John Elway

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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.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo