He first appeared in the thin air of Mile High Stadium 12 years
ago, a gift to Denver from the football gods. He had the arm,
the teeth, the hair, the attitude and the aura. He was the first
player taken in the '83 draft, but he made the Baltimore Colts
trade him and the rest of the country hate him. Still, when he
lined up under center, everyone pulled up a chair to watch. He
was only the most exciting young quarterback in NFL history.
John Elway could throw, run and do magic tricks in the final
minutes of games. He could sell cars, shoot par and tell his
grandchildren that he stood up George Steinbrenner when the Boss
tried to persuade him to give up football for a career as the
New York Yankees' rightfielder. He could do just about anything,
on or off the field, and if you were a card-carrying member of
the anti-Elway crowd, there was only one consolation: He
couldn't do it forever.
From the beginning, it was obvious that the one thing Elway
wouldn't do better than everyone else was age. How could he? He
took too many hits and relied too much on his unparalleled
physical skills. There were too many demands on his time and too
much pressure to carry the team on his shoulders. The autograph
pests and hotel-lobby hustlers came at him harder than the
outside linebackers ever did--tugging, grabbing, everyone looking
for a piece of Elway.
How long could he put up with it? Sooner or later, just being
John Elway would take its toll. "With John, I don't worry about
the physical aspect of the game," says Mike Shanahan, Elway's
new head coach and the Broncos' third in four years. "I think
the mental part is what will eventually drive him out of the
game. There's just such a demand on him that he's going to reach
a point where it's no longer fun to play."
The bad news for unforgiving Colt fans is that he hasn't gotten
to that point yet. He has a new coach, a solid new cast of
veteran teammates and an intricate new offense that makes him
feel like a kid again. "For a quarterback it's like dying and
going to heaven," he says of the offense that Shanahan brought
with him from the San Francisco 49ers, where he was the
offensive coordinator for the past two seasons. "I feel like I'm
starting over again."
On June 28, Elway made a generation of football fans feel old
when he celebrated his 35th birthday. Jack Elway's kid is now
old enough to be president. His face looks worn and
weather-beaten; touches of gray showing through his sandy,
surfer-boy hair. He is beyond MTV age and well into his VH1
years. For the first time in his career he is the oldest player
on the Broncos and the fourth-oldest starting quarterback in the
NFL. He walks like he just rode a horse in from Kansas, but then
he strode into the league with a kind of Walter Brennan hobble.
"I've always had a bad walk," he says, smiling. "I know I don't
have the quickness I once did, but I'm still learning, still
getting better. I honestly don't feel like I'm done yet."
The Golden Boy has reached his golden years, and some people
believe retirement won't be far behind. ESPN reported three
weeks ago that Elway's wife, Janet, wanted him to retire before
this season. Elway thought there was nothing to the story, which
went so far as to claim that he would soon need knee replacement
surgery, but he couldn't be sure since he doesn't know
everything that goes on at home with Janet, his three
daughters--Jessica, Jordan and Juliana--and his son, Jack.
"So I asked my nine-year-old daughter about it," says Elway. "I
said, 'Jessie, when do you think I should retire?' She said,
'Retire? I don't think you should ever retire.' She wants me to
In Colorado, everyone feels that way. The Broncos existed before
Elway arrived and even managed to lose Super Bowl XII without
him, but no player has come to define his team and his town
quite like Elway. He has been the biggest star in Denver since
the Broncos acquired him from the Colts in '83 for backup
quarterback Mark Herrmann, tackle Chris Hinton and Denver's
first-round pick in the 1984 draft. Now the NL West-leading
Colorado Rockies and Denver's NHL import, the Avalanche, are
part of the scene, but there is still no debate. Elway is king
of the mountains, now and always. "I can think of few athletes
who have meant as much to their city as John has to Denver,"
says Bronco owner Pat Bowlen. "Maybe Gretzky. Maybe Jordan. It's
a short list."
During Elway's 12 years in Denver there has never been an
offensive star among the supporting cast, a Rice to his Montana,
a Pippen to his Jordan. And Elway has never had an offensive
line like the one that keeps Dan Marino safe in Miami. Elway has
rushed 596 times in his career for 2,670 yards and been sacked
416 times. Marino, a draftmate, has been sacked just 178 times.
On the list of great quarterbacks in NFL history, there aren't
many who have had to scrape themselves off the turf as often as
Perhaps the most amazing part of all his legendary
fourth-quarter comebacks was that Elway invariably was limping
into and out of the huddle when he performed them. For all his
remarkable physical gifts, his durability might be the most
impressive part of the package. Elway has missed 17 of a
possible 186 starts. He frequently plays hurt because he doesn't
know any other way. "And unlike some quarterbacks, he never
looks over at the sidelines or up in the stands when he takes a
hit, trying to elicit sympathy," says seven-year veteran Hugh
Millen, entering his second year as Elway's backup. "He knows
it's part of the game. Everyone gets hit. He just gets up and
goes back to the huddle. Believe me, his teammates notice that."
Team doctors do, too. Elway runs through his medical history
without a hint of self-pity, the way a pro golfer reviews a bad
round. "Nine surgeries," he says. "Both shoulders, elbow, foot
and five on the knee." Before you offer to throw him over your
shoulder and Medi-Vac him to the cafeteria for lunch, Elway
adds, "But only one was a real operation--the one on my knee in
high school. The rest were just cleanups." He makes it sound
like all it took was a little soap and water.
