Inside the mind of John Elway
This story appears in the Jan. 12, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Odd country, this land of the middle-aged. Even the arrival date is never quite clear. One day you're minding your business, threading 65-yard passes off your back foot, and the next you've crossed some unseen border and hair's falling out or sprouting from strange places. That first colonoscopy, 54-year-old John Elway admits, was a marker. But the real jolt came five months ago, when his second daughter made him a grandfather. "That's the one," he recounts, "where I said, Wow, I am starting to get up there."
There have been other signs. Quarterback withdrawal—twitchy fingers and chronic second-guessing on Sunday—long ago gave way to a more generic yen. "I just wish I had that 25-year-old body," Elway says. So he engages daily, for an hour, in the endless task of remaining physically fit. Today's masochism involved abs work, the gerbil-wheel monotony of a stair-climb machine, and a final charge on the stationary bike. Still sweating, the top two buttons of his dress shirt undone, the man behind the desk at the Broncos' training complex this early December morning hardly looks like the most dynamic force in today's NFL.
But he just might be. As Denver's general manager, Elway is edging ever closer to the one thing that matters. Call it The Drive, Part III. Elway's game-tying, 98-yard march against Cleveland in the 1986 AFC championship game established his rep as a comeback wizard, and a late-career surge to two Super Bowl titles provided the perfect ending to a Hall of Fame playing career. The thrill of assembling a roster should be less cathartic, but not to Elway. "It's part of him being an ex-player: his aggressiveness and will to win," says Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "He's about winning now. He's not building a team for five years from now."
Inheriting a 4-12 roster in 2011, Elway gambled on coach John Fox, who was coming off a two-win season at Carolina, and the next year he bet the house on 35-year-old Peyton Manning. Fox's 12-4 Broncos just won a fourth straight AFC West title, one year after Manning quarterbacked a record-shattering offense to the Super Bowl. Never mind that the Seahawks torched Denver 43-8; most GMs would revel in such a run. Elway? He smelled smoke. He saw fire. And given a burning building, Elway-watchers love to say, Big John always fights his way inside. "After the Super Bowl," he says, "I was on that bus the next morning, and all I could think is, How are we going to get better?"
Elway seemed to sense, too, that his franchise QB was due to get old fast, so he entered the first day of free agency last spring with elbows flying. He spent a guaranteed $60 million on All-Pro defensive end DeMarcus Ware and D-backs Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward, all of whom were named to this year's Pro Bowl. And when Manning hit a wall in November, the upgraded D (and a running game keyed by undrafted second-year find C.J. Anderson) picked up the slack. Wins came harder, but they kept coming.
"Was it F. Scott Fitzgerald who said, 'There are no second acts in American lives'?" asks longtime NFL exec Ernie Accorsi. "There usually aren't. But I've been very impressed: John has worked at it. He hasn't made any bad moves."
Of course, there are plenty of people in Baltimore, Cleveland, Oakland and New York City who will never forgive Elway for, well, just being John Elway. Few men, after all, have the chance to graduate from Stanford and play for the Yankees and move through the world exuding such toothsome cockiness. But Elway benefits from the flip side of such resentment. The same people who regarded him as John Wayne in shoulder pads—and we're talking pro athletes here—are rooting him on, hard. Aging baby boomers: It ain't over yet. The Duke of Denver rides again.
"Our old teammates, we all talk about, Man, Woody's kickin' ass," says Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who made a long quarterbacking career out of backing up the man teammates dubbed Elwood. "We're just so proud." Such is the benefit of this kind of roll, at this age: Old faces, old stories, get layered into the new. Even the dead have started to drop by.
Still, this workout thing—it's got to be for a reason, right? Staying in shape, maintaining for the sake of maintaining? Please. For John Elway, what's the point if you're not keeping score? He used to hate how critics tagged him a spoiled brat, but forcing a trade from the Colts in 1983, before he'd played an NFL down, or complaining later about "suffocating" under Denver's smothering attention—that all came from the same place, really. The Colts stank in the early '80s. The Broncos were surrounding him with second-rate talent in the early '90s. He had to win, you see. Always.
