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TOUCH GUY IN THE CLUTCH

Jan. 26, 1987
Jan. 26, 1987

Table of Contents
Jan. 26, 1987

America's Cup
The Rebs
Super Bowl Preview
Hockey
Television
Point After

TOUCH GUY IN THE CLUTCH

Give Broncos quarterback John Elway just two minutes, and he'll likely take it all

As a former Bishop of Baltimore, I have come to admire the choice John Elway made.

This is an article from the Jan. 26, 1987 issue Original Layout

—J. FRANCIS STAFFORD
Archbishop of Denver

Thank you, Your Excellency. We would expect as much from a man whose business is forgiveness and who, not coincidentally, happens to root for the Denver Broncos.

But what about those hard-luck Baltimoreans who felt that John Elway, leader of the famed "Class of '83" (the quarterback equivalent of the Bloomsbury group), had spat on their city when he said he would rather play minor league baseball than pro football in Baltimore? The Colts took his threat seriously. They chose Elway first in the 1983 draft, then traded him to Denver for tackle Chris Hinton, backup quarterback Mark Herrmann and Denver's first-round pick in 1984 (who turned out to be Ron Solt, a guard from Maryland). A lot of people resented Elway for forcing the Colts' hand.

"Baltimore," says Elway now, addressing the entire city from a stool in the Broncos' locker room, "I'm sorry."

He packs ice on his sore left ankle, injured three weeks ago against the Patriots, and shakes his head. "I never should have said I wouldn't play in Baltimore. I really regret that. What I meant was the Colts' organization. I'd never even been to Baltimore. I had nothing against the city. I just didn't want to play for the owner. Robert Irsay, or the coach, Frank Kush. Kush was a military type. I wouldn't even take a recruiting trip to Arizona State when he was the coach there."

In fact, Kush lasted just one more season with the Colts, and Irsay's midnight defection to Indianapolis should have wised up at least some of Elway's Baltimore detractors. Still, Elway is genuinely pained by the way he has been perceived since entering the NFL, and this being Super Bowl Hype Time, he would love to do some image polishing. "I hope people can get to know what I'm really like," he says. "I have the image of being a spoiled brat, and I hate it."

What he really is, says Elway, is "a private, fun-loving, family man." He and wife Janet have one child, 14-month-old Jessica, and another baby is due this spring.

The Broncos quarterback was hurt in the beginning by comments by such critics as former Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw ("He ought to grow up and pay his dues") and a sort of vague public impression that Elway just looked like a smart aleck. He had that blond hair and those big white teeth, and he always seemed to be half-smiling. Some people were irritated by his too-good-to-be-true background—No. 1 prep quarterback in America, minor league baseball player for one summer in the Yankees organization (.318 average, team-leading 24 RBIs for Class A Oneonta), two-time All-America QB at snooty Stanford, owner of five NCAA Division I-A records and nine major Pac-10 records, and son of a successful football coach (how fair was that?). Furthermore, Elway's five-year, $5 million contract made him the highest-paid player in the NFL—and a lot of people were eager to see him fail.

At first, they got their wish. Elway started the Broncos' first game of 1983, against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, and completed just one of eight passes for 14 yards. He was sacked four times and intercepted once before bruising his elbow and departing in favor of veteran Steve DeBerg. The next week Elway started again, at Baltimore, where the fans were laying for him, and again he looked lost. "You could not hear anything in that stadium," says Denver coach Dan Reeves. "I've never seen anybody treated like that. He couldn't even tell the players the play in the huddle. It was horrible."

For the season Elway finished as the 17th-rated passer in the 14-member AFC. He showed moments of genius along the way—in the Baltimore rematch he rallied the Broncos from a 19-0 deficit by throwing three fourth-quarter TDs for a 21-19 win—but mostly he just looked bewildered.

"He wasn't ready," says Reeves. "The biggest problem was the language. It was like somebody learning Spanish and passing all the classroom tests and then going to Mexico, and all of a sudden it's coming at you so fast, you don't know what's going on."

Elway's failure was inevitable. Nobody could have lived up to his advance billing, especially with a team that had gone 2-7 the year before. "The expectation for John was perfection or nothing," recalls kicker Rich Karlis. "He had to lead us to the Super Bowl and be All-Pro, or he was dog meat."

