Passer supreme John Elway: a quarterback with sports options

How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky? Believe me, those are puny questions compared with the speculation about whether John Elway will play football or baseball after his graduation from Stanford University.

Elway has what is regarded as the best throwing arm and one of the best football intellects in the college game. But he also plays baseball so well that the New York Yankees signed him to play in their farm system last summer. (Current collegiate eligibility rules allow an athlete to perform professionally in one sport, yet maintain amateur status in another.)

At this point, John does not care to discuss his future plans with the press. He has repeatedly said that all he is interested in right now is helping Stanford, with a 4-3 record, to a winning season and a possible bowl bid.

Those who claim to know Elway well say that he prefers pro football to a baseball career with the Yankees, but that he is smart enough to know that he probably will last a lot longer hitting a ball than being sacked for throwing one.

John's final decision may be based on which pro football team drafts him, whether that team qualifies as a contender in his mind, and how long a contract (with certain financial guarantees) they are willing to give him.

Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, the shipbuilder for whom money has never been a problem, is certainly in the race. What might hurt George's chances of landing Elway are reports that John would need at least two more years in the minors before he's ready for Yankee Stadium. The young outfielder might not be willing to wait that long.

Several pro football owners, on the other hand, would be willing to put Elway in charge of their offense on opening day 1983 and let him see what he could do.

With a better supporting cast than Stanford has provided so far, the senior signal-caller might be in a much stronger position to win this year's Heisman Trophy.

He may still make off with the hardware. It is probably going to depend on what running back Herschel Walker of Georgia does during the remainder of the season. Most of the other pre-season Heisman favorites have either been hindered by injuries or turned in poor performances on nationally televised games.

The feeling among most pro scouts is that Elway will be the No. 1 pick in the next National Football League college player draft. They like his size (6 ft. 4 in. and 200 lbs.); his mobility; his instincts; and the way he can throw into traffic and still get the ball to his receivers.

While it is always risky to describe a player as someone who could step into the NFL and, within a year or two, turn a losing franchise into a contender, that possibility is often mentioned when discussing Elway. Former NFL coach Sid Gillman, now a special adviser with the Philadelphia Eagles, thinks that John has all the tools to be an outstanding pro.

In baseball, Elway signed a one-year contract with the Yankees in September of 1981 for a salary estimated between $125,000 and $140,000. This past season he played six weeks for a Class A Yankee farm team in upstate New York, where he batted .310 in 42 games. Steinbrenner isn't likely to let this left-handed power hitter whose talents are tailor-made for Yankee Stadium get away.

''If Elway were playing baseball nine months of the year, instead of the three or four he limited himself to in college, there is no question in my mind that he could make the big leagues,'' said Stanford coach Mark Marquess. ''I can't tell you how many times in the spring when John went to football practice in the morning, had no batting practice at all before one of our games, and then led us in hitting.''

To go back a little, Elway batted .551 and .491 during his final two years at Granada Hills High School (near Los Angeles) and, as a senior, was voted Southern California Player of the Year. Steinbrenner, according to reports, envisions a future Yankee outfield of Dave Winfield in left, Jerry Mumphrey in center, and Elway in right.

The silent partner in any decision John makes may be his father, Jack, the head football coach at San Jose State, which is only a few miles south of Palo Alto and a regular opponent on Stanford's schedule.

None of these encounters have been easy games for John's mother and two sisters, who are betwixt and between in their rooting interests. And while dad seems to take these games in stride, it has not been that comfortable for him either, even though his Spartans have won the last two years.

John reportedly was recruited by some 160 colleges when he graduated from high school, including San Jose State. He chose Stanford because he wanted to avoid a lot of the father-son pressure that surely would have occurred at some point had he gone to San Jose. He also wanted to fulfill a childhood dream of playing football for a Pacific 10 school.

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