After losing to the Jags in 1997, Elway's twin sister called. He'd never cried in front of his children. But he did then. "It was tragic," he says. "I was running out of time."
In kindergarten in Aberdeen, Wash., John insisted on being a captain whenever teams were picked, and he wanted the best players. Get in trouble for talking in class? Never bothered John. But when the teacher evened out the competition by putting one particularly slow learner on his team, John burst into tears.
Now time is exacting its revenge. Elway can still take apart most comers on the golf course—he shot a 68 the first time he played Augusta—but this workout stuff is something else. Today's routine wasn't just for health's sake; it was part of an intricate competition. Along with Kubiak's son Klein, Elway is taking on three other pairs of Broncos personnel. Whichever team drops the most body fat in six weeks wins. The problem: Elway is by far the oldest competitor. He's got 31 years on Klein and has been known to succumb to the rogue doughnut, the second glass of Pinot. So when the competition reached its end on Dec. 1, Elway literally hadn't pulled his weight. "I let our team down," he says. "We didn't win. So the competition [was] continued until Dec. 31."
He snickers at this—moving the goalposts is a perk of being the boss—and cackles when told that the maneuver shocked no one. Old teammates still complain that whenever Elway was losing at Pop-A-Shot or gin rummy, he changed the game to best two out of three. "If you're beating him," says former Stanford teammate Don Lonsinger, "he's not going to bed."
At one of his last training camps the old QB was beating tight end Shannon Sharpe at Jeopardy! when Sharpe announced that he knew an answer. "Tell me," Elway said, "or you're getting no balls."
No passes? Sharpe figured that for a joke—until he saw Elway's face. "I had to give him the answer," Sharpe says. "He threatened me."
Since taking this job, Elway has slept lighter and less. Time does that to a body. But there's also the maddening fact that he feels far more responsibility—and far less control—than he did as a player. Come Sundays, all he can do is watch.
Such helplessness leaves Elway prone to the same REM-rattling fears that haunt codgers at 3 a.m. Did I forget to lock the door? The night before last year's Super Bowl, Elway stared at the ceiling, thinking, I've got a bad feeling about this.
Being right was no consolation. The pasting by Seattle embarrassed Elway, not least because it stirred up echoes of his own nightmarish performance in a 45-point loss to the 49ers at Super Bowl XXIV. "Momentum swings in a Super Bowl are five times what they are in a normal game, it's so much bigger," he says. "When things go against you, it's like a wave."
This is easier for him to talk about than you'd imagine. Elway felt "obliterated," as one friend puts it, by the tsunami San Francisco laid on him. It was his third trip to a Super Bowl, and each had ended worse than the previous. He was 29. "They'll never forgive me for this," Elway said that night, staring into a bathroom mirror. "They'll never let me live this down."
Like nearly everyone else, Elway has all but forgotten that version of himself. It's tempting to take in all that he is now—the car salesman's booming voice, the $4,000 pinstriped suits—and wonder, if he hadn't won at last, whether John Elway would've tried to disappear. But two late Super Bowl wins, at 37 and 38, changed the conversation forever. Never mind that Elway's titles came when he was well past his prime. Never mind that whatever Elway is, winner or loser, it should never be decided by something so arbitrary as the final score of one game played with 21 other men.
The fact is, that's exactly how worth is decided in sports. Elway insisted almost to the end that he didn't need a title to fulfill his great promise. But he was lying. That became clear just before redemption. It was January 1997, and after five dry years the Broncos had seemingly built a team that, at 13-3, would give Elway his last best shot at a ring. At home against the expansion Jaguars in the wild-card round, Elway led Denver to two fourth-quarter TDs—but it wasn't enough. The 30-27 loss is still the lowest moment in Broncos history.
Afterward Elway went home, and when his twin sister, Jana, called, her voice did something to him. He'd never cried in front of his four children. But he did then. "It was tragic," Elway says. "I knew I was running out of time."
