition of life in this town for sixteen years has hung 'em up.

"I can't do it physically anymore," John Elway said, his voice cracking into a sob. "And that is really hard for me to say."

Physically, of course, he has always been able to do it. He could fling the ball eighty yards downfield. He could sprint right and throw back left. He could dive into the end zone, a safety and a linebacker fixed to him like barnacles, on one of his famous naked bootlegs. In sixteen seasons, Elway passed for an even 300 touchdowns (third most in history), ran for 33 and engineered 47 fourth-quarter drives to win ballgames.

"He may, in fact, ultimately be the greatest to have ever played this game at that position," said Marty Schottenheimer, the former Cleveland Browns and Kansas City coach Elway famously tormented for a dozen years. "The guy is the greatest competitor I have ever witnessed in sport."

In his career, he was also sacked more than 500 times--another record--for losses totaling more than two miles. He always got up, cleared the cobwebs and jumped back into the huddle. But on January 9, Elway says, when the Broncos played the Miami Dolphins in an AFC Divisional Playoff game, he took a huge hit from Miami linebacker Zach Thomas that got him thinking through the pain. "I said to myself, 'These guys are getting too big and too strong.' It felt like he'd knocked my left shoulder blade through my right ear."

At age 38, Elway began to have second thoughts about his future. A strained hamstring had kept him out of a game against Washington in week four, and bruised ribs kept him off the field against San Diego and Kansas City in November. In all, he missed most of five games last year because of persistent injuries. Evidently mortal after all, he decided to retire last month when a long-gimpy left knee didn't respond to off-season conditioning.

Asked if there was any way he'd return for one more year--and possibly a third straight Super Bowl win--Elway brushed back tears again and managed a joke. "Put it this way. It would have to be an absolute, total, 100 percent catastrophe. If Mike [Shanahan] came to me and said: 'Hey, the only guy I got who can take snaps is [oft-surgically repaired guard] Mark Schlereth,' I would say okay. But other than that, I'm done."

Championship-minded fans and Elway's ex-teammates must now ask themselves if the Broncos are also done. Next season, veteran quarterback Bubby Brister, who played well in Number Seven's absence last year, is likely to be the new starter, with backups Brian Griese and newly acquired Chris Miller manning the clipboards. But without Elway on the field and in the locker room, Broncoland is bound to be strange and different.

"You think of all the things that have changed in Colorado in sixteen years," said tight end Shannon Sharpe, "but the one thing that has been constant has been John Elway...He built his mystique, he built his legacy, and you had to respect that. We still have [running back] Terrell Davis back there. But [opponents] had to respect both of those guys. Stop Elway, and Terrell runs wild. Stop Terrell, and John throws the ball all over the field. So we lose that. Now, once Bubby goes out there and proves that he can do it--and we know he can--we're gonna be fine. But John just had an aura about him."

It was the irrepressible Sharpe who, before Sunday's press conference, set the over-and-under (at three and a half) on how many times the retiring quarterback would cry before a room filled with media, family, friends and Broncos players past and present. "I won the bet," Sharpe said sadly. "Maybe there's a new car in it for me, I don't know...I mean, the guy's been playing football probably since he was six, seven years old, and all of a sudden he's walking away, scot-free. He doesn't have to train, he doesn't have to get up in the morning and go to meetings, he doesn't have to go the training camp. And you miss that. When I go away in the off-season, I'm miserable. I miss being with the guys, miss practicing...He'll have no more bruises and no more treatment. But he's going to miss it. He'll miss Sundays."

Bowlen is going to miss his friend's heart and soul. "I don't want to be the first owner ever to break down announcing the retirement of one of their great players," the owner said. So he didn't. Instead, Bowlen said, "Heeere's Johnny!" and Elway began a forty-minute farewell in which he thanked the city of Denver, former Broncos owner Edgar Kaiser (for saving him from possible oblivion in Baltimore), his wife and children, Bowlen, offensive coordinator and training-camp roommate Gary Kubiak, trainer Steve Antonopoulos (who saw him through twelve surgeries) and Shanahan.

Among his fondest memories, Elway recalled The Drive, January 11, 1987, in Cleveland, which launched Elway and company into their first Super Bowl and the moment, more than eleven years later, when they upset the Green Bay Packers for their first Super Bowl win. "There was no more joy ever than in winning that Super Bowl--that first one," Elway told the crowd, "and having the fans be able to say: 'We're world champions.'"

Shanahan "left the door open" for part-time play in 1999, Elway said, depending on how quickly his nagging injuries healed. "But the bottom line is, that's not me. I'm either all in or all out...I simply couldn't talk myself back into it."

Elway, a fervent Republican who has considered running for political office, says that plan will go on the back burner for a while. He has reportedly talked to ABC Sports about a vacancy on the Monday Night Football broadcast team. Bowlen has discussed partial Broncos ownership with Elway. There's even talk that, someday, the quarterback would make a good NFL commissioner. Certainly, his car dealerships can keep him as busy as he'd like to be.

But for now, wife Janet (who brought him a bottle of water and a box of Kleenex Sunday as he lost the Crying Game to Shannon Sharpe) and his four children are Elway's highest priorities. Something else, too. Asked if he'd watched hockey star Wayne Gretzky's "retirement game" on television, he said, "No. I was playing golf."

Jack Elway, John's father and mentor, understood that. "The joy he always displayed playing any game," the elder Elway said Sunday, "is what I remember more than anything else." Indeed, the now-famous picture of son John scoring the final touchdown of his career, in January's Super Bowl win over Atlanta, "looked to me like he looked when he was eight years old, playing the game that he loved so much. I think if I'd have made a blueprint of what you want your son to be, I think he's probably overshot it. I'm happy for him, I'm proud for him, and it's been wonderful."

Elway conferred with his father before retiring, and he got straight facts. "This decision was tough," Jack Elway said. "We spent a lot of time together that evening, and I didn't disagree. I did say, 'You are a lot more prone to injury now.' I couldn't tell him that his game had deteriorated to a point where he should rethink it, but I did say, 'Only you know how many shots you can take and how you react to them.' And I think it was probably enough."

Looking back, would Elway change anything in his life? No, he said. Not his work ethic. Not his love for family. Not even the hits he took and the big games he lost. But for just a moment, he said, he wished he was 28 years old again and it was a bracing Sunday afternoon in October and the crowd was roaring.

Instead, it was the first Sunday in May, and the minute he left a room crowded with 400 people, it felt profoundly empty.


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