Elway on Elway: A Father's Perspective
Jack Elway talks about his son's journey from Little League to Sunday's Super Bowl.
ENGLEWOOD, COLO. — Jack Elway, father of the legendary-going-on-mythical Denver Bronco quarterback John Elway, sits off in a quiet restaurant not far from the team's practice facilities, reflecting on the "natural competitiveness'' within his family of five.
There was always family Monopoly, a board game in which John from his earliest years was focused on owning Park Place and Boardwalk. Non-Monopolists need only know that owning those two properties goes a long way toward ensuring victory. "In fact our games would become so heated,'' says Jack, "that I'd have to call a recess.''
When playing Ping-Pong, the intensity of the rivalry between father and son would reach a decibel level that would bring wife and mother Jan to the scene, summarily stopping the competition with a plaintive wail, "I can't take this any more.''
Athletic competition was strong - especially in one-on-one basketball - until it all ended when John was in seventh grade "because he was beating me at everything."
A New Year's Eve gamefest at John's house a few weeks back featured John's son Jack, 8, falling into a foul mood because he kept losing. The torch is being passed. Little Jack already is playing quarterback, of course; Little Jack wears No. 7, of course. Grandpa Jack laughs: "There's a lot of love and a lot of fun in our family."
Indeed, Jack, director of pro scouting for the Broncos, has much to reflect on and smile about as John prepares to lead the team to the Super Bowl Sunday in San Diego against the highly favored Green Bay Packers. It's the fourth time Elway has taken Denver to the National Football League's championship game. Basically, the Broncos have played badly, terribly, and horrendously in previous efforts, losing all three by a combined score of 136-40.
John, finishing his 15th year in the league, all with the Broncos, says he thinks this team is better than the others, "but we'll have to prove that."
Biggest game yet
Jack stares off into the darkness and says, "I try to be blas, but the truth is I really want this for him. There is no gettin' around it. He's getting ready to play the biggest football game of his life. But I'll tell you the one thing I know is he'll compete his rear end off."
Jack didn't say rear end. Basically, football coaches - like Jack, who along the way was Stanford University's coach for four years after John had left the campus - don't use words like rear end. Their vocabularies tend to be more basic.
Jack Elway permitted the Monitor a rare look inside the Elway clan - which includes John's twin sister, Jana, a schoolteacher, and Lee Ann, 18 months older, who's in the flower business. Both are in San Jose, Calif. "They've all been successful," he says.
What emerges is a heart-warming portrait of a family that knows what it means to be a family, and above all, of a rare son who believed in his dad and listened, then acted accordingly. It's a credit to both of them. No, no, this is not Hans Christian Andersen stuff. This is real. It just reads like a fairy tale in a world in which too many families fold like cheap paper fans and too many kids run wild with predictable results.
Has it always been perfect? No.
A watershed event in deportment came when John was in the fifth grade playing basketball. "He was such a competitor," says Jack, "that he didn't have much patience with his teammates. He was screaming, hollering, ranting, raving. He was not showing any poise or sportsmanship. So immediately after the game I took him out behind the gym and had a firm conversation with him. Very firm."
There was no physical abuse, but if words could kill, Jack soon would have been joined by homicide detectives. Any repeat of such jerky behavior, warned the old man, and John wouldn't play hoops or anything else.
Still, Jack admits that the underlying problem was the other boys on the team "didn't take it as seriously as he did." The fact that John did is why he has a contract today that pays him an average of $5,561,800 per year - and they don't.
$6 million man
John has agreed to some financial juggling of this figure to make room under the salary cap for other stars, notably key offensive lineman Gary Zimmerman. Not long ago, Elway sold seven of his automobile dealerships for more than $80 million.
"I don't see that the money has changed him," says Jack. "He enjoys it. I always have told him that any time you get money and spend it on your home, you're doing the right thing." Among the baubles, bangles, and beads at the Elway home is a tennis court "and they use it," says Jack.
