American Football: Elway seeks the ring of ultimate approval

super bowl xxxii: green bay packers v denver broncos
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The Independent Online
A three-time loser is pulling in the sympathy vote for tomorrow's showdown on the gridiron. Nick Halling reports from San Diego.

In the ruthlessly professional business of sport in the United States, there is little place for sentiment. That is particularly true at the Super Bowl, where the winners are feted as conquering champions, while the losers are left to slink home as best they can under a cloak of anonymity.

The unforgiving emptiness of defeat in the big game is something Denver's quarterback, John Elway, has experienced three times during a long and illustrious career. On Sunday, he faces the prospect of another painful loss as his Broncos take on the defending champions, the Green Bay Packers, in Super Bowl XXXII. Few people are giving the 37-year-old Elway much hope - the bookmakers have installed the Packers as 12- point favourites - but there is little doubt that should he somehow confound the naysayers, Elway's achievement will be hailed as one of the most heart-warming stories in the history of the game.

Elway has achieved so much since joining the Broncos 15 years ago, that few would begrudge him his title. Even the Packers' head coach, Mike Holmgren, has sensed the mood of the nation. "I think a lot of people are going to root for John Elway," he said. "I have coached quarterbacks all my life, and it's not often you get a chance to be around a player like John. He's done so much that I fully understand the sentiment towards him."

With his decade and a half of unbroken service, and with an unblemished record away from the gridiron, Elway is seen as the embodiment of all that is good in the game. It is a far cry from when he entered the league in 1983. By virtue of possessing the poorest record in the NFL that year, the feeble Baltimore Colts announced their intention to select the exciting youngster from Stanford University in the annual collegiate draft. Elway promptly announced that he had no intention of joining a bunch of losers like the Colts, threatening instead to pursue a promising baseball career with the New York Yankees.

Eventually a compromise was reached, Elway joining the Broncos, Baltimore being compensated with a collection of draft picks. In hindsight, his decision was a sound one (the Colts again finished with the worst record this season) but traditionalists were outraged. You went where you were drafted: the young upstart's arrogance threatened the very fabric of the game.

In the intervening years, all has been forgiven and forgotten. In a game obsessed with statistics, Elway's achievements are easy to measure. Second only to Miami's Dan Marino in career passing yards (48,669); second in total offence (51,982); and fifth in career touchdown passes with 278. He has generated 44 game saving drives, more than any other quarterback in history; he has completed a remarkable 12 3,000-yard passing seasons, and is one of only two players to rush for over 3,000 and pass for over 40,000 yards in his career.

Yet against these numbers must be set the fact that Elway took his team to the championship game in three years out of four in the late 1980s and was found wanting every time. The New York Giants beat the Broncos 39-20 in Super Bowl XXI, the Washington Redskins overwhelmed them 42-10 a year later, and in Super Bowl XXIV, the ultimate humiliation, a 55-10 loss to San Francisco, the most lopsided scoreline in Super Bowl history. Elway's personal tally from the three disasters: 46 completions from 101 pass attempts, two touchdowns and six interceptions.

"John's problem is that he's been babied by everybody," said the former quarterback Terry Bradshaw, a four-time winner with Pittsburgh, following the San Francisco debacle. "Is he a great quarterback? No, he's very good, but he's too inconsistent. He has to get better emotionally."

"Time has eased some of the pain, but it was really rough going through it at the time," Elway said. "I'm not as good a player physically now, but I'm a better quarterback mentally. I don't take as many chances with the ball as I used to, and I'm making better decisions. Experience makes up for a lot of things."

What it cannot compensate for is the quality of the opposition, and in Green Bay, Elway faces another daunting challenge. Led by the defensive end Reggie White, the Packers boast an uncompromising defence which effectively shut down Tampa Bay and San Francisco in the play-offs, and will be confident of delivering a similar fate to the Broncos.

The pre-game talk has been dominated not by the Packers and their quest to defend their title, but by whether an older, wiser quarterback can grab what might be his last chance at immortality. Elway, a smooth, experienced media operator, has been saying all the right things, putting the game into perspective, and saying how it pales into insignificance alongside his feelings for his wife and four children.

However, he understands that in this win-at-all-costs business, Elway risks being labelled as the man who could not win the one that mattered. And in one of the most revealing moments of an otherwise predictable week, he was asked if he would trade his individual accomplishments for one Super Bowl ring. The answer was immediate. "Yes. In a heartbeat." On Sunday, a nation will be hoping it happens.