And the failing nearly unhinged Elway. "All of a sudden there were no weaknesses on defense," he says, thinking back. "In college 15-yard cushions on receivers are common. But in the pros, unless the other team blows a coverage, nobody is going to be wide open."

Elway never completely lost his confidence, but his frustration grew to the point that he and Reeves had open shouting matches on the sidelines. "It was my fault," says Reeves. "I was just too inexperienced. John wasn't ready. There was no way I could prepare him for all the things they threw at him that year."

The two now are the best of friends, bound as much by the trauma of Elway's rookie year as by the team's current success. In fact, the pain of that first season may have been a blessing for the young quarterback. Elway was single at the time, and he frequently called Janet, his college flame who was living in Seattle, to discuss his woes. She heard the depression in his voice but says now that it wouldn't have helped if she had been living with him that year as Mrs. Elway. "Either way, he was going to have to go through what he did by himself," she says. Elway agrees. "The hard times made me stronger and helped me appreciate things more," he says.

There is a stack of mail by Elway's stool, and he picks up an envelope and opens it. It's a telegram from George Raveling, the basketball coach at USC. From sixth to ninth grade Elway, who was born in Port Angeles, Wash., attended Raveling's summer camp at Washington State, where Raveling was coaching at the time. The telegram reads: Dear Shotgun: Congratulations on your great season. Best of luck in the Super Bowl. I still think you should have played basketball.

Elway is such a superb athlete that if the word "natural" weren't already in the dictionary, somebody would have to invent it just for him. "He's good at golf; he's even good at cards," says Broncos guard Keith Bishop. "He remembers all the cards, so I don't play with him."

At 6'3", 210 pounds, Elway is strong, heady and, of course, possessed of a wondrous right arm. He is even moderately fast (a 4.74 for the 40 being his best time), though he admits he gets away from would-be tacklers mostly with "quick feet." The only skill Elway apparently lacks is great leaping ability; indeed, he cannot dunk a basketball. "White man's disease," he shrugs.

Clearly, though, he has chosen the right sport. The way he engineered "the Drive," the 98-yard march to tie the score in the final minutes of the AFC Championship Game in Cleveland, is proof enough of that. "He's got the mobility of Fran Tarkenton and the arm of Joe Namath," said Philadelphia Eagles coach Buddy Ryan after the game. "It was the best drive I've ever seen," said former Denver quarterback Craig Morton. "He's the only quarterback I've ever seen who could have pulled that off."

Elway has done some thinking about the Drive in recent days and feels that as stunning as the march was, it was "the magnitude of the game" that made the event so exceptional—plus the fact that 60 million people were watching on TV. But in truth, Elway has been pulling off similar feats for as long as he has been playing football.

"In 1984 we were 13 and 3, and John must have pulled out five or six games in the final two minutes," says Reeves. Elway himself recalls the Stanford—Ohio State game his senior year as being a big comeback win for him. Down 20-16 with 98 seconds to go, Elway led the Cardinal on an 80-yard drive that ended when he scrambled and threw a touchdown pass to wide receiver Emile Harry for a 23-20 victory.

Indeed, the Drive confirmed that Elway is, with Dan Marino, one of the two best come-from-behind QBs in the game. Elway has never produced the sparkling across-the-board stats of other premier NFL quarterbacks, mainly because he doesn't get fired up until the game is on the line. Last year he led the NFL in total offense with 4,144 yards, but his completion rate was only 54% and he threw more interceptions (23) than touchdowns (22). This year he completed 55.6% of his passes for 3,485 yards and 19 TDs, but his quarterback rating was only 79.0, 11th-best in the NFL. In the playoffs his rating is a lowly 65.2 (50% completion rate, two touchdowns, three interceptions), while Broncos opponents have a 90.8 rating. But guess who's going to the Super Bowl.

"I have no idea why we have to wait so long to get going," says Elway in genuine dismay. "We just have a quiet confidence when things are tough. But I wish we could have that killer instinct from minute one. I think what happens to me is that in tight situations I stop worrying about turnovers. There is no pressure. I can just cut it loose."

At practice last week, inside the canvas bubble at the Broncos' headquarters in Denver, Elway started to unleash a long pass to wide receiver Vance Johnson, then let up ever so slightly, releasing the ball at less than full force. The bubble is only 70 yards long, and Elway admitted later he didn't want to lead Johnson smack into the far wall.

