When you order up the statue of the greatest quarterback of the
last 20 years, make sure you get the sock right. It has to be
pulled all the way down, preferably with a defensive end's
fingernail still in it. Give the right shoe a flat tire, and
show the jersey yanked off one shoulder pad, the work of a
blitzing linebacker who thought he had himself an appearance on
the next NFL's Greatest Hits video but instead got only a
fleeting handful of orange-and-blue Denver Broncos nylon. It's
true, you know. John Elway has spent more time on the job having
his padding adjusted than Pamela Anderson Lee.
While you're at it, see if the sculptor can put in a hint of the
bulges of tape and a knee brace underneath the legs of the
pants, and of the limp that made Elway walk like John Wayne in
high heels yet vanished when he took off sprinting, needing six
yards and somehow always getting six yards and an inch.
Try to show the jaw-dropping power of that right arm, the one
that shredded receivers' gloves and knocked the wind out of
strong men. Elway threw the worst screen passes in NFL history,
but he could get the football to you at rush hour in the middle
of Penn Station from a hoagie stand across the street.
Make the eyes huge, wide as beer coasters, like the eyes of
somebody witnessing a disaster--which, come to think of it,
Elway usually was. Seems like every time you looked up from your
nachos, it was fourth-and-10, the Denver pass protection had
collapsed like a bad souffle, and he was starring in another
cliffhanger: John Elway and the Pocket of Doom.
December 30, 1996
Keep it honest, too. Show those dark circles under the eyes, and
the crow's feet--more crow's feet than any 36-year-old man
should have, carved there by 14 years of trying to win with
small-fry linemen, cement-footed receivers and
witness-protection-program running backs. Everybody wants to
talk about Super Bowls, but forget Super Bowls for a second and
try this: Punch rewind on your time machine and put Elway behind
all of Joe Montana's lines in San Francisco and Montana behind
all of Elway's lines in Denver. Nothing much changes in San
Francisco, but by the age of 28 Montana is either dead or
selling life insurance.
That is the thing, really. John Elway never had a Guy McIntyre.
John Elway never had a Jerry Rice. John Elway had a whole lot of
guys who are now waiting tables.
So far in Elway's career, his offensive linemen and wide
receivers have been voted to the Pro Bowl a combined six times.
In Dan Marino's 14 seasons, Miami Dolphins offensive linemen and
wide receivers have been selected to the Pro Bowl 30 times. More
than any athlete since Wilt Chamberlain on the Philadelphia and
San Francisco Warriors of the late 1950s and early '60s, Elway
has had to play at a superb level game after game, year after
year, to make his team a winner. Though usually surrounded by a
human rummage sale, Elway has won more games as a starter than
any other quarterback in NFL history (126). It's the equivalent
of carving Mount Rushmore with a spoon or composing Beethoven's
Ninth on a kazoo.
But Elway's career has been about more than just winning. It has
been about escaping defeat a half page from the end of the
novel, leaping over pits of fire with the microdot hidden in his
cigarette lighter. On first down Elway was "pretty average," his
Stanford coach Paul Wiggin once said. But when the elementary
school kids are being held hostage and the detonator reads
00:03, whom would you rather have clipping the wires than Elway?
He may be the only quarterback in history who could stand on his
own two-yard line, trailing by five with less than two minutes
to play, no timeouts left, windchill -5[degrees], and cause the
opposing coach to mutter, "We're in trouble."
"My fondest memories of John's career," says his wife, Janet,
"will always be with me curled up on the floor in the fetal
position, my hands over my eyes, and one of my girlfriends
giving me the play-by-play."
Once, in New York against the Jets in 1986, Elway dropped deep
into his own end zone to pass. As usual, nobody was open. He
stepped up toward the goal line, tapping, tapping, tapping the
ball, the fall of Saigon swirling around him. Still nobody open.
Suddenly, from behind, defensive end Mark Gastineau came flying
at Elway's helmet. Without seeing him, Elway ducked, a la
Marshal Dillon during a fight in the Long Branch Saloon.
