A marvelous paradox of this football season is that the college quarterback most prized by the pros plays for a team with one of the most god-awful records in the country. The quarterback is John Elway, and he throws bullet passes with cross-hair accuracy. The team is Stanford, which has been beaten by Purdue 27-19, San Jose State 28-6, Ohio State 24-19, Arizona 17-13, Southern Cal 25-17, Arizona State 62-36 and Washington 42-31. Last Saturday's 63-9 victory over Oregon State was only the second of the year for Stanford; on Oct. 10 the Cardinals squeaked by UCLA 26-23. Nevertheless, despite such massive insult and occasional injury—Elway has been bothered by a sprained right ankle, a chipped bone in his left hand and a mild concussion—the embattled young man has made the pros covet him all the more. In this hellish season he has thrown the ball 309 times and completed 175 passes for a .566 percentage and 2,202 yards. Fifteen of his passes have gone for touchdowns. That performance, following a sophomore season in which he completed 65.4% of 379 passes for 2,889 yards and 27 touchdowns, has put him near the top of the quarterback heap at a school renowned for its passers.
As the season began, of course, there was no reason to foresee doom and gloom for the Cardinals, and the mood at Palo Alto was light and loose.
The locker-room conversation sounded pretty depressing, to be sure. "Cliffs in jail," Rob Moore said to Elway, "and it looks to me like the kid isn't his, either." Elway shook his blond head in mock concern, situating himself atop a training table for the pre-practice ankle-taping ritual, a chore performed at Stanford by attractive young women trainers. "Too bad about your friend," a concerned bystander said. "What friend?" Elway said. "Cliff. The guy in jail. The cuckold." Raucous young laughter. "Oh, that's a soap-opera character. Rob and I always keep track of his latest tragedies. I guess he is a friend in a way."
Moore reappeared with more bad news. "And I had a flat last night out "by the lake." Elway laughed. "Rob is his own soap opera," he said. "Let's see, what've you had now—a broken neck, a bum knee and a flat tire. Not bad for three years of football."
November 16, 1981
"They're taking money to see when I'll go down this year," Moore, a fullback, said, smiling gravely.
Moore and Elway were joined by Darrin Nelson, the bubbly nonesuch halfback, whose hand was being bandaged by one of the trainers. "How'd that happen?" Elway inquired. "Well," said Nelson, warming to the occasion, "these three big dudes had me cornered last night, and by the time I'd punched them all out, my hand got hurt." He paused reflectively, checking the reaction of the comely trainer. "Actually, I banged it against a doorknob."
College football players, particularly those attending schools like Stanford, where classroom attendance is considered de rigueur, are a curious bunch out of armor—giant bodies topped by the heads of earnest schoolboys. From the neck up, Elway, who is considered by professional scouts to be the hottest college passer since Bert Jones, could be Andy Hardy, or Jody Baxter in The Yearling. His hair falls like straw over an unlined forehead. His blue eyes are clear and his mouth, thick-lipped, is filled with alabaster teeth. That's the head. The rest of him is pure pro quarterback—lanky (6'4", 202), long-limbed, the chest of a weightlifter. Watching him fire his passes, reading about his record-shattering performances, one is likely to forget that this superman is, at 21, still a boy.
Jim Fassel, Stanford's offensive coordinator, addressed the offensive unit before the final practice the week of Stanford's opening game with Purdue. He spoke football-ese. "They play very soft in the secondary on the Zebra formation.... Passes should be called away from the roll of the Cowboy coverage.... If they're playing the short post, we'll go to the shake...." Elway and Moore were sitting together, kids in class foggily absorbing the arcanum. The coach reverted to English. "Let's have some fun out there. Hey, we're good. Practice is short today, one hour. We'll finish with the two-minute drill." Elway, daydreaming, became a Bob & Ray creation. "Uh, will we be doing the two-minute drill?" he asked. "He just got through saying that," Moore said, gleefully jumping on the gaffe. "Our peerless leader," the front row moaned in chorus. "I don't know how I missed that," said the red-faced peerless leader.