The dreams started six months ago. He doesn't know why. But after years of not thinking about Jana, John has found himself jerking awake because suddenly she's right there. This is another part of aging: Even as time speeds up, bits of the past demand more and more attention. "I look back now," Elway says, "and I realize how much I miss her."
His sister was born 11 minutes after him, on June 28, 1960, and thus she came closer than anyone else to knowing what it was actually like to be John Elway. It wasn't just that, early on, they shared a "twin" language that only they understood, or laughed constantly and never fought. It was that when John got in trouble in kindergarten, Jana would cry for him. "She was almost my conscience," he says. She was also his match in competitive fury, nearly killing herself trying to beat John at everything—hurling herself into walls to edge him on roller skates, glorying forever in one grade-school win in a footrace.
Elway's mom had enough of seeing her son miserable. "Do we have to go?" she asked before Super Bowl XXXII. "Mom," he replied, "I can't win one if I don't get there."
Their childhood home in Missoula, Mont.—where their father, Jack, was an offensive assistant at the state college—was perched on a hill above the track where that race went down. Jack, who called strangers pardner and loved the feel of a full tumbler of vodka, had always wanted a son. A four-sport athlete in high school, he joked that he'd picked long-legged, 5'7" Jan Jordan "for breeding stock." Their first child was a girl, Lee Ann, and when Jack arrived at the hospital after round 2, Jan at first told him only about Jana, just to see his reaction. Jack didn't blink. "Oh," she finally said, "there was an eight-pound boy, too."
Jack's expression didn't change then, either, but he delighted in the news for the next 40 years. Soon John was Jack's sidekick and best friend. And his project. John excelled at most every sport and was uninterested from the start in cars and toys; Christmas was for bats and balls. The campuses would change with Jack's jobs—Washington State, Idaho, Cal State Northridge—but he had keys to gyms and batting cages. By the time the twins reached Granada Hills High in L.A., Jana had shaped into a D-I tennis prospect (without ever taking a lesson) while John had emerged as one of the greatest football talents ever. The inequities weren't just physical. "They shared one class," says Jan Elway. "John would be out playing ball—I didn't realize this till afterward—and he would pay Jana to write his essays. She'd write two and sell him the one she didn't think was as good. But he'd always get a better grade because he was a big athlete."
Who better, then, to keep John in line? It wasn't easy to keep that head deflated with all the attention—the college recruiters, the baseball scouts, the reporters, the circling women. ... Even Jana's dad was certain that her brother was all kinds of great. When John enrolled at Stanford and Jack coached nearby San Jose State, the tension surrounding the schools' annual showdown (they finished a Solomonic 2-2 against each other) proved awful. Jana, alone, lent the dynamic a dose of normality.
On weekends she'd visit John at Stanford, often the lone voice of reason when he and his roommates threatened to cross some behavioral line. She grew close to Janet Buchan, a Cardinal swimmer who would become John's first wife. "If Jana thought John was not giving Janet enough attention," says Lonsinger, "she would say, 'Dude, that's not the way you treat a girl.' And John would listen."
The happiest Jana ever saw her brother was at a Stanford Halloween party. He came rushing up, mask on his face, and said, "I'm having the greatest time; nobody knows who I am!"
It might've been the last time.
At Stanford, John was physical greatness personified: fast and durable, with a cannon arm that even the hardest, most self-regarding men watched in wide-eyed awe. One practice pass laid open Lonsinger's pinkie to the bone; another drilled visiting Packers receiver James Lofton in the shoulder so hard that it corkscrewed him flat onto the grass. At a workout, Accorsi, then the Colts' GM, saw Elway, flat-footed, laser an across-the-body pass 75 yards into a corner of the end zone. "The best prospect I've ever seen," Accorsi says.
But talent can be blinding, too. The "coach's son" is a sports archetype, shorthand for a heady, fundamentally sound grinder. Because John was so gifted, people forgot that he'd grown up with a man who helped invent the spread offense and spent half his days at Montana coaching defensive secondaries. Examining high-level football, position by position, was food and air in the Elway home. "Some cogs are bigger than others," John says, "but every cog is important."
