Ultimate Losses, Ultimate Victory John Elway discovered that being a winner in the Super Bowl is hard to handle too

February 02, 1998

All week America made a wish and slid it under John Elway's
hotel door. Lucky shoelaces, Western Unioned hopes, FedExed
prayers--more than 200 packages and messages, too many to open,
not that he didn't already know what was in them. Elway had
become this chin-strapped Ernie Banks. So many people wanted a
Super Bowl win for the one man in history the Super Bowl had
slapped around the worst.

But now, as the game dripped into the San Diego dusk, it all
started turning toward agony again. So Elway prayed for himself.
Lord, give me another chance. Don't let us lose because of me.

What Elway had just done was take his happily-ever-after and
feed it to Godzilla. One minute before, it had all been in his
grasp--a 24-17 lead over the Green Bay Packers and the ball
suddenly coughed up to his Denver Broncos at the Cheesehead 22.
Thanks, I'll sign for that. Whereupon, Elway, a 15-year vet, did
his best impression of a rookie in August. He went for the
touchdown on the first play and threw a watermelon you could
read from Escondido. Packer Eugene Robinson plucked it out of
the air. Three minutes later the game was tied. What you had
here was a Buckner in the making. On the sideline Elway looked
as if he had eaten a bad fish taco.

Oh, God, not this again. Not another Super Bowl night when the
Elways don't make it to the team party. Not another Super Bowl
night when John and his dad, Jack, go back to the room and talk
until dawn, afraid to sleep. "Those [talks] just got worse and
worse," John says. "He'd try to take some of the hurt away. He'd
tell me, 'Hey, it's not the end of the world. Someday, you'll be
on the other end of one of these.'" John would buck up and get
ready for the question he never stopped hearing: "Can your
career be complete if you don't win a Super Bowl?" And Elway
would give his Optimist Club answer--"Yeah, as long as I can
look in the mirror and say I did all I could"--and know it was a
lie. "I knew it wouldn't be complete," he would say after the
game.

Any other year, any other Super Bowl, the Broncos would've made
this Misery, Part 4. But not this time and not this team.
Running back Terrell Davis and his Miracle Migraine came back
and went through the Green Bay defense the way Gilbert Brown
goes through a box of bonbons. The Broncos led by seven with
less than 100 seconds to go, and then the Denver defense held
Packers quarterback Brett Favre to nothing when it meant
everything. Suddenly, Elway found himself on bended knee,
running the last 28 seconds off his own mortality.

Up in the stands, the Elways were practicing crash landings.
John's wife, Janet, had her head in her lap until her kids
finally screamed, "Mom! We won!" Up in the coaches' box, Jack
put his head between his knees and cried. Down on the field, up
on his teammates' shoulder pads, Elway wept a little too. Said
one of his wideouts, Ed McCaffrey, "You could see in his eyes
what it meant to him."

Well...?

"It means the other three Super Bowls are all erased now," Elway
said, clutching Janet close. "Those were the ultimate losses,
but this is the ultimate win."

Prayer answered.

The only problem was that redemption was so new to the Elways
they didn't quite know what to do. John kept looking for his
championship hat, only to be told he was carrying it in his
hand. He had refused to watch tapes of the other three Super
blowouts, but he couldn't wait to get the popcorn out for this
one, only, "I don't think anybody taped it." Janet, her makeup
running, was flummoxed. "I know how to handle a loss in these,"
she said. "I'm not sure how to handle a win."

Jack knew. The Broncos' director of pro scouting found his
favorite pro person and put a hug on him that might've killed a
polar bear. For two guys who usually talk until dawn at these
things, they sure didn't say much. "Just that we loved each
other," the son says. So this is what the other side of these
feels like.

Finally, after 136 just-one-more-question-Johns, Elway jumped
into a Broncos shower that was long since empty of Broncos.
Alone at last, you could hear him in there, whooping like a
madman: "Ooooh, baby!!! Baby!!! Yeowwww, baby!!!"

Utter joy, relief and glory?

"Nah," mumbled a towel boy. "No more hot water."

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO [John Elway holding Vince Lombardi trophy]
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)