Would He Rather Be A Unitas Or A Mantle?

Whether John Elway will choose football or baseball is a toss-up, but either way he's ticketed for stardom
April 11, 1983

The most desirable hunk of flesh to go on the scales in the professional sports marketplace in many a year is Stanford's 6'3", 205-pound John Elway. As a quarterback he has such a keen intuitive understanding of football that he's said to possess a sixth sense, and he'll be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft on April 26. If he signs with a team in that league, it will undoubtedly be for the largest contract ever given an NFL rookie—possibly the largest ever given any NFL player. But Elway's a baseball player, too, with a longbow of an arm and a propensity for hitting fastballs on a line to distant places, and those talents could get him a contract commensurate with the size of George Steinbrenner's pocket-book. The New York Yankees owner has the baseball rights to Elway, and he has already paid him upwards of $140,000 for playing six weeks of Class A for the Oneonta, N.Y. Yankees in 1982.

The Yankees will make an all-out pitch for Elway's services late this week, the period they've chosen for a formal presentation. How high will they go? "The money isn't an issue," says Steinbrenner. "Never has been with us."

In the eyes of the prospective bidders, at least, as Elway debates which way to go, John the quarterback and John the outfielder appear to be about athletic equals. And he has done nothing to indicate that his liking for the two games is anything other than equal.

"I love to take two steps into a fly ball and then hum it home, just let it fly and watch it move," Elway says. "There's no feeling like that. But then, throwing a football is a tougher release, a much harder thing to do." As he speaks he's taking in the spring vista around Stanford Stadium, his home football field during a career in which he set five NCAA and 17 Pac-10 passing records, despite playing for a team that not once in his four years received a bowl bid. "I'll just let them all do the wheeling and dealing and then I'll decide," he says. "I know I can be happy either way. I won't look back."

Elway flashes his toothy, triangular grin. With aqua eyes and a mop of blondish hair, he is handsome in the California style. But he looks even better with a helmet on, which is no insult. Framed by a face mask, his eyes bespeak the acuity that gives him an immediate grasp of a developing play.

"I first saw that vision when he was young, playing basketball. He could see everything on the court," says his father, Jack, who's in his fifth year as head coach at San Jose State and was himself a quarterback as a freshman at Washington State in 1949. "I was always the first to quit, in whatever we played. God, he was fun. As he grew older, I thought, 'Is he as good as I think he is?' "

He was that good. Young Elway isn't made up, dreamed up, trumped up or otherwise overblown. He's the legitimate article, the McCoy, and his timing is perfect. At 22, an economics major who will earn his degree in May with a 3.0 average, he can't miss.

Says Steinbrenner, "I put an old scout, Dutch Dotterer, on John [Dotterer's grandson, Mike, is also a major league prospect, as an outfielder, and played in the same football backfield with Elway at Stanford]. Dutch reported he has an outstanding arm, is a fine defensive player, will hit with power and is a great competitor. He's rated a definite. I see a lot of Mickey Mantle in him.

"We invited John to our Fort Lauderdale training camp last spring. He got into the batting cage for the first time, and [Batting Coach] Mickey Vernon told him to bunt one down the third-base line. He did. Told him to hit behind the runner, between first and second. He did. Same for second and third. Then he told him to hit it out of the park. He did."

NFL men are no less admiring. Dick Steinberg, the New England Patriots' personnel director, says Elway has "no flaws." Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys' personnel chief, says if he had Joe Montana, Dan Fouts and Danny White on his team, he'd still pick Elway No. 1.

"We'd love to have him, sure," said Brandt during the NFL playoffs. "But there's something to be said for parity in the NFL." So Dallas feels if it got Elway, there might not be parity in the NFL. The ultimate compliment.

In the NFL the wooing of Elway begins with Frank Kush and Robert Irsay, the coach and owner, respectively, of the Baltimore Colts, the team with the No. 1 pick in the draft. Kush visited with Jack Elway in a restaurant near the San Jose State campus in February, a meeting John declined to attend.

"It was the first time I'd met Frank Kush," says Jack. "He's got a different philosophy of coaching than I do, but I admire him. He wanted to know how John felt about Baltimore. If John wanted to come, then he'd take him. If not, they'd trade the pick."

It now seems likely that the Colts will make that trade. John has never said publicly he won't play in Baltimore, but he admits he is cool to teams outside California, except the Seattle Seahawks—his girl friend, Janet Buchan, a former All-America swimmer at Stanford, is from Tacoma—and the Cowboys. "I like California," he says. "I've never played in less than 45-degree weather."

Before Kush left, he gave Jack a bit of advice. "He told me to get John an agent," Jack says. "We hadn't had one. But I wouldn't know where to start counting the calls regarding John." John estimates these contacts have been in "millions," with only a half-smile. Jack decided on Marvin Demhoff, a Los Angeles-based attorney who had handled the contract of Defensive End Donnell Thompson, a first-round pick of the Colts in 1981. "Eventually, we'll need help with endorsements and investments," says Jack. Says Gordon Banks, a Stanford teammate of Elway's who's now with the USFL Oakland Invaders, "Before long it'll be Wells Fargo, Bank of America and the John Elway Bank."

"We've talked to the Cowboys and 10 to 12 other teams, contenders around the league," says Demhoff. "Most are walking slowly until they know how Baltimore will handle it." As of last weekend, Irsay had had at least one discussion with the Cowboys, more with other teams, especially the San Diego Chargers. In these conversations Irsay has reportedly shown interest in acquiring offensive players, particularly linemen.

