He gathered friends and family around the big-screen TV and
served stone crabs, California cabernet and Cuban cigars. It was
only fitting that Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, who has
passed for more yards than anyone in NFL history, would throw
one hell of a Super Bowl party at his Weston, Fla., house last
January as his friend, Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway,
realized a dream that both he and Marino had longed to fulfill.
Like most players who have crossed paths with Elway, Marino was
rooting hard for him to shake off three previous Super Bowl
failures, defeat the heavily favored Green Bay Packers and cap
his Hall of Fame career with his first NFL championship. But as
the 31-24 upset wound down, the conversation subsided and Dan
and his wife, Claire, grew somber. The normally unflappable
Marino, whose career has been graced with everything but a Super
Bowl ring, couldn't hold off a swell of emotion as he watched
Elway savor his moment of glory. "I was pulling for John because
he's my friend, but in a way I was jealous," says Marino, who
lost in his only Super Bowl appearance, in January 1985. "When I
saw him holding that trophy, I almost cried."
Marino was not alone. Other than Packers fans, anyone with a
pulse got at least a little choked up at the sight of Elway
hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. What other NFL player could have
inspired the strange scene that unfolded in the first-class
cabin of a 747 bound from Los Angeles to Honolulu on Super
Sunday? The cabin was filled with Pro Bowl-bound players, most
of whom were listening to a radio broadcast of the Super Bowl
over their headsets. "The Broncos would do something good, and
you'd hear shouts coming from every direction," Tampa Bay
Buccaneers quarterback Trent Dilfer says. "When the game was
over, I had tears in my eyes. I looked in front of me, and there
was [Minnesota Vikings wideout] Cris Carter overcome by
emotion. A few rows up I saw [ABC analyst] Dan Dierdorf, and he
was flush in the face. It wasn't that any of us were against the
Packers. We were just so happy for John, because of all he had
overcome and what kind of person he is."
Suddenly, Marino was alone on the list of active legends never
to have won a Super Bowl, while Elway was on his way to
paradise. "I know what Dan was feeling, because I've been
there," Elway says, "but to finally win it was like living a
December 21, 1998
A few days after the game Elway and Broncos coach Mike Shanahan
began a Hawaiian vacation with their wives, Janet and Peggy. "We
had a hard time even getting through the Honolulu airport,
because there was such an outpouring of warmth for John,"
Shanahan says. "Fans everywhere could associate with what he
did, the way he fought through adversity and refused to give up.
It was as if they'd won the Super Bowl too."
But as inspiring as Elway's redemption was, NFL fans have missed
out on another potentially heroic chapter in his career: an
on-field rivalry with Marino. When the Broncos and the Dolphins
meet on Monday night at Pro Player Stadium, it will be only the
second matchup between the two quarterbacks--the first in 13
Since beginning their careers as first-round selections in the
famed quarterback class of 1983, Elway and Marino have been kept
apart by the vagaries of the NFL's scheduling formula, which
uses the final standings to determine each team's
intraconference opponents for the following season. Elway and
Marino have played in the AFC for 16 seasons and in a combined
33 postseason games, yet excluding exhibition games, they've
been on the same field only that one time, on Sept. 29, 1985.
Had we known then how precious that game was, we would have paid
far more attention to the Dolphins' 30-26 win, in which Marino
(390 passing yards, three touchdowns) outdueled Elway (250,
none) on a chilly day at Mile High Stadium. "I barely remember
it," Elway says, "because it wasn't that big a deal at the time.
Back then my world was still pretty small--I had my college
buddies, my family and Janet, and I was basically just trying to
prove that I belonged. It was more of a competitive thing: Dan
and I would say hello when we saw each other, but then he'd go
his way and I'd go mine. Now we've been around for so long and
gone through so much that it's a true friendship, and it's nice
that we get to meet again."
Though the Broncos' 20-16 loss to the New York Giants on Sunday
took some of the luster off the Monday-night meeting, the game
between Denver (13-1) and Miami (9-5) could be an AFC playoff
preview. It could also mark the final meeting of the only passers
to have thrown for more than 50,000 yards, the two active players
with the most game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or
overtime--and, arguably, two of the five greatest quarterbacks
It's about time Marino and Elway tango on the field, given all
the fun they've had together off it. Through shared superstardom
and a combined nine children, Elway and Marino have retained
their boyish ebullience, partying at golf tournaments, in bars
and at casinos. Their friendship dates to an ABC-sponsored tour
that whisked six top college football players around the country
in the summer of 1982. "Herschel Walker was ABC's guy [he would
go on to win the Heisman that year], so we'd go out and have him
sign for everything," Marino recalls.
Despite their disparate backgrounds, Elway, a football coach's
son who went to high school in Southern California, and Marino,
a working-class kid from Pittsburgh, have had eerily similar
lives. Each was a high school baseball player and a 1979 draft
pick of the Kansas City Royals (Marino, fourth round; Elway,
18th). Both Elway (Stanford) and Marino (Pitt) opted for college
football stardom. They fell for spirited women at a young age,
started families when they were in their mid-20s and, despite
fame and financial success, stayed unpretentious and true to
"One of Danny's great traits is he's never lost what he was or
where he came from," says John Congemi, Marino's friend and
former teammate at Pitt. "You know exactly where you stand with
him--good, bad or indifferent."