Elway may be inattentive on occasion, but he is, according to the experts, a forward passer possibly without peer. Last season he set Pac-10 Conference records for touchdown passes, completions, touchdowns running and passing (31; he ran for four) and total offense (2,939 yards) plus a single-game mark for TD passes (six against Oregon State) and TD passes in a quarter (four, also against the Beavers), which also equaled an NCAA record. He was one of the handful of quarterbacks ever to be named All-America as a sophomore. Against Purdue this year he set personal highs by completing 33 of 44 passes for 418 yards. Against Ohio State he rallied Stanford to a near-upset by completing 21 of 27 second-half passes, including nine in a row late in the third and early in the fourth quarters. Only a fumble after a reception by second-team Halfback Vincent White stopped a last-minute Stanford drive and preserved Ohio State's win.
Alas, his ankle injury, which he suffered against Purdue, sorely limited Elway's mobility and forced him to alter his passing motion—instead of throwing with his whole body, he was using almost all arm and wrist—in the first four games, and he played less than a half against Arizona State in the seventh game, albeit completing 10 of 17 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns, before chipping the bone in his hand and suffering the concussion. Despite all of these handicaps, his performance has been, in its own way, fully as remarkable as the gaudier one of the previous season.
"I've learned a lot this year," Elway, ever cheerful, says. "You learn more from losing, I think. Your patience sure gets tested, for one thing. And I've learned self-control. I've learned to deal with frustration. It's a new situation for me—losing. It demonstrates how much the quarterback depends on the people around him. I'm determined to finish this season on a winning note. Then we'll come out fired up for next year."
Stanford's dismal showing has in no way cooled the ardor professional scouts feel for the quarterback. "I've been in this business 20 years, and I'd have to say that Elway is the best I've ever seen," says Tony Razzano, director of college scouting for the 49ers. "At this point, that is. He's the best junior I've ever seen. And sometimes when a player doesn't seem to have the accompaniment he might, you can't let it bother you that they're 2-7. You can't really say Elway hasn't produced." When relatively healthy, as he was last week against Oregon State, Elway vindicates his backers. Playing only 2½ quarters of the 63-9 win, Elway completed 15 of 20 passes for 245 yards and three touchdowns.
"Elway's got everything going for him, no negatives to speak of," says Tom Braatz, director of player personnel for the Falcons. "His possibilities are unlimited," says Gil Brandt, the Cowboys' head of personnel development. "He's an outstanding athlete, with the kind of physical ability that could make a Bert Jones-or a Terry Bradshaw-type of quarterback." Of the injuries and the losses Brandt says, "With all that, with the physical abilities he has, if he were a senior he'd still be the first guy picked in the draft."
College coaches speak of him as if he were discovered in the bullrushes. After he threw for three touchdowns (and ran for another) in Stanford's stunning 31-14 upset of Oklahoma in Norman last season, Sooner Coach Barry Switzer said, "John Elway put on the greatest exhibition of quarterback play and passing I've ever seen on this field." When asked to compare Elway with Ohio State's Art Schlichter, UCLA Coach Terry Donahue said, "It's like comparing apples and oranges. If you ask me who I'd least like to face, it's John Elway." Speculating on Elway's future in professional football, Stanford Coach Paul Wiggin, himself a former Stanford All-America and All-Pro defensive end with the Browns, said, "He's a franchise, an automatic. I played with John Brodie here at Stanford, and John was one of the truly great players in the game, but as a sophomore, at the same stage of development, he couldn't compare with John Elway."