The intense interest in Elway among NFL teams exists despite a glut of quarterbacks in this year's draft, even with UCLA's Tom Ramsey, Southern Mississippi's Reggie Collier and LSU's Alan Risher already signed by the USFL. Still available are Illinois' Tony Eason, Penn State's Todd Blackledge, Pitt's Dan Marino and Miami's Jim Kelly, all potential first-round choices. Notwithstanding this crop and the presence of Joe Montana and Dan Fouts in San Francisco and San Diego, the only California NFL team that has not talked with Demhoff about Elway as of last weekend was the Los Angeles Raiders. "Their trial is ending this week," said Demhoff, referring to the Raiders' suit for damages against the NFL that stemmed from the dispute over the team's move from Oakland to L.A. "Maybe we'll hear from them after that's wrapped up."

Elway would like that. He breaks into a smile at the thought of playing in the same backfield with Marcus Allen. "If I could choose, it would be the Raiders or Seattle," he says. But neither team has a particularly strong bargaining position. It's generally assumed that any team trading with the Colts will have to give up its own first draft choice as well as players. The Raiders have the 26th pick in the draft. Seattle has the ninth choice but not enough offensive talent to offer the Colts.

The 49ers have the 22nd choice. San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh, though he helped recruit Elway while at Stanford and calls him "probably the best college quarterback I've ever seen," has Montana and is pleased with him. Still, the 49ers and Demhoff have talked. The Rams are now coached by John Robinson, whose Trojans faced Elway for four years while Robinson was at USC. The Rams have a bunch of big offensive linemen and the third draft pick, but they gave up a bundle in draft choices and cash to sign Bert Jones and Vince Ferragamo last year and don't want to spend too heavily for the quarterback spot again. A source in the Rams' front office says, "I don't think we have a shot at Elway. They're working on something with San Diego."

Fouts, San Diego's free-agent quarterback, is seeking a contract for $1 million a year, but Charger insiders say if owner Gene Klein has to spend that sort of money at quarterback, he would rather invest in the future, i.e., Elway. Goodby, Fouts. The Chargers have superior players to offer Baltimore, not to mention the fifth and 20th draft picks.

"San Diego has the cards," says a member of the Oakland Invaders' front office. Ah, yes, the USFL is in the hunt, too. The Invaders made an offer to Elway in December. The opening bid included an annuity, a $1 million life insurance policy and base pay of $200,000 per season for five years. Elway turned the offer down—at least for the '83 season. The Invaders are now talking to the Elways about '84.

Even Brandt concedes, "San Diego's got the edge." But that won't stop the Cowboys from meeting with Demhoff after the Yankee offer is presented and dickering with Irsay and Kush. "But there are problems with making a trade," says Brandt. "He could sign with the Yankees, or he could sit out a year and then go back into the draft. If he goes with the USFL, then he can play for whatever NFL team he wants in four years, though the team that drafts him has right of first refusal. You'd better have your deal with him done before you trade for him." If no deal is worked out between a team Elway favors and Elway himself before the draft, NFL insiders believe Elway will go with the Yankees.

And indeed he might decide to become a Yankee, for the sheer challenge of it. He believes he could do fine in the major leagues, despite that bane of the phenom, the breaking pitch. "I'm not going to say I can't hit it," Elway says. "It might take two or three years to get to the big leagues, but I think I could."

Says Jack, "John felt that pressure of playing for money in Oneonta. He slumped, and he called me and said, 'Dad, I think my goal is to hit .100.' I told him to be aware of his mistakes but not to let them crush him." Elway found his swing, finishing the six-week tour by hitting .356 in July and .318 overall, with 25 RBIs and no errors in 42 games.

"The Yankees have been extremely good to John," says Demhoff, "but they must be aware that he would be passing up a tremendous opportunity. In football, he could be the best player ever at the most dominant position in the game."

John's sisters, Lee Ann, 24, and his twin, Jana, 22, want him to play football, and that can't be discounted, given the close-knit character of the Elway family. John credits his father with everything from his football talent to turning him around to hit from the left side with his plastic bat when he was a small boy. "He's like his mother more than me," says Jack. "Built like her, athletic like her. She's the one who kept the whole thing together while I coached." He was an assistant at Montana and Washington State before becoming head coach at Cal State-Northridge and then San Jose State. "From the time John was a boy," Jack says, "he's been bouncing on the ball bags at football practice. Watching. Absorbing. Now he amazes me with what he knows about football."

Jack insists he doesn't care which sport his son chooses. "I just want him to be excited, and dollars won't decide that," says Jack. "You can't be great playing on a dollar basis. You've got to have your heart and soul in it.

"When he decides, I'll get the ice and vodka and toast with him. It's his life. He should celebrate it. I'd feel real successful if I could just preserve for John the joy of playing ball. Because that's where he'll find his greatness."

PHOTOThings will not be so up in the air for Elway this week, after the Yankees talk money. TWO PHOTOSAt Stanford, where Elway had to sacrifice baseball to turn pro after only two seasons, he was noted for the long ball in both sports. PHOTOJack is confident that John will club himself correctly. TWO PHOTOSIn baseball Steinbrenner is pointing to himself to land Elway; in football Kush may be beyond help.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)