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Last Call Once labeled a spoiled brat who couldn't win the big one, John Elway closed out his Hall of Fame NFL career in triumph--and on his own terms

May 03, 1999
May 03, 1999

Table of Contents
May 3, 1999

Faces In The Crowd
Pro Basketball

Last Call Once labeled a spoiled brat who couldn't win the big one, John Elway closed out his Hall of Fame NFL career in triumph--and on his own terms

The end, fittingly, came on a broken play. It was just after
midnight on the morning of April 13 when John Elway sat in the
bar of his Englewood, Colo., home with his dad, Jack, and
finalized his decision to terminate one of the most remarkable
careers in NFL history. "So this is it," the son said to the
father, and the two men summoned John's wife, Janet, into the
room. Now the only thing left for John to do was tell his boss,
Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen.

This is an article from the May 3, 1999 issue Original Layout

As amazing as it seems in this era of pagers, portable fax
machines and mobile phones, getting ahold of Bowlen wasn't easy.
Bowlen was in Sydney, Australia, to promote the Broncos'
American Bowl exhibition game on Aug. 8 against the San Diego
Chargers, and John spent an hour futilely trying to ring his
hotel. No quarterback has ever been as adept at producing
greatness when forced to improvise, but John was coming up empty
with this call. Finally, by using Jack's long-distance company,
John got a message to Bowlen, who called back at 2 a.m. Mountain
Time and said, "I assume you didn't call me in the middle of the
night to tell me you're coming to Australia." They chatted
amicably for 10 minutes, and when John hung up, his face was
visibly relaxed. "I feel like I just got rid of a 2,000-pound
load," he said, and for the next hour he and Jack sipped soft
drinks and talked about old times.

Then real-life drama intervened in the form of a tragedy that
made Elway's 47 fourth-quarter comebacks and stirring MVP
performance in his fifth and final Super Bowl in January seem
trifling. Elway had planned a press conference for Wednesday,
April 21, the day after Bowlen was to return to Denver, but
everything changed in the wake of the horrific April 20 shooting
spree at Columbine High in the Denver suburb of Littleton. With
14 students and a teacher dead, the decision to delay Elway's
announcement was so obvious--it was later rescheduled for this
Sunday--that none of the parties bothered to call one another to
discuss it. "There was no need," Bowlen says. "We all just knew."

Years from now, when fans recall Elway's exit, they'll remember
him as the Ted Williams of football, a great player who went out
in a sun-kissed blaze of glory. Yet for the Elways, John's
farewell will always conjure up feelings of fear and sorrow.
Janet, having driven the four Elway children to school on April
20, was listening on her car radio as a caller weighed in on her
husband's future when an announcer broke in with the news. "You
read about the bombings in Yugoslavia or other scary happenings
around the world, and it's almost surreal," Janet told SI, "but
this was so close to home. Columbine is 12 miles from our house,
and a good friend of ours, who's a cop, was one of the first
people to go in the library and find all those kids. It made us
feel almost embarrassed about our situation and the attention it
was getting. John and I were talking that night, and he held me
and said, 'It just makes you take a moment to realize how
blessed we are. I don't even know why I've been anguishing about
this retirement decision.'"

It wasn't supposed to be this difficult. A year ago, after
winning his first Super Bowl in four tries, Elway announced he
would return for a 16th season, which would almost certainly be
his last. The victory tour had so many feel-good moments, it
seemed at times to have been scripted: The Broncos flirted with
an undefeated season; Elway knocked off friend and fellow legend
Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins in the AFC divisional playoffs;
and then, after a choppy win over the New York Jets in the AFC
Championship Game, Elway took what looked suspiciously like a
sayonara lap around Mile High Stadium. The victory over the Jets
sent him into a Super Bowl showdown against the Atlanta Falcons
and Dan Reeves, his former coach and frequent verbal sparring
partner in Denver. Reeves produced a game plan that dared Elway
to beat him, and Elway responded with the game of his
first-ballot Hall of Fame career, throwing for 336 yards and
earning MVP honors in a 34-19 win that wasn't nearly that close.

As much as he loved stinging Reeves, Elway may have derived his
greatest satisfaction as he stood atop the victory stand. Two
hours after the game ended, while he and Janet rode an almost
empty team bus back to the Broncos' hotel, John gleefully
described what it felt like to hold the Lombardi Trophy while
Fox announcer Terry Bradshaw, the former Pittsburgh Steelers
great and four-time Super Bowl winner, stood close by. Bradshaw
had dogged Elway, dismissing him as a spoiled surfer dude after
Elway leveraged the Baltimore Colts into trading him before he
had played an NFL down and criticizing him again in the midst of
his three Super Bowl defeats. Now, said John to Janet, "I was
staring at him thinking, You can't say a bad thing about me ever
again, dude."