The first week he stepped on a practice field as a freshman in 1979, Elway scared off two top quarterback prospects, Babe Laufenberg and Grayson Rogers, who quickly transferred to other schools—Laufenberg to Indiana, by way of Pierce Junior College in L.A., Rogers to the University of the Pacific—and both have started at quarterback. Turk Schonert, a senior then, now with the Cincinnati Bengals, who had patiently waited his turn through the Guy Benjamin (49ers) and Steve Dils (Vikings) eras, was almost equally threatened by the freshman flamethrower. "Turk felt the pressure, no question," says Fassel. Schonert merely led the nation in passing that year. He almost had to in order to stave off Elway. "If you can play ahead of John Elway," says Fassel, "you're a great quarterback, and I don't care if you are a senior and he is only a freshman."
Andre Tyler, a brilliant Stanford split end who has missed every game this year because of a broken foot, has played with Benjamin, Dils and Schonert and Elway. "I don't think any of the others could be rated with John," he says. "He is clearly in a class by himself.
"The difference is in the raw physical talent, the ability to throw the ball. Steve, Guy, Turk and Jim Plunkett all worked out here with receivers this summer, and not one of them wanted to throw after John. There are situations in a game when most quarterbacks would not be physically able to even think about doing what Elway does routinely. You can be surrounded by defenders, and John will get the ball to you. He can throw that hard and that accurately. He throws so hard that it was a problem for us receivers at first. He was throwing the ball twice as fast as anyone I'd ever seen. It was the difference between catching a 90-mile-an-hour fastball and a changeup. He could throw it on a line for 40, 50 yards, and he could throw it 85 yards if he had to. For a while the coaches debated whether to ask him to soften up. Finally they came to us and said, 'We're not going to ask John to change. It's up to you to adjust. He's our man.' We adjusted. We learned to concentrate on the ball more, to secure it before we took off."
Wiggin invites skeptics to stand behind his quarterback at practice and observe the awesome projectiles firsthand. "I've been standing behind quarterbacks all my life," he says, "and I've never seen anyone who can make it happen the way this kid does." Elway warms up, lofting lazy spirals to his receivers; then, gradually, he cranks up to full velocity. In the end there is just a flick of the wrist and the ball is there, yards away. The receivers, cold at first, drop passes by the dozen. "The old theory that if you can touch it you can catch it goes out the window with John," says Fassel. In time the receivers adjust, and Elway is hitting them with fastballs from 30 to 40 yards out, the ball fairly whistling as it leaves his right hand. It's an eye-opening spectacle. Elway throws footballs the way Nolan Ryan throws baseballs. Wiggin shrugs, smiling an I-told-you-so smile.
No other college or university, not even Notre Dame, has produced more quality T-formation quarterbacks than Stanford. It is a tradition of excellence that began in 1940 with Frankie Albert, the first of the modern-day T quarterbacks, and continued through Brodie, Plunkett, Benjamin, Dils and Schonert. Sprinkled in among these illuminati were some lesser-knowns who also had exceptional careers: Gary Kerkorian, Bobby Garrett, Dick Norman (who in 1959 completed 34 of 39 passes for 401 yards against California), Dave Lewis, Mike Boryla and Don Bunce, all of whom went on to play professional football.
Stanford immortals peer down at the current aspirants from photographs that hang on almost every inch of wall space in the snug athletic-department building. No quarterback who has ever played in Palo Alto has escaped the subtle pressure applied by these ghosts. But in his junior season, Elway has moved into second place in touchdown passes (48) behind Plunkett, and into third place in passing yardage (5,635) and completions (474) behind Plunkett and Benjamin. Barring further injury, and if he continues at his current pace Elway should finish at the top of the list in every significant Stanford passing statistic, including Plunkett's imposing 7,544 total yards. Then, if he plays professional football, he will take aim at the accomplishments of his Stanford predecessors—Albert's 29 TD passes in 1948, Brodie's 30 touchdown passes in 1965 and 31,548 yards gained passing and Plunkett's 1981 Super Bowl championship.