So he made it his business to know how the other cogs turned. Sharpe, a middling receiver when he joined the Broncos in 1990, had essentially no experience at tight end when he was shifted there midway through his rookie season. "John told me, every play, what I was supposed to do," says Sharpe, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2011. "And he was pretty much calling his own plays, so not only did he have to know the defense, plus change the line protection, but he'd make sure that I knew. They would put me in motion, and as I'd run past, he would turn around and tell me. I got a gold jacket because of John."
After games in high school, while his friends were heading out for pizza or a party, John always went home first to talk out the night's X's and O's with his dad. Jack would later pick apart his son's performances at Stanford, and the practice continued when he joined the Broncos as a scout in 1993. Many were the Thursday nights when the Denver QBs and maybe the offensive line would hit a local bar, and Jack would be there, Skyy vodka—rocks—in hand.
"All of a sudden you'd ask, Where'd John go?" says Keith Kartz, Elway's longtime center. "And he'd be over in the corner talking football with his dad. He was a coach's son who lived and breathed it just like his dad." Some nights ended in the morning, with Bob Beers (a former assistant to Jack and a Denver scout), John and some of John's teammates waking Jan up to make them all breakfast. "You didn't want to be there," says Beers of those Thursdays. Meaning, You wanted to be there.
The last couple of years of his playing career, in the late '90s, Elway made it clear that he wanted to learn more of the personnel side. The first time he sat in on a draft meeting, while they were watching film of a Syracuse cornerback, coach Mike Shanahan asked for Elway's report. "I'd throw at him every time," Elway said. "He never turns around; he can't locate the ball. I wouldn't [draft] him."
That's when Beers realized that "John's got personnel in him," he says. "Not a lot of guys see the little things, like the eyes. The player didn't look back? Scouts see that. But they're trained."
Elway’s last two years in the NFL inverted all the disappointment of his first 14. In 1997 he blew out his right biceps in the preseason, returned 19 days later, ran the table at home and routed, yes, Jacksonville in a wild-card game. For years Elway had operated with a second-rate supporting cast; now he had running back Terrell Davis, great receivers, a defense with cojones.
After beating the Steelers on the road to make it to his fourth Super Bowl, Elway called his mother. But she had had enough of seeing her son miserable. "Oh, do we have to go?" she asked.
"Mom," John replied, "I can't win one if I don't get there."
He didn't play that well. Indeed, of all his big wins, this might've been Elway's weakest: 11 of 22, no TDs, one interception. But the numbers didn't matter, only the sight of the old quarterback scrambling, hurtling through the air, helicoptered by three defenders, lunging for the game's signature first down. The Broncos beat the defending-champ Packers 31-24, and when Elway reached his locker and saw his dad, those 37-year-old eyes widened into saucers. Father and son hugged and at last took in the winning scene.
"Three plus, three minus," Elway says of life's natural recalibration. "We all end up back at zero."
Up until the 1998 season Elway had missed only nine games due to injury. Then it began: His hamstring, then his back, broke down, and he missed four starts. It irked him, but the lifelong pressure was off. His critics had nothing to say now. After throwing three early interceptions in San Diego near the end of the season, Jack was waiting, as always, outside the locker room at halftime. "See anything I need to work on?" John asked.
"Tell you something, pardner," Jack growled. "If you keep throwing at the Chargers, you'd better work on your tackling!" John laughed and kept walking. He finished the game with four TDs and a win, and that's pretty much how his final season went: little frustrations, yes, but a newfound sense of ease. Elway limped to the end—that John Wayne walk more pronounced with every week—throwing a TD pass and running for another, even earning MVP accolades in his second Super Bowl win, 34-19 over the Falcons. The first one hadn't been a fluke. Now everyone had to call him a winner.
But the second title gave Elway more than just a lifetime of chances to say Told you so. It confirmed a worldview that would infuse how he approached business, celebrity, parenting his four kids and, later, running a team: Life is a pendulum. "If you have three here," Elway says, raising a hand over his head, "you're going to have three here," lowering it under his desktop. "Three plus, three minus. I think we all end up back at zero. The true challenges come from when you face adversity. What are you going to do about the adversity? How do you handle that?"
