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Elway can't buck the Bronco habit

Nick Halling reports on the quarterback who is not the retiring type
IT COULD still all end in tears but, for now, John Elway's decision to play American Football for yet another season looks more likely to culminate in another trip to the Super Bowl five months from now.

Elway, the quarterback and inspirational leader of the Denver Broncos for the last 15 seasons, guided his team to their first-ever title in an emotional victory over the Green Bay Packers last January. As the success- starved state of Colorado savoured the moment, Denver's leading light pondered his options. Retirement seemed a logical course: after all, what other peaks were left to be scaled?

Instead, after four months of deliberation, he elected to return, to the delight of coaches, team-mates and the people of Denver, to whom he is a sporting institution. "The bottom line is, I wasn't ready to quit competing," he said. "I've got lots of years to live in retirement, and the last thing I want to do is pass up the opportunity to play one more year of football."

There are many teams around the league who wish he had. Two weeks ago, as the Broncos began the defence of their Super Bowl trophy against the New England Patriots, the 38-year-old maestro looked better than ever. In the face of a relentless blitzing assault from the Patriots, Elway held his nerve, scrambling for yardage here, throwing timely passes there, keeping his rivals in a state of confusion. At the finish, he had completed 22 of 34 passes for 257 yards and one touchdown. The most significant statistic, however, was the scoreline: the Broncos won the game 27-21, the 139th triumph of Elway's career, more than any other quarterback in NFL history. Without him, the Broncos may have been found wanting by determined opponents.

As if to confirm his status, Elway then destroyed the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday, the Broncos scoring on their first five possessions on the way to a 42-23 drubbing. In two games, they have amassed 854 yards and scored 69 points, Super Bowl-winning form, and while others are contributing too, Elway is the key factor.

"He's just incredible," said the wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, recipient of 15 Elway passes in those two games. "He's looking faster and sharper than ever."

Despite limping off against Dallas, Elway is expected to deliver again tonight when the Broncos visit their hated rivals, the Oakland Raiders. Another challenge for Denver, another opportunity for Elway to continue his personal assault on the record books. He needs less than 1,000 yards to join Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins as the only quarterbacks in history to throw for 50,000 career yards. Another 19 touchdowns are needed to reach the 300 plateau, while 4,000 career completions are no more than two good games away.

Already, those who suggested that Elway had overplayed his hand by carrying on are being forced to make drastic reassessments. Instead, a new theme has been emerging in Denver over the last few days. "It's time to begin the Save John Elway Campaign," said Bob Kravitz, a columnist with the Rocky Mountain News. "John is still doing all things he's always done. George Foreman should retire. Mick Jagger should retire. John Elway? Shouldn't retire."

The player himself helped fuel speculation that what began as a farewell tour two weeks ago may turn into something more substantial during an interview with Jim Kelly of the ESPN television network. Kelly, a former quarterback with Buffalo, probed his friend closely about the long-term plans. Elway replied that while he was "almost certain" that this would be his final year, there was a chance that he might return.

A shrewd manipulator of the media, Elway would have known the effects his words would have had in the city, but he refused to elaborate further last week. "I'm not going to answer those questions," he said. "I'm going to wait until the end of the year and go from there."

Much may depend on the health of his wife, Janet. A devoted family man and father of four children, Elway maintains that his decision to return was a result of deep consultations with those closest to him. The last few weeks have been difficult for the family. Elway missed most of the team's pre-season training to be at his wife's bedside as she underwent surgery for colonic cancer.

It has all the makings of another American sporting soap opera - Elway, the master operator, keeping his public and media inquisitors on tenterhooks, while toying with opponents on the field. Like the Patriots and Cowboys earlier, the Raiders may discover tonight that the John Elway saga looks set to run and run, all the way to the Super Bowl.