What's that? If he plays professional football? With NFL scouts forming entire rooting sections and with big bucks being squirreled away to entice him, what could keep Elway from playing pro football? The New York Yankees could. The Yanks signed Elway to a most peculiar contract immediately after Stanford's second game this season, the loss to San Jose State. Under its terms, Elway will play for a six-figure salary next summer, after the school term, for the Class-A Oneonta (N.Y.) team. In doing so he will lose his football scholarship, but, under current NCAA rules, no football eligibility. He will no longer be able to play baseball for Stanford, because the rules do prohibit a student from playing the same sport professionally and in college. This could even prove to be a boon for Wiggin and the football staff, for Elway will now be free to devote his attention to spring football exclusively. Freedom from the double dose of college baseball and spring football—one Saturday, Elway completed 65% of his passes in a morning football scrimmage and went 3 for 4 against USC in the afternoon—will permit him to, as he puts it, "act more like a college student and not like a guy running from one field to another every day." The Yankees, in brief, will provide him with "a nice summer job."
The Yankees are gambling, of course. Elway has told them that, as of now, he prefers playing professional football, so they have no real assurance of signing him to a longer-term contract when his college eligibility has expired. They are also gambling that he will not be seriously injured playing college football, and they will soon be involved in what could be a multimillion-dollar bidding war with whatever NFL team drafts him. By signing him for this year, the Yankees are simply preserving their draft rights and ensuring that they will be the only major league team that can sign him. Had they not signed him by the end of September after drafting him in the second round when he turned 21, Elway, in the words of a Yankee spokesman, "would've gone back in the hopper." Is the estimated $140,000 they will be paying him for six weeks or so of minor league baseball worth it? The Yankees think so.
For a youngster who spends most of his time throwing footballs, Elway is a remarkable baseball player. In his last two seasons at Granada Hills High near Los Angeles, he batted .551 and .491 and was voted the Southern California CIF Baseball Player of the Year his senior year. Although he had already committed himself to attending Stanford, the Kansas City Royals drafted him in the 18th round after high school. He had a disappointing (.269) freshman season but came back this past spring to hit .361 with nine homers and 50 RBIs in 49 games. In the NCAA Central Regionals he hit .444 and was voted onto the all-tournament team. He is a polished right-fielder with, naturally, a powerful arm.
"If he played nine months of the year instead of three or four, there is no telling how good he could be," says Stanford Baseball Coach Mark Marquess. "It's significant that he really starts playing well toward the end of the season, in the pressure games. He's a true clutch performer. It's incredible to me that he can play football and baseball at the same time. He'd have football practice in the morning, miss batting practice, then tear the cover off the ball in the game. He's just an amazingly gifted athlete...and he's got that cannon for an arm."
A lefthand hitter with power, Elway is "made for Yankee Stadium," says Bill Bergesch, Yankee vice-president for baseball operations, who made three recruiting trips to Stanford and watched nervously as the San Jose State team abused his prize prospect, sacking him seven times. "We project him as a superstar. He's got everything a scout looks for—he's big and strong, he can run, he can hit and hit with power, and he's got that strong arm. We see him as our right-fielder down the road. Unfortunately, we are also aware he has some talent in football."
The Yankees, says Bergesch, realize they are playing a long shot, but they are counting on the glamour and tradition that come with a pinstripe uniform to win him over. "We'll take him to our training camp during his spring vacation," says Bergesch. "Our eyes are open. We know how important football is to him. It's the glamour sport in college. But we'll have the chance to show him what a career in baseball can be like. He'll meet some of our star players. We wouldn't take this gamble if we didn't think we could sign him. And we're not hurting Stanford at all. I know one thing, whatever pro football team drafts him had better know that the Yankees will be there. We're not bowing out of this thing lightly. We'll be there."