The idea bubbled up around the turn of the century, after Elway finished playing. It emerged at his home in Cherry Hills, Colo., in the basement with the six-stool bar and the spot near the TV where his dad always sat. Jack Elway had retired as the Broncos' director of pro scouting by then; Beers, hired by Jack in 1995 to scout the West Coast, was still there. Maybe we'll get in on an Arena League team, the idea went. John will own it, Jack'll run the player side and Beers will be the coach. "Just one of those vodka moments: We'd sit around, the three of us, and hash it out," Beers says. Then again, John had sold his chain of five car dealerships in 1997 for cash and stock worth $82.5 million. With him involved, this kind of hash could happen.
Still, it was a backup kind of project, pushed aside as John, the former Stanford economics major, explored bigger business scores. And now the pendulum swung big the other way. Around 2000, Elway's attempt to open a chain of upscale laundromats failed, as did MVP.com (a much-publicized online sports merchandise venture with Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky) and a $438 million bid (with Broncos owner Pat Bowlen) to buy the Avalanche, the Nuggets and the Pepsi Center.
Then Jack was gone. Father and son had been working with the Broncos on draft prep—John learning the ropes for the day when he'd be back with an NFL team and Jack, 69, lending his usual blunt expertise. Jack flew home to Palm Desert, Calif., on the Friday night before Easter of 2001, and Jan found him dead of a heart attack on Sunday morning. "All of a sudden," John says, snapping his fingers.
Jana was a second-grade teacher in San Jose at the time, married with two kids. Two months earlier a doctor had X-rayed her lungs and found a small tumor. (She had never smoked.) But her attitude had been upbeat, and the family figured it a freak thing, sure to be cured. "I just thought she'd get through it," John says.
Instead the cancer rampaged, hitting stage IV. There is no stage V. John jetted back and forth, pulled strings at Stanford to get his sister into clinical trials, provided a car and bought her a town house for the last six months when her marriage fell apart. During all this he was scrambling to join Bowlen and billionaire Stan Kroenke in the creation of, yes, an Arena League team in Denver. On June 19, 2002, Elway appeared at a press conference announcing the birth of the Colorado Crush.
That same month he and his wife of 18 years publicly acknowledged they were separating. "It was a real turmoil time, the roughest period he's ever been through," says Jan. "He looked unhappy—quiet, moody, didn't laugh."
The last blow: On the morning of July 23, Lee Ann phoned and told John to rush to Stanford Hospital. Jana could barely breathe, even with her oxygen mask on. John sat with her, leaned over the bed. They had just turned 42. She whispered into her twin's ear, "I just want to live."
Around 10 p.m. nurses wheeled Jana out of the room for a scan. The family stood in the hallway. As she passed by, Jana fiddled with her mask, trying to speak. John wanted her to keep it on. She kept tugging at it, and he kept trying to be her big brother. "Put that back on!" he kept saying until finally there was one moment when the illness and the fear fell away. As the bed was wheeled backward down the hall, Jana's eyes lit up. Her raised middle finger bisected that damned mask in the classic kiss-off salute. Really, pardner?
John had to laugh. And that's how it ended: a man and his fading conscience, staring at each other.
The roster of star athletes who've successfully segued to management is short, especially in this age of celebrity and multimillion-dollar contracts and the lucrative ease of showing up in a studio once a week to giggle and opine. It's no accident that the two industry standards—Jerry West, an alltime great guard who won six titles as the Lakers' GM, and Ozzie Newsome, the Hall of Fame tight end who built two Super Bowl champions with the Ravens—hail from an age when athletes hustled to off-season jobs in breweries.
"I threw for 120 yards in Super Bowl XXXII and we won," says Elway. "I don't care! I did my job!"