But far from the glitz, John always "has had the ability to accept tough losses and continue to work at it," says Jack. That trait was learned when Jack was an assistant coach at the University of Montana and John would be in the locker room, seeing "the celebrations and the excitement of winning. But he also saw the sitting and crying after losing. It whetted his appetite to be on the winning side."
John was born in Port Angeles, Wash., then grew up living in Missoula, Mont., and Pullman, Wash., before moving along to southern California as dad coached. Jack says John found that "anything that had a ball involved excited him."
Playing in the yard with his dad, he always wanted to make one more catch, throw one more, hit one more, shoot one more: "I'd tell him something, then he'd ask questions, then he'd do it. Once you show him how to do something, he has it. He has always had a knack for working on the little things."
That's why former Bronco teammate Steve Watson said of John years later that he "just takes this game to the limit."
When it came to baseball, Jack always had a book in his pocket written by the best hitter in the history of baseball, Ted Williams. Who knows more about hitting a baseball, Ted Williams or Jack Elway? Right, so whose theories should be passed along to John, the then little sponge with the bright eyes standing over yonder with bat in hand, thirsting for knowledge? Right. Jack would have in mind John hitting a bushel of balls, about 75; John had in mind at least three bushels.
This devotion led to Elway being the first pick of the New York Yankees in the 1981 summer draft; he played one season in Oneonta, N.Y., on a Yankee farm team, where he led the club in runs batted in. But while he loved baseball in his heart, he loved football in his soul.
Jack Elway in no way is another of these sports fathers with towering egos. He doesn't gloat when he talks and he doesn't strut when he sits. To use a phrase that has lost its laudatory qualities because of indiscriminate use, he is a good guy. Make that a tremendously good guy.
He doesn't overstride by taking credit for everything that John has become nor does he under-club himself by falling into the false humility mode in which he says he did nothing. What Jack Elway does is deal straight ahead with truthfulness. That means he readily concedes that had John, 6-ft., 3-in., 215 pounds, instead been 5-ft., 8-in., 147 pounds, he almost certainly would not be talked about by everyone in the land - unless he had become a serial killer.
But on other things, Jack certainly was an expert: like teaching the children to "be independent, to learn to tie their shoes before anybody else, make their beds, have chores."
John was not pleased that one of his chores, when the family was in Pullman, was to get a daily urine sample from Cassius, the family poodle. The dog was under the care of a veterinarian. "He wanted to know," says Jack, "what the neighbors would think when they saw him outside doing that.''
After raising his concerns with his dad, John found the next thing he had to do was go get the urine sample.
Jack readily admits that he is "very proud'' of John. He can't help rhapsodizing about what a fine boy he was (including economics grad of Stanford), great person (among his activities is his charitable Elway Foundation), wonderful husband (wife is Janet, a former Stanford swimmer), splendid father (three girls, one boy), and extraordinary player (just watch). But somehow when he says these things, it doesn't grate as it routinely does with insufferable parents of other stars.
In fairness, could it be that John Elway will turn out to be an income-tax evader, a drug runner, or a cross-dresser with a sordid past in Denver public parks?
Sure. America's innocence about sports celebrities was lost many moons ago. Consider Pete Rose, Magic Johnson, Duke Snider, Dwight Gooden, and Billy Cannon. But will he? It would seem about as likely as the sun deciding to start setting in the east.
Advice for ages
The relationship between father and son is superior. "We're each other's best friend,'' says Jack.
A good reason is that the old man abides by the admonition he got from his father: "The only advice worth anything is advice asked for.''
An example: After John would finish a game at Granada Hills High School in Los Angeles, his dad says "he'd come home first so we could sit and talk about the game, then he'd go out.'' If Jack had forced John to come home and talk about the game, the result would have been conversations with no value.
After one especially starry performance by John in a game against San Fernando High, the parents were walking away from the field toward their car.
"Jan,'' said Jack, "I wonder if he's as good as I think he is?''