The left knee is the one that worries most Bronco fans. Elway
tore his lateral meniscus cartilage during his senior season at
Granada Hills (Calif.) High and says he has played without an
anterior cruciate ligament since. "You get used to it," he says.
"My bad knee is actually more stable than my good knee."
The team might prefer to see him settle into the pocket and not
scramble so often this season. Shanahan's new offense calls for
quicker drops and shorter pass routes, which, aside from trying
to keep Elway in one piece, will give him more opportunity to
dispel the notion that he is all bombs and bravado, a macho
gunslinger in an increasingly high-tech game.
Unlike Steve Young and Joe Montana, Elway never has been
considered a cerebral signal-caller who can work within the
precise confines of the offense. He doesn't always make the
right decision, and he has been reluctant to throw the safe pass
to the secondary receiver underneath. He has one of the
strongest arms in the game, and to his way of thinking it isn't
there to hang sweatbands on. He wants to use it.
"The rap against me has always been that I can't read coverages
and I can't throw the touch passes," says Elway. "Well, we'll
see soon enough. As soon as I found out Mike got the job, I was
excited. I knew I would get a chance to do the things Steve
Young has done in San Francisco."
Elway had worked before with Shanahan, who was an assistant in
Denver for seven years (1984-87 and '89-91). In 1985, when the
Broncos promoted Shanahan to offensive coordinator, Elway threw
for 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns for the first time, and it was
Shanahan who was pulling strings in the background during
Elway's three Super Bowl seasons. But back then he was coaching
Dan Reeves's conservative offense.
At Mile High last Saturday, Elway got his first real taste of
the Broncos' new attack and looked comfortable in a brief
appearance. Elway played the first quarter, completing 7 of 12
passes for 73 yards as the Broncos beat the Niners 9-7. From
across the field, Young saw no reason why Elway couldn't thrive
in Shanahan's offense.
"He's a great quarterback who will flourish in any offense,"
says Young. "But I think he's going to do well with Mike
[Shanahan]. He'll throw fewer long balls, more quick routes, and
he'll have a high percentage. As long as his receivers get the
timing down and learn the system--and that's not easy--John will
Elway estimates that he had to learn 100 new plays and 400
formations in the first week of camp. The Broncos' two passing
playbooks are seven inches thick between them. "I'm just glad
I'm getting a chance to learn this offense before my career's
over," says Elway. "I've got to be patient and take my time, but
this offense will bring out the best in me."
If Elway was growing tired and jaded after the Broncos went 7-9
last season, Bowlen knew how to inject new life into his
franchise quarterback. He fired Wade Phillips after two seasons
and brought in Shanahan, who was more than just an offensive
whiz. He was a close friend of Elway's. The two have played golf
together, although, like most people who tee off with Elway,
Shanahan gets plenty of strokes.
"John had his best years when Mike was coaching him," says
Reeves, now the head man with the New York Giants. "Mike knew
how to get the most out of him. There was a respect between the
two guys that's obviously still there today."
Elway appreciated Shanahan even more when Shanahan went out and
hired some help on the other side of the ball. For all the
attention Elway and the new offense have received, the team's
biggest holes were on defense. The Broncos had no draft picks in
the first three rounds, but Shanahan acquired a stable of
veteran free agents, including former Cleveland Brown tackles
Michael Dean Perry and James Jones. Shanahan also is pursuing
free agent cornerback Deion Sanders, whom he took to lunch when
Sanders was in town with the Cincinnati Reds in June.
On offense the Broncos are hoping that tight end Shannon Sharpe
can play on bad ankles and that an adequate tailback emerges
from a dubious field. It may seem like a rebuilding season, but
there is no such thing as long as Elway is around. "I don't know
if John will admit it, but he's really excited about this
season," says Sharpe. "He thinks this team can win a
championship, and he knows this might be his last chance to get
It almost seems silly to ask the question: Is time running out
on John Elway? Does it ever? Elway made a living and created a
legend by beating the clock. He will not be remembered as the
greatest quarterback ever, but when the subject turns to clutch
performers, Elway goes to the top of the list.
Elway has led Denver to 34 come-from-behind scoring drives in
the fourth quarter. The Broncos have put the winning points on
the board with less than two minutes to play 15 times since he
took over. As long as he is limping back into the huddle, the
Broncos have a chance. "If Number 7 is up under center," says
Sharpe, "we feel like we're going to win."
Sharpe is heading into his sixth season with the Broncos, and he
has never been to a Super Bowl. Elway is one of only three
players on the roster who were with Denver for the Super Bowl
losses in '87, '88 and '90, and those disappointments are among
the reasons he says he is still around. He has two years
remaining on a four-year, $19.3 million contract. He has a
beautiful family, seven thriving car dealerships and a
microscopic handicap. He is still the man with everything, the
Golden Boy with the golden touch, but he is getting greedy in
his old age. He wants one more thing before he limps away forever.
"There's such a stigma about the guys who've never won it," says
Elway. "It's not fair, but I know that's the way it is. I would
love another chance. You could say that's why I'm here. I want
to retire a champion."
The most exciting young quarterback in NFL history is growing
old. Time is running out on John Elway. You might want to pull
up a chair one last time. This could be good.