Elway's negotiator in his dealings with the Yankees and his closest confidant in all things is his father. Jack, 50. Theirs is a father-son relationship abounding in mutual respect and admiration. It is a relationship marred, however, by an accident of fate: Jack Elway is the head football coach at San Jose State, which is 15 miles south on Highway 101 from Palo Alto and is a traditional Stanford football opponent. The annual meetings between the son's and the father's football teams are an excruciatingly painful experience for the entire Elway family, which includes wife-mother Janet and daughters-sisters Lee Ann and Jana. "The season begins for all of us," says Jana, John's twin, "after that game." "It's hard on the whole family," says John, "particularly my mother. It's Dad's job, after all, and the family has always been centered around him. This thing is a whole lot worse for us than people think."
Jack Elway's 28-year coaching career began at the high school level in his native state of Washington. After four years as an assistant at Washington State he became head coach at Cal State-Northridge at the time his son blossomed as a high school football hero. In December of 1978, Jack accepted the San Jose job.
Son John graduated from Granada Hills High the following June and was enthusiastically recruited by 65 colleges, including Stanford, Notre Dame, USC, Washington and...San Jose State. Jack Elway had privately tutored his son but had never coached him at any level (he may finally get his chance as coach of the West team in the January, 1983 East-West Shrine Game at Stanford), and like many fathers who are also coaches, he scrupulously refused to interfere with any of John's coaches. Only once did he speak up on his son's behalf, and that only after an assistant coach in high school had struck the 16-year-old during practice. "I told that guy he could apologize now or meet me outside and get the bleep kicked out of him, or he could wait until John turned 21 and have him kick the bleep out of him. He apologized."
John had developed a yearning to play in the Pac-10 during his father's years at Washington State. The move to California made him more a fan of Stanford, the quarterback's school, than of USC, the tailback's school. "He'd had his heart set on the Pac-10 since he was 12," said Jack one recent afternoon before his own football practice. "And I knew that. Stanford was always his first choice. The only advice I gave him was to go to a school that was solid academically [John is majoring in Economics] and that had quality coaches. I told him when the time came he should make his own decision and never look back. He's done that and he's happy and I'm proud of him."
Jack removed his blue SJS baseball cap and fanned himself with it. "We, of course, were in the process of recruiting a quarterback at the time, since Ed Luther [now with the San Diego Chargers] was in his last year. I tell people that my offer to John was $2,000 under the table, a new car and a mortgage on the house. I said I would go so far as to have an affair with his mother. Still, he didn't go for it. I'm not sure she would have gone for it. I know that if I had said, 'John, come with me to San Jose,' he would've come, but that wouldn't have been fair to him. Still, there are nights, after I've had about three vodka martinis, when I'll say to myself, 'Jack, old boy, you've got to be the dumbest sumbitch in this whole world. You had the best quarterback in America sitting across the breakfast table from you and you let him get away.' "
Father and son remain each other's biggest boosters for all but one week of the year. They talk by phone or in the family home in San Jose several times a week during football season—except when San Jose is playing Stanford. Before this season's game they made a public appearance together at a football writers' luncheon in San Francisco. "I've been a fan of my dad's all my life, but when it comes down to this game, I have to be selfish," John told the reporters. "Last year, no kidding, Dad gave me San Jose's first play of the game, a quarterback draw. I told Coach Harbaugh [Stanford defensive coordinator Jack Harbaugh] what it was going to be and he said, 'Yeah, sure.' Well, it was a quarterback draw, and the coach and I just looked at each other. This year, I don't know whether I can trust the old man."
Said Jack, "Sure I'll tell him the play when I know it. That's what makes us so effective. We never know what we're doing on offense." Such jocularity masks the genuine anguish both men feel on the week they must play each other. John was significantly absent from a family gathering two nights before the San Jose game. This was the week for Elway schizophrenia. "We're all confused," said Janet Elway, a stately blonde. She hoisted the family dog, a spunky black poodle, to her lap. "Except you, Corky." She nuzzled the animal. "You don't care what happens as long as John comes home to play with you on the floor."