For his part, Elway is as friendly toward no-name players as he
is to the Marinos of the football world. There are countless
tales of Broncos whose first day with Denver was brightened by
an unexpected "Hey, dude" greeting from Colorado's biggest
celebrity. "Anybody who has ever met John knows he's
down-to-earth," says Scott Adams, a former Broncos backup
lineman. "Even someone like me, a damn nobody, feels important
Dilfer, who says he's a casual acquaintance of Elway's,
remembers facing Denver early in the 1996 season, when he was
roundly regarded as a washout after less than three years as a
pro. "He approached me after the game and spent three minutes
telling me what a great job I was doing, even though nobody else
thought so," Dilfer says. "You could tell it wasn't lip service.
Of all the people I've met in this league, John's probably the
best overall person."
Until a few years ago the prevailing image of Elway was that of a
spoiled beach boy who whined whenever things got rough. Why did
people feel that way for so long?
That question is posed to Elway on a recent Tuesday night, as he
munches on Janet's gravy-drenched pork chops in the homey dining
room of their suburban Denver house. John traces the negative
image to the time he "popped off" in the wake of his final
college game: Cal's miracle win on a last-play, five-lateral
kickoff return through the Stanford band. He charged that the
officials had "ruined my last game as a college player." More
bad publicity came after Elway, courted as an outfielder by the
New York Yankees, used that baseball career option as a lever
against the Baltimore Colts, who had made him the first pick in
the 1983 draft even after Elway had said he wouldn't sign with
them. That forced the Colts to trade him to the Broncos. In
1989, two seasons after his second consecutive Super Bowl
setback, Elway complained that he was "suffocating" in Denver
because of the media scrutiny of everything from his tipping
habits to the Halloween candy he distributed to
trick-or-treaters. When coach Dan Reeves left following the 1993
season, Elway said the last three years had been miserable and
that he wouldn't have returned if the coach had. "Part of it is
that I've never been good at manipulating situations and
twisting words around," Elway says. "But there's no question
I've grown up. Parenting makes you do that."
Duty calls seconds later when Janet heads out to a Broncos
wives' function and John asks 13-year-old Jessie, the oldest of
his four children, to clean up the kitchen. "But I have
homework!" she says in protest. "Besides, how come Jack doesn't
have to help?" John tells nine-year-old Jack to assist with the
cleanup, along with sisters Jordan, 11, and Juju, 7.
Jessie, like her father, does not give up easily. "I have two
tests tomorrow!" she says. To which John responds, "Hey, I've
got to go to work tomorrow--to make it possible for you to go to
[private] school. You kids are going to drive me nuts."
Flash back to the late 1960s: When his father, Jack, became an
assistant coach at Montana, seven-year-old John, one of the
Grizzlies' ball boys, stayed in the dorms during summer
practices. With his father occupied by nightly meetings, John
talked his way into the players' low-stakes poker games. "He was
a scream," recalls Bob Beers, a former Montana linebacker who is
now a Broncos scout. "We'd check to see how much money he had,
and when he lost it, we'd send him back to Pop to get more."
Elway is a refreshing leader, a populist who doesn't worry about
being politically correct. Though he and Shanahan became close
during Shanahan's earlier stints in Denver as an assistant under
Reeves, their relationship has changed in recent years. "John's
always believed in me more than I believed in myself," Shanahan
says. "When he has a strong feeling for someone, he's not afraid
to say it. But I don't get the chance to do the things with him
that I did as an assistant, and sometimes it's tough on our
relationship. One of the things that separates John is that he
is one of the guys--he doesn't want to be the guy who's Mike
Says Elway, "I always believed Mike would be a great head coach
if he got the opportunity, and I appreciate what he's done for my
career. It's hard to relate to Mike the way I used to, because he
has changed so much from being an assistant to a head coach. It's
more of a boss-employee relationship now. It's not like we can
vent to each other about the system anymore, because he is the
Still, the Elway-Shanahan bond is rock-solid compared with the
relationship between Marino and Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson,
who replaced the league's alltime winningest coach, Don Shula,
following the 1995 season. Last year it appeared Johnson was on
the verge of benching Marino. Instead he changed offensive
coordinators and now praises Marino for his smooth adjustment to
a scaled-down, run-oriented game plan. Marino won't touch the
topic, but those close to him concede there's not a lot of trust
between quarterback and coach. "We all know that Jimmy's got a
big ego and wants to let everybody know he controls everything,"
says Jim Jensen, a former teammate of Marino's, "but as long as
Dan thinks he has a shot at a ring, he'll put up with anything."