Gastineau got Elway's sleeve as he hurtled by, pulling Elway
nearly but not completely over. Elway straightened up and looked
some more. Nobody open. He broke forward as though to run, an
old trick he had pulled a hundred times: Draw the safeties up
and then stop a foot short of the line of scrimmage and fire a
deep one over their heads and straight through their hearts. But
this time the safeties didn't buy it. Something came at him from
the left. He danced right. Something came from the right. He
danced left. The tension was maddening. Then defensive end Barry
Bennett arrived and rocked Elway from the left. Down went Elway,
headed for a sack and a safety--except that as he was falling,
he unloaded the football, submarined it in a tight spiral to
running back Gerald Willhite at the 12. Lying spent on the cold
turf, Bennett stared up at the sky, his hands on his helmet,
looking like a man who had just had his pocket picked.
Asked once how he could duck 275-pound defensive ends he
couldn't even see, Elway said, "I hear them." This makes sense
if you know Elway. He can't be in a room without the radio or
television on and can't fall asleep or stay asleep without the
TV tuned to Nick at Nite or PBS. ("We get a lot of subliminal
Mary Tyler Moore," says Janet.) So maybe it's possible that in a
stadium of 75,000 screaming loons, he can hear the padding feet
of an assassin. "The other thing is, I like to hang in there and
pretend I don't know they're coming," he says. "Then they get up
a bunch of speed and go for my head, and I can duck 'em.
"Oh, and shadows," Elway says.
"Yeah, especially in domes. I think I've always done it, but I
really noticed it the other day [after a game at Minnesota].
With all those lights, your body gives off shadows in every
direction." This is a very hard thing for a blitzing cornerback
to work on. Dammit, Smith, you've got to stop giving off such a
It's weird, but Elway will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer
partly because of all the things he does wrong. For instance, he
doesn't stand up tall in the pocket. Years ago his father, Jack,
a longtime college coach who's now the director of pro scouting
for the Broncos, told him, "Always be ready to run." And so John
sets up with his knees bent, constantly bouncing on the balls of
his feet, more than ready to leave a sinking ship. Nobody else
is close to his nine seasons with at least 3,000 yards passing
and 200 rushing.
He routinely throws across the field, making the one pass
quarterbacks are taught never to try. Elway does it from one
sideline to the other and from one 20-yard line to the other.
It's a wonderful way to run up your interception total, but not
only have the Denver coaches not told him to stop, they also
once put such a pass in their playbook--scramble right, turn
suddenly and throw 40 yards downfield and 40 cross-field.
"Sometimes in practice that play would come up on one of my
snaps," says Elway's old backup Gary Kubiak, now the Broncos'
offensive coordinator. "I'd always pretend to slip just before I
threw. What could I do? I mean, nobody else in the world can
make that throw."
And under a heavy rush Elway turns his back to the line of
scrimmage, a cardinal sin. He feels the hit on his body and
spins away from the pressure, like the Houston Rockets' Hakeem
Olajuwon, even if that sends him running away from his
receivers, blockers and sanity. And yet the spin has been to him
what the Aston Martin was to James Bond: his signature means of
escape. In one of the most phenomenal plays in the NFL this
year--Denver against the Oakland Raiders on Monday Night
Football on Nov. 4--Elway was in his usual state of peril.
Oakland linebacker Pat Swilling nearly had him, but Elway spun
away and then, sensing that Swilling had crashed to the ground
in the other direction, spun back toward the line of
scrimmage--a complete 360 inside the pocket. As more Raiders
closed in, Elway spied tight end Shannon Sharpe creeping along
the back line of the end zone. Elway loosed a 25-yard
clothesline toward a wall of black jerseys and through a window
about the size of the drive-through at Wendy's. The ball hit
Sharpe in the palms for a touchdown. "John Elway," Pat Summerall
once said, "is the master of the inconceivable pass thrown to
the unreachable spot."
Good receivers hope that someday they'll wind up in Denver,
where all they'll need is the length of a good cigar on their
man and Elway will find them. Once they get used to footballs
just traveling under the speed of light, of course. Former
Broncos cornerback Wymon Henderson once stepped in front of an
Elway bullet in practice, and the ball ended up stuck in his
face mask. In Elway's second season, during a game in Buffalo,
he broke free from trouble (imagine that) and scanned the field
madly for somebody dressed like him. Forty-five yards downfield,
receiver Steve Watson was drifting a little behind a Bills
defensive back. Watson kept retreating, and the Bill happily let
him go. "No way he can throw it that far," the defensive back
said, loud enough for Watson to hear. Famous last words. Just
then a missile went sailing over the defender's head and into
Watson's arms in the back of the end zone for a 52-yard touchdown.