Running a team is work. The rewards are incremental, the criticism constant, the paperwork butt-numbingly dull. The first wave of athletes to become truly wealthy came in the 1980s, so it's no surprise that Magic Johnson quit coaching the Lakers after 16 games or that Jordan and Gretzky have never, in their stints atop NBA and NHL franchises, produced anything close to the results of their playing days. But if anyone thought that Elway, a newly minted CEO, would take Arena football lightly, that didn't last. When, nine years later, he took over the Broncos and admitted, "I know what I don't know," it came off as refreshing. Off the field, though, Elway had been saying that for decades.
"I'm looking out from these eyes; I'm not looking at ... this," Elway says, fanning a hand below his face. "So my viewpoint is different from everybody else's. I've always fought to stay off the pedestal. I've got to make [everyone else] feel like I'm one of them. When they know their opinion is important, you're going to get the best out of those people."
With the separation from Janet and his kids—daughters Jessica, Jordan and Juliana and son Jack—the pedestal dropped a tad. Elway moved into the upstairs loft of his friend Craig Andrisen in nearby Aurora. He took only some clothes, a Super Bowl trophy and his MVP hardware.
After three months of tears and late-night talks, the facts of his new life hit. "There's something wrong with this picture," Elway told Andrisen. "I've got all these homes and I'm living here with you?"
Elway moved to a town house across the street. He bought the biggest, most tricked-out TV possible, and he invited Andrisen to come over and see. "Here's a guy who's got about $18 million worth of homes, and he's so excited to get his own TV in his own place," Andrisen recalls. "That's a reality check."
Another was the Crush's inaugural season, in 2003. With an eye toward training Elway for a future role with the Broncos, Bowlen viewed the Arena League as an ideal place to master the rudiments of salary cap, staff management, league relations. Elway didn't hesitate.
"John did things that nobody of his stature would ever do," says Michael Young, the former Broncos receiver who served as the Crush's first vice president. "He wanted to sit in on ticket-sales meetings, go on corporate sales calls, understand how merchandising worked. He checked his ego more than I ever envisioned."
Crises were common. One Friday evening that first season the head of merchandise sales happened upon a rogue box of team T-shirts that needed to be sold at the next day's game. Worse, they needed to be folded—all 700 of them. Young's first impulse was to call some grunts in. "Nah," Elway said. "Let's just do it." And for the next two hours they folded and stacked one ugly T-shirt after another as their Friday-night plans faded. Colorado fans got their souvenirs.
The Crush were terrible that first year, but the 2-14 record offered Elway a moment of truth in the walk from player to manager, buddy to boss. Because Beers was the team's first coach, just as Jack had gamed it. John had known Beers nearly his whole life; their families vacationed together, and Beers's son, Bobby Jr., was part of that staff. Jack had loved Bob, and John had loved Jack. Now Jack was dead, and John knew he had to fire Bob. No decision Elway has ever made as GM was more obvious or painful. Acquiring Manning, trading Tim Tebow? Not even close.
Making matters worse, Elway's old center, Kartz, was the offensive line coach. He had to go as well. "We were best friends," Kartz says of his old QB. "He was in my wedding."
Something else. If there's one word people use to describe Jack Elway, it's loyalty. He protected his assistants like family. When Stanford athletic director Andy Geiger, faced with a player mutiny and spiraling results in 1988, demanded that Jack fire two of his staff to save his job, Jack refused. So Geiger fired him.
That still angers John, but it's complicated. If he lays most of the blame on Geiger, part of him thinks Jack dug in too much. Jan remembers her son saying that if his dad had enough guts to fire people, he wouldn't have been fired at Stanford. "He thought Jack was kind of a softie along that line."
With three weeks left in the season Elway told his dad's old pal that he'd be gone at season's end. After the final game each assistant was called into a room and told he too was done. It was cold. A lawyer was present. Beers says he was "miserable," but he knows Elway had no choice. "It showed people he could make that call."
Kartz took it harder. A lawyer? Really? And being told not to return to the offices? And Elway, his old friend, saying how bad he felt? "If you feel so bad, then why are you doing it?" Kartz said, and then some f-bombs got dropped and both men took to their feet as others scrambled to get between them. "It was a good thing there were plenty of people there," Elway says.
