A year ago, the Denver Broncos quarterback fulfilled a lifelong ambition by guiding his team to an upset victory over the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. Amid intense speculation over his future, Elway vanished from sight, surfacing five months later to announce that, after much deliberation, he would play on for one more year, then hang up the shoulderpads.
However, this has been a frustrating season for the old warrior. First a pulled hamstring, then a lower back problem, meant that he missed parts of six games in 1998. During this period of inactivity, there were hints that he might be reconsidering his options. Now, he was "almost certain" that he would go.
Last week, the Broncos defeated the New York Jets to claim their place here alongside the Atlanta Falcons in Sunday's Super Bowl. It was billed as Elway's final game at Denver's impressive Mile High Stadium, a chance for the player to say goodbye to his admirers, and the 75,000 faithful to give their hero the send-off his efforts merited.
At the finish, Elway did his lap of honour, then mounted a podium to tell the fans that he loved them, and they in turn confirmed that they loved him, tears flowing amid the applause. It seemed the end of an era, although the headlines next day were dominated by what Elway had said to reporters in the locker-room. "I'm not going to make any snap judgements," he said of his future. "I'm going to sit down, talk to my wife and kids, see how I feel physically, and go from there."
It is all in sharp contrast to another gridiron legend, Reggie White of the Green Bay Packers. Like Elway, White said after the Super Bowl that he would give it one more year, then retire. When the Packers lost to the San Francisco 49ers in the play-offs earlier this month, White duly walked away from the game he had graced for 13 seasons. Elway, it seems, is reluctant to be the retiring type.
Not surprisingly, the fans want their hero to return. Since joining the team in 1983, Elway has been the Broncos' talisman. The Washington State native enjoys iconic status in Colorado where he, his wife Janet, and their four children have made their home. He is that rare breed of athlete who transcends their chosen sport, becoming synonymous instead with something far greater.
"John Elway is Denver's Moses," his team-mate Shannon Sharpe said. "He has led Denver out of obscurity into the land of milk and money. I don't think there's ever been a guy in the NFL who symbolised his town like John. If you think of Denver, you don't think of skiing, you think of John Elway. It's always been John, and even if he retires, it will still always be John."
Elway's career had a less than auspicious beginning. After graduating from Stanford University in 1983, he was drafted by the inept Baltimore Colts, but announced that he would never play for them, electing instead to pursue a promising baseball career.
Traditionalists were disgusted but the Colts had little option other than to trade their reluctant property to Denver. "John Elway will never be any good," predicted the Colts owner, Robert Irsay. He struggled at first, but, tellingly, threw three fourth-quarter touchdowns to help the Broncos beat the Colts 21-16. Elway has rarely failed to silence his critics.
Under his guidance, the Broncos went to three Super Bowls in four years in the late 1980s, only to lose them all by heavy margins. But success last year against the Packers confirmed his greatness and, when he takes the field against Atlanta, he will become the first quarterback to start in five Super Bowls.
These days, he no longer carries the team on his shoulders, as much as before. That burden has fallen to Terrell Davis, the prodigiously gifted running back who, after just four seasons, threatens to rewrite the record books every time he touches the ball.
However, Elway remains the man they turn to in a crisis. In last year's Super Bowl, a tense struggle, he sacrificed his body, scrambling desperately for a first down in an effort to keep a crucial drive alive. His 37-year- old body was forced up in the air and spun through 360 degrees as three Green Bay defenders converged on him, but Elway clung on to the ball, and the Broncos had their first down. Davis did the rest, but Elway had provided the inspiration.
It was the same last week against the Jets. Trailing by 10 points in the third quarter, and with an upset brewing, the Broncos finally prevailed thanks to another prodigious effort from Davis. However, Elway's 47-yard pass to Ed McCaffrey provided the spark that had been missing. From that single play, the game's fortunes were overturned, the Jets simply overwhelmed.
"He may be the greatest to have ever played the game at that position," said the former Kansas City coach Marty Schottenheimer who, as coach of the Cleveland Browns in 1987, watched in disbelief as Elway led the Browns 98 yards in 15 plays with 39 seconds left to level the game, a contest won in overtime by the Broncos. "It doesn't have anything to do with his arm strength or with the people around him. That guy to me is the greatest competitor I have ever witnessed in sport."
Schottenheimer's appraisal is supported by the statistics: At 6ft 3in and weighing 15 stone, Elway has the classic dimensions for a modern-day quarterback. He has achieved more victories, 154, than any other quarterback in history. He has driven his team to 45 game-saving fourth-quarter drives, six of them in post-season play, with the pressure on. He has rushed for close to 4,000 yards, fourth all-time among quarterbacks. He has completed 4,123 passes for 51,475 yards, figures bettered only by Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins. His 300 career touchdown passes are surpassed only by Marino, and Fran Tarkenton, the former Minnesota Viking.
What separates him from the rest, however, is his command of the huddle. "He's a tremendous leader," Denver's offensive co-ordinator, Gary Kubiak, said. "When you're in his huddle, you know you have to do your job and work hard, or he'll run you out of there."
Unlike running backs and receivers, whose efforts can be measured in large part by statistics, ranking quarterbacks is largely subjective, but Elway clearly belongs in the elite company of Marino, Joe Montana and Otto Graham.
This season has confirmed that while his strength and mobility are greatly diminished, his competitive edge remains sharp, and his decision-making better than ever. Fan polls in Colorado show that the public want him to carry on, although those sentiments are not always echoed within the Broncos' organisation. "He came back this season for another shot at the Super Bowl, and that's where he's going" Shannon Sharpe said. "That should be the ending."
Only Elway knows his future, and as the build-up to Sunday intensifies, he is keeping his own counsel. "I'm not even thinking about that," he said. "I don't want to take the focus off what we're doing, and that's to win the football game. What I'm doing next year, that's not even entering my head. This is what I came back for, and I'm thrilled to death to be going back."
Should the Broncos prevail, as expected, then the temptation to return may prove too great to resist. No team has ever won three Super Bowls in a row. Elway, the ultimate competitor, will relish the challenge.Reuse content