Hall of Fame quarterback Sammy Baugh once said Elway was "the
best I have ever seen" at throwing the 40-yard route. Elway
throws so hard, in fact, that when receivers come to the
Broncos, they are trained on the Jugs passing machine because no
other quarterback can throw the ball hard enough. "When we go to
the Pro Bowl, all guys want to ask me about is John," says
Sharpe. "'Hey, man, can you get him to throw me a 40-yard out?
Except for Fran Tarkenton, Elway is probably the only
quarterback in history who performs better when Afternoon at the
Improv breaks out. Says Kubiak, "We'll be on the headphones
during a play, screaming, 'Doggone it, John! What the hell are
you doin'?--atta boy, John!" This is what comes from having
played street tackle in Northridge, Calif., against bigger boys
and then trying to stay alive for four years at Stanford behind
offensive lines full of physics and lit majors.
"I always thought Dan Marino was the perfect quarterback," Elway
says. "The way he stands back there, the way he releases. But I
think I'm something else. I think I'm a football player."
Actually, Elway is more than that. He is one of the best
athletes of this generation. During a 1979 workout with the
Kansas City Royals, who had selected him in the draft, Elway
took grounders at third and looked as if he was born to play
there. (It was his regular position in high school.) K.C. star
George Brett was heard to say, "God, I hope this [bleep] plays
football, because if he doesn't, I'm out of a job." Elway went
on to Stanford instead. He did sign with the New York Yankees in
1981 and was paid nearly $150,000 for a summer in the minors,
during which he hit .318 with four home runs and 35 RBIs in 42
games as an outfielder with the Class A Oneonta (N.Y.) Yankees.
In the last four years, since he's begun concentrating on golf,
Elway has gone from a seven handicap to a one. He is practically
unbeatable at Ping-Pong. He has punted with success and is the
Broncos' backup kicker.
But Elway was put here to throw things very hard. His
grandfather Harry Elway was a semipro quarterback in Altoona,
Pa. As a boy John threw so many rocks out of a neighbor's
driveway in Missoula, Mont., that his father had to pop for a
load of gravel for resurfacing. When John hit the sixth grade,
Jack stopped tossing the baseball with him. "My hand would hurt
too much to hold the martini," he laments. On one of John's
first dates with Janet at Stanford, the two were throwing a
football around. "Show me the heat," she said, and he broke her
But some of the joy gradually went out of the game for Elway
after he turned pro in 1983 and found himself playing under a
coach whom he would grow to hate, Dan Reeves. It sounds crazy,
but it wasn't until four years ago, after Reeves was fired, that
the Broncos built their offense around Elway. For 12 years
Denver's offense reflected Reeves's conservative philosophy.
Reeves's idea of letting his hair down was to allow a running
back to go out for a pass once a month.
Marino and Montana worked under Hall of Fame coaches (Don Shula
and Bill Walsh, respectively) whose teams revolved around their
quarterbacks. How would Elway have done with Walsh's West Coast
offense? "Well," says Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who spent
three seasons as the Niners' offensive coordinator under George
Seifert, Walsh's successor, "I don't believe there's a record he
Since the split with Reeves, Elway's passing yards per season
have increased 23%, his touchdowns have gone up 47% and his
interceptions have been reduced by 24%. But the most definitive
stat of Elway's career remains the record 40 times he has
brought the Broncos from behind or from a tie in the fourth
quarter and won the game. The stat not only shows Elway's
two-sizes-too-big heart but also shows how deep a ditch he often
has found himself in. "There's a reason he was always making
those come-from-behind victories," says Sharpe. "We were always
behind. What Reeves did, it was like making Picasso paint with a
"Man, that drains you," Elway says of all the last-minute
heroics. "I hated that, always having to stay close, stay close,
stay close until Dan would say, 'O.K., go ahead and win it
now.'" True, it's a strategy that provided some of the NFL's
best moments: the classic 98-yard drive in the final freezing
two minutes to tie the 1986 AFC Championship Game at Cleveland
Stadium (and the drive in overtime to win it); the 75-yard
pulse-stopper to beat the Browns in the AFC title game the next
year; the killer 98-yard, no-timeout, 107-second,
two-fourth-downs-and-the-season-on-the-line wonder against the
Houston Oilers in January 1992. "I mean it wasn't just the drive
that was draining," Elway says. "I'd be pacing up and down the
sideline, waiting for us to get the ball back, wondering how I
was supposed to do it. Then I'd go home and just lie facedown on
Says Janet, "I saw him hide a lot of pain, but most of it was in
Elway squirmed at the end of Reeves's leash. "There'd be times
when I just didn't like the play that was called," Elway says.