The Elway family doesn't have much contact anymore with Beers, a scout with the Texans, or Kartz, who's out of football. "It was toughest because of the closeness," Elway says, "but it was probably the best learning experience I went through. Two years later we won the championship. I followed my gut, and it ended up being right."
Elway talks about his gut often. "I followed my gut," he says of his first few months as the Broncos' GM, in 2011. "When I was playing, I got a gut about the type of guys I wanted to be around, the type of coaches I wanted to be coached by. Using the experience of 'lost three Super Bowls, played for three good coaches' and then following that gut, I created the philosophy that I'm going to attack this thing with."
Today he puts in long hours at the Broncos' Dove Valley practice facility, watches endless film, wanders through weight and locker rooms, eyes practices. He talks with players alone—"When you're not doing what you're supposed to do," says Knighton, "he'll let you know"—and steps in to address the team when he thinks it's necessary. But those are details, not the difference.
Elway's gut told him to use the soft sell in courting Manning three years ago, and to greet DeMarcus Ware this spring man-to-man—not, as Ware says, "like a rabbit in a box." Elway's gut told him the best way to land hard-eyed receiver Emmanuel Sanders last March was to ask him up front what he wanted and not try to dicker and deal. And his gut told him to gentle Manning in November when the 38-year-old QB's game began to fray.
"I said, 'Dude, you're so uptight, you don't look like you're enjoying this at all,'" Elway says of their chat after Manning threw 54 passes, including 20 incompletions and two interceptions, in a Week 11 loss to the Rams. "We're good enough now that you don't have to do that. The harder you try, the worse it's going to get."
"It's a natural reaction for him to do that," Elways says now. "That's what I did. But it was when I finally realized I'm not the one who has to do it all that we started winning championships. Hell, I threw for 120 yards [in Super Bowl XXXII] and we won. I was like, I don't care! I did my job!"
Since then Manning's passing has often been short and spotty—no TDs against Buffalo or Oakland; four picks against Cincinnati—but Elway's words helped him ease his grip, ever so slightly, on the offense. "I appreciated that conversation," Manning says. "It's nice to have somebody who's played the position and can share."
Clearly Elway is on some kind of run here. He remarried in 2009, to former Raiders cheerleader Paige Green; he's a good bet to win Executive of the Year; and he has another Super Bowl in his sights. Yet he knows that the pendulum will inevitably hurtle back the other way. That's why he was calmly swinging a golf club in a hallway when the Elvis Dumervil fax fiasco of '13 seemed like the end of the world, and why, months later, he suspended—but didn't fire—his top personnel men, Tom Heckert and Matt Russell, after DUI convictions. "Heck, I've made a lot of poor decisions too," says Elway. Investing $15 million in a Ponzi scheme in '10 is only the most recent. "I believe in second chances."
It's not that he doesn't react to bad news. Elway was a teary mess at the announcement in July of Bowlen's resignation due to Alzheimer's disease. He was angry and confused when cops showed up at his Cherry Hills home at 4 a.m. on May 31 to arrest his 24-year old son, Jack, for assault on his girlfriend after she accused him of dragging her out of a car by her hair and pushing her to the ground. Jack pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of disturbing the peace, was sentenced to a year's probation and a year of counseling.
Yet even in speaking about a subject so loaded, Elway radiates striking equanimity. "A kid made a bad decision," he says. "But he'll learn from that."
How can Elway be so sure? Something in the gut, maybe. A feel for things that his own father instilled in him. That's the strange thing: Until recently, John had kept thoughts about Jack and Jana at bay. Then Jana started showing up in his dreams. And then, two months ago, Elway fell asleep and found himself in a room with a man. When the man turned around, it was Jack, for the first time.
John threw open his arms and yelled, Dad! But Jack just smiled at his son. And that vision was enough to keep John charged for hours, and hopeful. He didn't come close enough to touch. He didn't say a word. Maybe next time, though.