"If you don't know, I don't know who does.''
"Well, I think he's the best I've ever seen.''
They walked in silence. It was that moment in time when the Elways realized they likely were dealing with a prodigy, Horowitz wearing cleats. There had been hints during his high school years that John had special goals. One evening, he said, "Dad, I want to be the best at the position I play that anybody ever has been.''
Said Jack, "OK, that's good, John.''
And it was quickly on to other topics. Jack instinctively knew it's neither good nor helpful to dissect impossible dreams.
Going his own way
But those impossible dreams started taking form when John was recruited by every college in the country. Jack was head coach at San Jose State, not a major power. But John would have gone there with no questions asked and a smile on his face had his dad suggested it
"But I told him,'' recalls Jack, "that it just happens where I'm at is not at the level you're at. John says that he has only one regret and that's that he didn't play for me. That gives me goose bumps.'' It also makes his eyes misty.
It all worked out. Stanford and San Jose State played four times while John was the Stanford QB and Jack was San Jose's coach. The record was 2-2. Wouldn't you know it in this Ozzie and Harriet family? It wouldn't have been right for it to be 4-0 either way, not 3-1. But 2-2. Just like you'd draw it up on a chalkboard.
And then, presto, those impossible dreams born at Granada Hills and nurtured at Stanford took wing on Sunday afternoons. Proof: John Elway is the winningest football player in the history of the NFL and has better stats than any of the 18 quarterbacks already in the Hall of Fame.
In a game that sadly has turned from "we" to "me," you have never, never seen - or will see - John Elway beating his chest. "We're all a cog in the machine,'' he says. "As a quarterback, you depend on your teammates so much that the credit has to go to them.''
Nice sentiment that embodies some truth. However, a question: Without Elway at QB, how many Super Bowls do you figure the Broncos would have been in since 1983? Right. If he retires after the Super Bowl - gloomy to ponder but a real possibility - it easily could be a decade, more, before the Broncos return to Elway-induced levels.
The truth is - hard as it can be for the rest of us to take - Elway's entire life has been diagram perfect.
Marvels Jack: "John is very human and very likable. He has withstood the test of time and a whole lot of pressure, and he has always stood for everything in the game that I believe in. I always taught him to compete with poise, compete hard, compete within the framework of the rules, and respect the opponent. And he is truly a champion competitor but not an obnoxious one. He's a gracious winner and he has won a lot. But he knows there's another day.''
In this syrupy tale of goodness, doesn't Jack have regrets, at least a few?
"No. I always felt - and I taught John - that you make a decision and then you don't look back.'' Happily, John Elway has made few decisions that needed further review. That's partly because of his dad repeatedly pointing out to him when he was young, "If you need peer approval by your group, you're in the wrong group.''
John Elway has never needed peer approval. He has never been in the wrong group. His shortcomings are only three:
1. He doesn't throw a wet football well.
2. He is the reigning "clichmeister," endlessly given to descriptions such as "do or die,'' "week in and week out,'' "leaps and bounds,'' and "it's a team game.'' John has crossed way too many bridges when he gets to them and far too often has played one game at a time.
3. He seemingly starts every other sentence, "I'll tell you what.'' He definitely needs a change-up.
So how do your shortcomings compare?
Meanwhile, Jack Elway, the proud pop, falls silent, thinks, then says softly, "He's a helluva man. That's saying a lot.''
And it's saying it all.
After 15 years with the Denver Broncos, John Elway has more victories than any quarterback in history. His skill in the air and on the ground place him among the sport's best ever. He has thrown for more yards than any other quarterback (48,669), and is 361 yards shy of Fran Tarkenton's record of 3,674 yards rushing.
Favre's 110 touchdowns over the past three years leads all NFL quarterbacks. The Green Bay Packers' passer has thrown for more than 3,000 yards for five consecutive seasons. His 39 touchdown passes last year ranks as the third-highest single season total. He has been named the NFL's Most Valuable Player three times.