Nobody likes to look into the valley of death and spit as much as John Elway. Nobody is better when the dogs are at his cuffs, the barn is burning and the rent hasn't been paid. No wonder Elway owns three car dealerships in the greater Denver area. Who runs a better year-end closeout drive than he? Eighteen times in his nine-year career he had gathered up his outrageous nerve, magic cleats and nuclear right arm and taken the Denver Broncos from behind in the fourth quarter to win. But surely not this time. Not again.
For one thing, the Houston Oilers had just punted the Broncos into a cozy little corner at their own two-yard line. For another, there was only 2:07 left in regulation, and Houston's murderous and underrated defense was going to blitz everybody but the Gatorade boy. There were 98 yards to go, no timeouts to go it in, and Elway was ready to be fitted for a stretcher. At one point in the fourth quarter of this semifinal playoff game in Denver, he was so out of breath that one of his linemen told Elway that his teammates were having difficulty understanding him in the huddle. Yeah, he had pulled off The Drive, the 98-yard wonder in Cleveland in the 1986 AFC Championship Game, but this situation here was downright unthinkable. One thing about miracles: They don't Xerox well.
Mile High Stadium was a giant woofer. On the Denver sideline, Bronco backup quarterback Gary Kubiak was resigning himself to permanent goathood. He had hobbled a perfectly good snap and ruined an extra-point attempt in the first quarter. Now, as the minutes ticked down, Denver was behind by that one botched hold, 24-23. "I was standing there thinking, I've got to live all year knowing I messed up that PAT," Kubiak said.
As Elway got ready to drag himself back onto the field one more time, Kubiak yanked on his arm. "Pick me up, Wood," Kubiak said. In sportsese, "pick me up" means "save my bacon." Wood is what Kubiak calls Elway, Wood being short for Elwood, Kubiak's handle for Elway. To Elway, Kubiak was always Koob. Drafted the same year—Elway the shiny first pick in '83, Kubiak the 197th—Kubiak always knew what the score was in Denver. He would sweep up after Elway's parade. Still, they became roommates and best friends. In Elway's first few tumultuous years in Denver, the years when he felt hounded, confused and ready to quit, nobody dealt out more hang-in-theres than the Texas farm kid, Kubiak.
But there was more than just bacon to be saved this time, and they both knew it. Elway knew that Kubiak was going to retire after the season. Maybe nobody but Elway cared about the retirement of a lifetime understudy. Here was a guy who had spent his best years behind one of the most durable and celebrated quarterbacks in history, with not a hope of starting, hardly a hope of playing. And yet Koob had never bitched, sniped, complained or even short-sheeted anybody.
"As I was walking out there," Elway said, "I was thinking, We can't let Koob end his career on that bobbled snap."
Some great things are done for history. Some for glory. Some for country, family, God, self. But once in a while, in the dark of a chill January afternoon, great things are done in the name of a roomie.
Not that Elway didn't have a few career pressures on the line himself. He is the one man nobody wants at his Super Bowl party. Three appearances in the Big Bowl so far and three train wrecks. A bad blond joke. Unfortunately, Elway has this annoying habit of not taking a hint. He knows that for all his greatness—he is the NFL's winningest quarterback from 1984 to '91—nothing seems to stick in people's memories quite like the flash of a world championship ring.
"I have a vision of getting a perfect team and winning a Super Bowl," Elway was saying one day before the game against Houston. "Us going in against a team we should beat, and winning big." And if it means he has to "go 10 times" and "get beat 10 times," he says he will. "I just want another chance to win it."
Of course, all of that looked dead now at the feet of the Oilers. All day Elway had been trying to match Houston quarterback Warren Moon missile for missile. Moon started out blazing, three touchdown passes in his first three drives for a 21-6 lead. Elway and his tiny receivers led the Broncos back, picking and begging and running for their lives during a second-quarter 88-yard drive to pull within eight, 21-13. Kicker David Treadwell's field goal—a clothesline 49-yardcr in the third—made it 21-16, but Moon was a vision. Of the three dozen passes he threw on this remarkable Saturday, only nine weren't caught, and three of those were drops. One, by Haywood Jeffires in the end zone, would have been a touchdown. At one point, Moon saved a sure sack with a preposterous lefthanded flip to Lorenzo White not six inches before the quarterback landed face-first on the turf. It set up a 25-yard field goal by Al Del Greco and another eight-point lead, 24-16.