Jack Elway, now the coach at Stanford, advised his son years ago never to just "turn your arm loose," for fear of injuring it, and John never has. Still, the quarterback estimates he could throw a football 85 yards. And a baseball? "I think I could throw one out of the Stanford ballpark," says Elway. "It's 335 feet down the line. Everybody has their own security thing. Mine is my arm. I have great confidence in it."

His cannon arm was a shock to Denver receivers when he first arrived in the NFL. "His ball was harder than anything I'd ever felt," recalls veteran wideout Steve Watson, adding that Elway now has better touch on his passes than he did at the beginning. "Most of the time when he guns one in there, it needs to be gunned."

"There is no question John can be the greatest two-minute quarterback ever," says Reeves. "He's got that arm, and the point of a two-minute attack is that everybody in the world knows you're going to throw, and your arm is strong enough to do it, anyway."

The other factor, of course, is that Elway can run. Indeed, he started his football career as a running back in the fifth grade. "That's what I wanted to be," he recalls. "I was always the fastest kid in my class. Then in the seventh grade I started growing and my speed went. That's when I became a quarterback."

At Stanford, Elway had to sprint for his life. With the Broncos he loves to run, to make other teams miss and pound the turf in disgust. He is Denver's alltime leader for backs in average gain per carry (4.8), and he has led AFC quarterbacks in rushing for the last three years—stats he is most proud of.

"Why is it that when experts talk about a 'complete quarterback,' they never include running as part of the package?" Elway asks. "Defenses don't account for the quarterback. Nobody does. So it becomes 11 men against 10. Running just puts the pressure back on the defense."

Reeves doesn't want his leader to get maimed while running, but he is smart enough not to cramp Elway's style. "I never, ever mention scrambling to him now," says the coach. "That would take away his spontaneity. He runs when he has to, which is how it should be."

One thing Reeves did ask from the start was that Elway build himself up through weightlifting so he could withstand the pounding his scrambling style invited. Elway said sure, he'd lift, but he never did. Then one day awhile back Roger Staubach telephoned Elway and rhapsodized about the wonders of weights for the mobile quarterback. Reeves had asked Staubach to make the call. "Staubach was my idol, my childhood hero," says Elway. "His call got me over the hump." Now Elway can bench 300 pounds and do sets of squats with 350, and aside from the ankle injury and a minor concussion he sustained this season, he has not been hurt.

On a snowy Colorado night before the Broncos are to leave for Pasadena, Elway sits in the kitchen of his hilltop home in Aurora and watches Jessica, blonde and blue-eyed, eat spaghetti with her hands. Tall and athletic-looking Janet Elway, who has a sociology degree from Stanford, serves dinner.

On the floor lie the two Elway dogs, Leroy, an unshorn poodle, and Rufus, a black Labrador. Rufus is supposed to be a trained hunting dog, but he recently fell asleep in Elway's duck blind while shotguns blazed around him. The two dogs are part of a tableau of remarkable domestic tranquillity.

Elway appears to be totally relaxed. Earlier he had spoken with some humor about his image. "I have blond hair and I went to high school in L.A. and graduated from Stanford and I'm labeled a 'Californian.' But I was born in Washington and lived in Montana after that. I'm not a rebel. I've never stepped on a surfboard. I've hardly ever been to the beach."

He looks at his daughter with paternal affection. His life has been so wonderful, correct image or not, he says, that he doesn't have much to complain about. He wants a son so that he can have as much football fun with him as he had with his own dad. "I've been so fortunate," he says. "If I had to draw up a blueprint for a good life, it would be this."

Even the thought of a blitzing Lawrence Taylor can't chill Elway's warm reverie. "He's such a great player," Elway says cheerfully of the Giant linebacker. "I was lucky in our last game. I sidestepped him a little bit."

The quarterback knows that the Broncos aren't given much of a chance in the coming game, but that is almost soothing to him. "Being an underdog means nothing to us," says Elway. "There's no pressure. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose."

Let the two-minute drill begin.

PHOTOANDY HAYTThat toothy grin used to irk his critics, but Elway is smiling all the way to Pasadena.PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERThe confident Elway has long been accustomed to being the center of attention.PHOTORONALD C. MODRAThe Giants will have to contend with Elway's quick feet as well as his potent right arm.PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERIn the Elway household, daughter Jessica takes her cue from Dad.