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Football's King of Comebacks

Denver Broncos star quarterback John Elway avoids media spotlight and values the stability of a quiet life

By William CharlandSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 8, 1996



DENVER

Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway's passing and rushing statistics are almost certain to land him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Fame, however, is something he seems to care little about.

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In an age of media hype, when National Football League players choreograph end-zone dances to celebrate their touchdowns, Elway is content to avoid the national spotlight. Some might even say he shuns it.

In his latest appearance before a national audience during ABC's Nov. 4 Monday Night Football telecast of a game against the Oakland Raiders, Elway played the familiar role of NFL superstar. With less than five minutes remaining and the Broncos behind 21-16, he faced a make-or-break, third down-and-10 play at midfield.

Elway took the snap, stepped up in the pocket, and pump-faked to draw in the deep defenders. He spotted wide receiver Rod Smith breaking into the clear behind the secondary and launched a high-arcing, 49-yard pass to Smith for a game-winning touchdown.

Record breaking statistics

Denver's 22-21 victory gave the Broncos an 8-1 mark for the season, tying them with the Green Bay Packers (the teams will meet Dec. 8) for the best record in the league. And Elway's last-ditch heroics padded his personal records. Monday night's come-from-behind touchdown was, incredibly, the 40th time he has pulled the Broncos' fat from the fire when they were trailing in the fourth quarter.

Record-breaking statistics are nothing new to Elway, now in his 14th pro season. Since being chosen as the first pick in the 1983 college draft - the same draft that garnered the Miami Dolphins Dan Marino and the Buffalo Bills Jim Kelly - Elway has joined Fran Tarkenton as the second quarterback in history to have thrown for more than 40,000 yards while rushing for more than 3,000. It seems likely that he eventually will become the all-time NFL yardage leader.

Unlike Marino and Kelly, who have been hampered by injuries, Elway has weathered the crunching tackles and blind-side hits well. He registered a career-high 70 yards rushing in the Oakland game. His previous best was 62 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs the week before.

Mike Nolan, a veteran Denver sportscaster, has covered the Broncos throughout Elway's career. "How has his game changed?" Nolan is asked. The answer: not very much. "Oh, I think maybe he's slowed down a step or two. But his arm has lost nothing. Sure, he might come up short on a pass now and then, but he has a much better touch on his passes now. And he's such a crafty guy. Maybe he doesn't have quite the same ability to scramble, but he still has eyes in the back of his head."

There's another side to Elway that's best seen away from game day. It's the midweek Elway, trudging off the Broncos' practice field in the open prairie south of Denver on a damp, cold, autumn afternoon.

Elway, his wife, Janet, and their four children have built a comfortable life in Denver, where Elway has signed a five-year contract to cover the remaining years of his career.

They live in an expansive home in the south suburbs. He now owns seven automobile dealerships in the city and sponsors a private foundation that focuses on the problem of child abuse and on educational opportunities for the city's disadvantaged.

Settling in Colorado was the first in a succession of decisions that have defined Elway's career. He was initially selected by the Baltimore Colts before that franchise was moved to Indianapolis. Elway decided that he didn't want to play for the Colts, probably more because of the tyrannical reputations of owner Robert Irsay and head coach Frank Kush rather than any objection to the city itself.

When Kush called Elway to report that he'd been drafted following his college career at Stanford University by the Colts, Elway hung up. The unhappy Irsay then negotiated a trade with Denver.

What has he gained by committing his career to one city rather than marketing himself periodically to the highest bidder?

"Stability," he replies. "The kids have had their same friends and gone to the same school over the years, and that's been helpful to them. My own family moved around a lot when I was growing up." (Elways's father, Jack, a Bronco scout, was a successful but well-traveled high school and college coach with 10 stops on his resume).

Staying put in Denver

So, what has he lost by staying in a small media market, such as Denver? Elway has to think about the question. "Nothing, really," he concludes. "Oh, in a bigger city you'd have more opportunities for endorsements, and more media attention. But media attention has never been a major goal of mine.

"God has given me the ability to play football, and that happens to be something that people find entertaining. ... But, basically, Janet and I are simple people. I just try to be a good football player and let everything else take care of itself."

If there's been one disappointment in Elway's career it's been getting to the Super Bowl three times only to lose on each occasion, during the 1986, '87, and '89 seasons. Kelly, by the way, has gone home a loser in four trips to the Super Bowl, while Marino came away empty in one title game. Elway could still cap his career with a championship, and suddenly the possibilities are better than many had imagined.