Still, as any Cleveland Browns fan will tell you, Elway is like a magazine salesman—he's hard to keep off your doorstep. Back Denver came on an 80-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive, this one featuring 1) a fumbled snap that Elway scooped up and fired for a first down, 2) a converted fourth-and-four that went for 26 yards and 3) innumerable fingernails and shoestrings that somehow slipped through Houston's gasping defenders. At one point, Houston defensive end William Fuller was so frustrated that he sat down in the middle of the field and didn't get up for two minutes. Now Denver trailed by one.
Finally, and for once, Denver's defense held. Now came Greg Montgomery's first punt of the afternoon. Now the plea by Kubiak. Who better to answer it than Elway? "Nobody," said Moon later.
The first play was planned, a .22-caliber bullet to wideout Michael Young for 22 yards, but the rest "were all John improvising," marveled Denver center Dave Widell. And almost nothing worked. On first down from the 24-yard line, Elway threw an incompletion. The Broncos then went nowhere on second and third, and Elway faced a fourth-and-six at the 28. He set up, abandoned that setup and set out for a very bright orange first-down marker on the east sideline. If he got there before Houston's disagreeable linebacker, Lamar Lathon, Denver's season could go on. If he didn't, it was over. He got there. Nervy.
Again, on first, second and third downs, Denver was stifled. Now it was fourth-and-10, still 65 yards from a touchdown, only 59 ticks to go, Denver's third fourth-and-the-season down of the day. Coronary specialists turned on their beepers. Every alley Elway looked down, there was a guy standing with a gun. The crowd at Mile High Stadium was beside itself. On the scoreboard, in 15-foot-high letters, read a simple comment: THIS IS TENSE.
But who is better in a furnace than Elway? He took the shotgun snap, stepped up in the pocket, eluded the fingers of poor Mr. Fuller and darted forward as if he might run. Ahead of him were two Johnsons. The one in orange was Denver receiver Vance. The one in blue was Houston cornerback Richard. One knew what Elway would do. One didn't. Richard ran toward Elway, refusing to give up another maddening first-down scramble. Vance took off madly toward the sideline. Elway tossed the ball on the run. "Not my prettiest pass," he said, "but it got there." When it did, Vance turned upfield and saw a very pretty sight—open pasture. Forty-four yards later, Denver had a first down at the Houston 21.
"I was soooo close," said Fuller. "Then all of a sudden, boom, he gets the ball over there. Basically, that was all she wrote." Widell was as giddy as a schoolboy. "Who else in this league makes that play on fourth-and-10?" he giggled. "Who else?"
One play later, Treadwell trotted onto the field for a 28-yard field goal try with 16 seconds remaining that could make Son of The Drive a legend. Off came Wood. On came Koob to hold. Unfortunately, as the snap came toward Kubiak, it was low, dangerously low. It's funny how sports can be so wonderfully symmetrical. A guy asking to be bailed out can suddenly bail himself out. Kubiak did not catch it so much as he smothered it, trapped it. As Treadwell started forward with his right leg, Kubiak somehow righted the ball. Treadwell double-clutched, Kubiak spun the laces, and the ball went screaming off, obviously unhappy but nonetheless above the crossbar and through the uprights. Somebody call Sotheby's. Works of art can be copied. Denver 26, Houston 24.
Wood and Koob approached each other on the sideline. They grinned and hugged the way good friends will, forehead-to-forehead, each with his right hand on the back of the other's neck. Roomies don't need many words.
On the other sideline, the Oilers—five straight years in the playoffs and still only two wins—looked like they had been marbled. "We knew Elway would take it upon himself to run all over the park," a still disbelieving Houston coach Jack Pardee said following the game. "We expected it. And he still outran us." Then there was Moon, who could not have played better in a hundred Saturdays. "He's done this time and time before," Moon said, droop-faced. "But to have it done to you, it's really a shock."
Across the way, the demolition engineer was indulging himself a little. "I don't know of a better feeling for a quarterback to have," Elway said. "If there is one, I'd like to feel it. Maybe I will...in a couple of weeks." First, it's Buffalo on Sunday for Elway's fourth AFC title game in six seasons. Count him out if you want, but he hasn't lost one yet.
Later, in his press conference, Elway had Kubiak on his mind: "I don't know if you guys know this, but Koob's planning on retiring after this year."
Surprise hushed the room. Elway looked plaintively at the Broncos' public relations director, Jim Saccomano, who looked back at Elway as surprised as everybody else. "You mean it hasn't been announced?" Elway asked.
Uh, no, it hasn't. "Uh-oh," Elway said.
Boy, backups never get to do anything.