"The kids were all born at once—18 months apart for all three," said Jack, sipping his vodka martini. "I like to tell people I got married, had a honeymoon for 18 months and then all hell broke loose the next 18. But having the twins was quite a thrill, and all of the kids, being so close to the same age, developed a special bond. Even as little kids, I can remember John crawling on the floor by himself, then looking around to see where Jana was and crawling right over to her. And then the two of them would start jabbering at each other in that special language twins have."
"It's so strange now," said Janet. "John comes home here and sprawls all over the furniture, making a mess of things, destroying the whole house. And then I'll see him on TV, a hero. It's like he's two different people."
The only opponent to hold John to under 200 yards passing last season was San Jose State. This year, against his father's team, John suffered through the worst day of his career, completing only six of 24 passes for 72 yards, hardly a quarter's work for him on a normal outing. He threw five interceptions and was sacked the seven times, the combination of his offensive line breaking down and his own sprained ankle leaving John a virtual sitting duck. The San Jose victory was one of the most important in the school's football history and its first over Stanford in six years. For Jack Elway it was the triumph of a lifetime and, along with last year's upset of Baylor, led to speculation that more than one Elway might be joining the NFL one day.
For John, it was the low point of his young career. Janet Elway smiled and embraced her husband after the game, then, spotting her battered son, burst into tears. Jana, a San Jose junior, wore a hat that had the Stanford emblem and colors on one side and San Jose State's on the other. She didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
At the final gun John limped across the field to throw an arm around his father. They walked tearfully together out the south end of Stanford Stadium. Jack Elway drank a Pepsi with shaking hands as he met the press under the trees outside the San Jose locker room. His blitzing linebackers had given his son a terrible beating in helping Jack to his biggest win. His manner was deadly serious. "How do I feel?" He hunched his shoulders. "As a father, I'm not very goddamn happy. As a coach, I'm thrilled. I thought John showed great courage. He was obviously injured." Later, he would bitterly criticize the Stanford coaches—most of whom are his close friends—for leaving his son in the game so long when he should have been on the sidelines nursing his injured ankle. But it was John, driven by God knows what competitive forces, who had insisted upon playing in pain.
The following week, still limping, he rebounded from an indifferent first half (7 for 15 for 55 yards) against Ohio State to complete 28 of 42 for 248 yards and two touchdowns. His rival, the much-publicized Schlichter, was 16 for 32 for 240 yards and two TDs. But Schlichter, who also had an ankle injury, tailed off in the second half, while Elway rallied Stanford to near-victory.
This season's Stanford Cardinals are scarcely the touchdown-happy bunch of a year ago. Elway's best receiver in 1981, Ken Margerum, has gone to the Chicago Bears, and Tyler, his second best, has yet to play. Nelson, who ran for 1,000 yards and caught 50 passes in both his freshman and sophomore years, has been bothered by a bruised hip he suffered in the first quarter of the Purdue game, and the young offensive line isn't providing Elway with the protection he had a year ago. It all adds up to frustration, as in the Ohio State game. Elway's performance against the Buckeyes would have been even more extraordinary had his receivers not dropped at least four catchable passes, one a perfectly thrown 50-yarder which Tight End Chris Dressel muffed in the open field. With his team trailing by five points and 6:55 left in the game, Elway's ankle was reinjured. He missed one series of downs and then returned, the reincarnation of Frank Merriwell, for the final minute and 33 seconds of play. From his own 16 he completed passes of 22 yards to Eric Mullins and nine yards to Moore before dumping off a swing pass to White, who fumbled the ball away with 54 seconds left.
For Elway there will be other games, in either football or baseball. He will soon become one of those rare athletes whose services are in demand in two professional sports. He has, in that sense, a future without limitations. Whatever choice he makes, the child's head will stay straight on the man's shoulders. "John has been brought up right," Wiggin says. "They're still games," says John. "They're still fun. The more attention I get, the more I like my privacy. There's no sense in trying to live up to other people's expectations of me."
"John is mentally tough and he's physically tough," says Jack Elway, whose own future has so recently been enhanced at the expense of his son. "But more important than all that, he's a damn good person."