Upon leaving the cleared-out locker room on that magical night
in Miami last January, John insisted on returning to the Pro
Player Stadium field to pose with Janet for a photo. "We should
get busy on the 50-yard line," Janet joked. "That would give
them something to shoot." Then John surprised Janet by taking
the family to Honolulu for the Pro Bowl, where he punctuated his
lone possession with a three-yard touchdown pass to Buffalo
Bills fullback Sam Gash. Later, while standing on the sideline,
John noticed a fan in a Hawaiian shirt scarfing down a hot dog
and thought, Hmmm, that looks good; I wonder if I can persuade a
water boy to get me one. He eventually dismissed the idea but
took it as a sign that he might be ready for another line of work.

A year ago a sense of obligation had played an important role in
Elway's decision to continue playing: With the Denver-area
voters going to the polls in November to cast their ballots on a
downtown stadium project, he believed he owed it to Bowlen to
play another season. The measure passed. Also, Elway felt
pressured by Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who at one point
showed up in Palm Desert, Calif., where the Elways were
vacationing, in an attempt to learn John's intentions.

This time, says Shanahan, "I tried to stay away from him and let
him decide on his own." In February and March, Elway toyed with
the idea of returning in an attempt to lead the Broncos to an
unprecedented third consecutive Super Bowl win. Ultimately, his
38-year-old body told him, Walk away while you can. "I've had a
bad left knee since high school," Elway says. "What it came down
to was that, physically, I just didn't think I could do it
anymore."

Elway, who went into last season having missed only nine starts
due to injury or illness, sat out four games in 1998 with
hamstring and rib and back injuries. His most painful moment
came in a Nov. 8 game against the Chargers. After taking 10
pain-killing injections for his aching ribs before kickoff, he
played only one series. A few days later Elway told trainer
Steve Antonopulos, "God, last week I could hardly breathe." Says
Antonopulos, "He has played with so many things over the years
that people don't even know about. He's as tough a football
player as I've ever been around."

Perhaps the most remarkable element of Elway's legacy as a
champion is how much skepticism he had to overcome to achieve
it. For much of his career Elway was regarded as an exceptional
athlete doomed by tragic flaws. Bradshaw wasn't the only one to
label Elway, a coach's son, a spoiled brat, and until 15 months
ago he stood as a symbol of big-game futility. It's telling that
Bowlen, when asked to name the Elway moment most imprinted in
his memory, recalls a scene following the Broncos' 55-10 loss to
the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIV: "It was our worst
loss ever, and eventually I was the only one left in the locker
room. I heard the shower running, and I looked in and saw John.
We stared at each other for a long time, but neither one of us
said a thing. There was this look in his eyes of utter
dejection. I'll remember that moment until the day I die."

Bowlen gets choked up for a moment and then continues: "I was
the owner for 15 out of John's 16 years, and, believe me, every
bit of respect he got around here, he earned. He worked his butt
off every day, even in the off-season, even in his twilight
years, and part of that was to set an example for his younger
teammates."

On Sunday, Bowlen reiterated an old offer to sell Elway a
minority share of the Broncos. That's just one of the many
post-football options open to Elway, who says he'll be so
unnerved by Denver's season opener in September, "I'm not even
sure I'll be able to watch." Elway might audition for a spot in
the Monday Night Football booth, and the one handicapper will
have plenty of time to fine-tune his golf game. The Broncos will
defend their titles under the leadership of excitable
quarterback Bubby Brister, who turns 37 in August, though some
fans have suggested that Elway's ultimate successor should be
his nine-year-old son, Jack. Says Janet with a laugh, "Our
daughter Juju, who's eight, took those comments a little too
literally. She freaked out and said, 'Does that mean Jack has to
start playing for the Broncos now?'"

If young Jack someday attempts to tread in his father's athletic
footprints, many will say he was fed from a silver spoon. John
heard the same snipings, and it's true that he benefited from
his parents' affection and his father's football acumen. But the
Elway bashers missed one of the central components of the
equation: They weren't there with 15-year-old John when he and
his father, then a Washington State assistant, boarded the team
bus in Seattle after the Cougars had blown a two-touchdown lead
in the final two minutes and lost to archrival Washington. "Just
sit there and shut up," John remembers Jack growling as the
five-hour ride began. John sat in silence, afraid even to ask
for a snack, awed by the cost of competing and the price of
caring.

Some 23 years, 148 NFL victories and 51,475 pro passing yards
later, John and Jack sat alone in a darkened room in the middle
of the night, celebrating the completion of a career that
exceeded their wildest dreams. It was a conversation John
chooses to keep private, possibly because no one else could
really appreciate what it meant to him.

When they were all talked out, Jack asked John, "You want to get
something to eat?" John shook his head. "Not hungry," he said,
and he headed off to bed.

The next morning Elway woke up smiling. "The pressure's all
gone," he said to Janet. "I can't believe how happy I am."

For more on Elway's career, go to www.cnnsi.com/elway.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN IACONO READY, SET As the Jets relearned in the AFC title game, few sights scared defenses as much as Elway under center, preparing to unleash the Denver attack.COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS TWICE AS NICE John and Janet celebrated a second straight Super Bowl win with a smooch.
The shootings in Littleton gave John some perspective. "I don't
even know why I've been anguishing about this decision," he told
Janet.