"So I'd just let the rush come in, find a lane out and make up
my own play." The metaphor for his career.
Elway has thrown to a White Pages of wideouts and tight ends in
Denver--57 and counting, including five Johnsons (Barry, Butch,
Jason, Reggie and Vance), nine number 85s and one of his current
favorite receivers, Ed McCaffrey, who, by all rights, should be
an Amway distributor by now, he's so slow. Of the 57, the most
famous were the Three Amigos (Mark Jackson, Vance Johnson and
Ricky Nattiel) in the late 1980s. Not one of them was over
5'11". When the Broncos broke up that fabled triumvirate in '92,
all three disappeared like David Copperfield assistants. Jackson
was cut by the New York Giants and then by the Indianapolis
Colts. Johnson, who has caught more touchdowns from Elway than
any other receiver, was released by the Minnesota Vikings and
later by the San Diego Chargers. Nattiel went to the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers and got pink-slipped.
Do you want to know whom Elway handed off to for five years, his
absolute No. 1 go-to running back for all that time? Sammy
Winder. Montana was handing off to Roger Craig, and Elway was
handing off to Sammy Winder. It did not take Vince Lombardi to
understand how to beat Denver: Send everybody, up to and
including the comptroller's wife, after Elway. And still Elway
could not be beaten--until Super Bowl week.
O.K., O.K., the Super Bowl thing. The world loves to point to
the bad endings, the Broncos' three crushing Super Bowl losses,
but the fact that Elway has been to three is preposterous in
itself. "Nobody but John Elway could've taken those three teams
to the Super Bowl," says Shanahan. To this day Elway has never
watched a replay of any of his Super Bowls...and no wonder.
Denver was thumped by the Giants 39-20 in 1987, by the
Washington Redskins 42-10 in '88 and by the 49ers 55-10 in '90.
"It hurts too much," he says.
Elway doesn't have to hide the razor blades and the rope when he
thinks of those losses. He doesn't blame himself. "I'm just a
cog in a machine," he says. "I'm not the machine. You can have a
fan belt that works terrific, but if the engine's broken, it's
not going to run. Besides, there's something to be said for
getting to three Super Bowls. How many guys never even got
there? If I never win one, it's not the end of the world. I know
I did everything I could possibly do."
This year--this gleeful year for Elway--is different. For the
first time he may end up not taking a team to the Super Bowl but
going with one. He is handing off to the NFL's leading rusher,
Terrell Davis. He is throwing to two Pro Bowl sets of hands,
those of Sharpe and wideout Anthony Miller, two men who,
remarkably, are actually bigger than Eddie Gaedel. He is setting
up behind one of the finest lines in football, anchored by Pro
Bowl tackle Gary Zimmerman. It must take all of Elway's
willpower not to come to the line grinning. "This is so great
now," he says, beaming. "Before, I'd go into a game just
With his quiver finally full of arrows, Elway is having his
sharpest all-around season. Admit it, none of us thought he
would be a good old quarterback. We figured that howitzer arm or
those Energizer legs would be gone by now, and his sandlot
shtick would be over. But he's more of a technician than anybody
thought. He can be Montana if he wants--checking options 1, 2
and 3 and then dumping--or he can still be 23 years old, the
human escape clause, leaving a trail of panting defensive ends
in his wake and then throwing the ball from here to February. If
he is not the league's MVP--most versatile, most volatile, most
valuable player--then they should melt the trophy into a hubcap.
The joy is back. On Dec. 1, long after Denver had skunked the
Seattle Seahawks 34-7 to win the AFC West title and home field
advantage through the AFC playoffs, he went back out to the
dimly lit Mile High Stadium field and saw about 15 kids playing
football. Naturally he played too. On a bad hamstring.