The same can't be said of Dan's wife, Claire, as she pulls into
the driveway of the Marinos' 12,000-square-foot
Mediterranean-style house on a late-November afternoon. "What is
that disgusting smell?" she asks, gesturing toward Ace, a golden
retriever named in honor of Dan's cameo in Ace Ventura: Pet
Detective. Husband and wife conclude that Ace has probably
brushed up against a dead field mouse somewhere on the property,
which essentially backs up to the eastern border of the
Everglades. "Didn't notice it," Dan says of the odor.
Claire rolls her eyes. "That's what you used to say when I'd come
home and find the kids with dirty diapers," she says.
Having given birth to four children--Dano, 12; Michael, 10;
Joey, 9; and Ali, 6--Claire reintroduced diapers to the Marino
household last month after flying to China to complete the
adoption of 23-month-old Niki Lin. Even before Niki Lin's
arrival, the house was like Grand Central Station with Dano
appearing as Rabbit in a Christmas play, Michael playing goalie
in his roller-hockey league ("He's a major trash talker," Dan
says), Joey playing baseball and Ali always on the go. Claire
keeps the trains running smoothly. "Without her," Dan says, "I'd
be out of the league by now."
Claire and Dan met when Dan returned to Pittsburgh after his
rookie season. "I'd gone to some of his football games in high
school," Claire says, as Niki helps her apply soap and water to
Ace's stinky fur. "He was supposed to be a big deal, but I
didn't even know who he was."
Dan gives an exaggerated frown. "Yeah, right," he says. "You
knew exactly who I was."
For all his bravado on the field, Marino, like Elway, clings to
an old-school perspective on sports. He has trouble watching
Michael's hockey games because "the coaches tell all the kids
what a great job they're doing, instead of making them work
harder. I'd make them skate laps. The whole attitude is weird,
like it's O.K. to lose. I mean, it's not the end of the world,
but no one can tell me losing doesn't hurt. Also, there's this
thing about every kid getting to play. When I grew up, you
played if you were good enough to play."
Marino has no tolerance for his younger teammates' tastes in
visual entertainment (Madden NFL '98) or music (rap). "The
receivers are right across from me in the locker room, and they
blast that stuff all the time," Marino says. "A few months ago I
said to myself, Screw this, and I drove to Best Buy and said,
'Give me the biggest boom box you've got.' The next day I
brought in a bunch of my CDs, flipped on some Ted Nugent and
blasted it right back at 'em."
He's similarly steadfast when it comes to his dogged pursuit of
a championship. Marino seems to believe that he'll eventually
prevail through sheer force of his personality, and that one
day--maybe next month, maybe next season--he'll be pouring
champagne in the locker room while broadcasting Stranglehold to
the masses. Last January, two days after CBS landed the rights
to broadcast AFC games, the head of the network's sports
division, Sean McManus, phoned Marino to see if he'd be
interested in serving as a studio analyst on The NFL Today.
Marino turned him down. "I wasn't ready to walk away," he says,
adding that he hopes to play at least two more seasons.
Marino insists he will be satisfied with his career even if he
retires without a championship ring, but that's what Elway said
for years, an outlook he revised after January's triumph. "I
didn't realize what a relief it would be," he said, as he sat in
the mini-theater in his basement and watched a highlight video
of the Broncos' championship season. "I'd been answering the
question for eight years--What would it be like to retire
without winning the big one?--and all of a sudden that was gone.
You talk about shedding a huge load." His low, raspy voice
shifted into a high-pitched cackle. Then, when footage of the
Super Bowl appeared on the screen, the room went quiet. After a
few minutes he continued, "Because of the way this last Super
Bowl went down, I wouldn't change a thing in my career, even
losing the other ones. We had been so beaten down--it was like
we were conditioned to believe that we didn't deserve it. When
we found a way to overcome that, it was euphoria."
Elway stopped to watch the end of the video, which shows him and
Broncos owner Pat Bowlen on the victory stand. "It's hard to
explain," he said, with glassy eyes. For now, at least, it's a
feeling even Marino wouldn't understand.
Hall of Fame Numbers
Since entering the NFL in 1983, John Elway and Dan Marino have
piled up impressive numbers, many of which rank them 1-2 alltime.
Seasons 16 16
Games played 232 229
Wins as a starter 147* 141
Fourth-quarter or 43 34
OT winning drives
Quarterback rating 79.8 87.2
Pass attempts 7,178 7,915*
Completions 4,084 4,719*
Passing yards 50,986 58,238*
3,000-yard seasons 12* 12*
Touchdown passes 296 403*
Interceptions 224 232
Times sacked 513* 259
Games missed 21 24
*Ranks first alltime Ranks second alltime
"I was pulling for John, but in a way I was jealous," says
Marino. "When I saw him holding that trophy, I almost cried."
"One of the great traits about Danny is that he's never lost
what he was or where he came from," says Congemi.
"I barely remember it because it wasn't that big of a deal,"
Elway says of the first meeting with Marino. "Now that we've
been around for so long, it's nice that we get to meet again."