But it wasn't just Reeves's departure that put him in his
current mood. Elway had to learn how to be happy. He was thrown
too early into the klieg lights and was burned. Who can forget
his rookie year, when he lined up to take the snap behind guard
Tom Glassic? He couldn't have known how starved Denver was for a
megastar. It nearly killed this one in the crib. There was, for
instance, "The Elway Watch"--the daily column that ran in the
Denver Post that first training camp. As the Broncos beat writer
for the Post at the time, I found myself writing the sentence,
"Elway didn't eat his peas at lunch." There were news bulletins
about his getting a haircut, a piece about what kind of candy he
gave out at Halloween (Reese's peanut butter cups). Bartenders
breathlessly called radio stations to report that Elway had left
them only a buck tip. On the field Reeves was strangling Elway,
and off it the city was. "There were times when he really wanted
out of here," says Janet. But when he finally asked for a break,
publicly saying in 1989 that he was being suffocated, he learned
to stop fighting the town's infatuation with him. In 1991 he
opened the first of his seven car dealerships in the Denver
area, and in his commercials he gave the locals offbeat looks at
him that fed their Elway jones.
These days, against all logic, Elway seems to be getting
younger. Look at the great quarterback class of 1983: Elway went
first in the draft, then Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason,
Ken O'Brien and Marino. Blackledge has been a broadcaster for
five years. Eason was gone from the league by '91, O'Brien by
'94. Somebody should check the warranty on Kelly, because the
parts are wearing out. It seems that every week Marino is being
fit for some new orthopedic shoe popular at the Shady Rest
Nursing Home. Elway, meanwhile, has missed a total of 10 games
in 14 years because of injury.
He has played through rotator-cuff tears, elbow sprains, finger
sprains, knee sprains, a fractured rib, groin pulls, hamstring
pulls, turf toe, turf burn, bruised biceps, bruised thighs, a
bruised butt that stayed technicolor for four weeks, five knee
scopes, irritations of the heel, irritations of the psyche and a
swollen elbow bursa sac that for an entire season stung every
time he threw the ball. When it was finally removed, it was the
Spruce Goose of bursa sacs, measuring eight inches in
Even curiouser, Elway has only gotten stronger. In one
late-November week this year, he set three personal
weightlifting records (for one, he bench-pressed 275 four times)
and one team conditioning record (25 minutes on the StairMaster
at a setting of 18 out of 20). On the Friday before the bye week
this season, when most of the Broncos were scattered across the
country, there was one guy in the workout room soaked with
sweat: Elway. Imagine that. A car dealer you can trust.
He is down to 211 pounds, which is within about 10 pounds of his
rookie weight. So maybe it's not so mind-warping that in October
he had statistically the finest month of his career. Or that the
two best rushing days of his life have come this season. Or that
Elias Sports Bureau stats chief Steve Hirdt says that if Elway
stays healthy and with Shanahan, "he could conceivably own every
major passing record there is before he's through."
Elway's goal has always been to be "the best quarterback ever to
play the game." How's he doing? "I'm playing better football
than I've ever played. Maybe I'll never get there statistically
because of my first 10 years, but if I can be the best now, the
best this year, one of the best to ever play, that would work
Sports is funny that way. After so many years, Yankees manager
Joe Torre finally got the chance he deserved and the
championship he deserved, and now Elway is getting the coach he
deserves, the team he deserves and the chance he wants so badly,
the chance at healing an old wound. Now Janet prays, "Please,
God, if we can't win the Super Bowl, let us lose in the playoffs."
If Denver wins it all, Janet thinks John will retire. John grins
that lopsided grin of his and says, "I'd love to have to cross
that bridge. Oh, man, I'd love it."
When he's finally gone, goose bumps will be at an alltime low.
The other day, as Elway was getting ready to head to Mile High,
he asked his seven-year-old son, Jack, if he was going to come
to the game and see his dad play. Jack began listing all the
things he needed to do that day: play soccer, play basketball,
play Nintendo, etc.
Elway sighed and said, "You know, Dad's not going to be playing
football forever. You ought to come and watch while you can."
Sounds like excellent advice.