John Elway wishes the decision would come easily. He wishes he
could wake up one of these mornings, look out into the dawn and
get some kind of divine signany signthat tells him what he
should do. Instead, he agonizes.
A few weeks ago Elway, who will turn 38 on June 28, set June 1
as his deadline for deciding whether to retire or return for a
16th season with the Super Bowl champion Broncos. But Denver
coach Mike Shanahan has urged Elway to take more time if he
needs it, and he may. Interviews with confidants and colleagues
last weekElway says he won't discuss the issue until he
reaches a decisionpainted a picture of a man in a dilemma. A
lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Elway is clearly tired
of the NFL rat race, but he's torn between going out on top and
risking returning for one more season and not playing at the
The arm is finethe question is whether Elway's
heart is still in the game.
Other than the Browns' Otto Graham in 1955 and the Eagles' Norm
Van Brocklin in 1960, no Hall of Fame quarterback has led a team
to an NFL championship and then quit. "If I talk to him three
days in a row," says Marvin Demoff, Elway's agent, "he's feeling
three different ways. He's struggling with this, really
One Elway friend says John's wife, Janet, and his father, Jack,
began a recent dinner discussion on opposite sides of the
retirement issue. By the time dinner was over, the two had
flip-flopped positions, and the talk had done nothing to help
John with his decision. "I know John better than anyone,"
Shanahan said last weekend, "and believe me, he doesn't know
what he's going to do."
For his part, Shanahan says that if his star quarterback doesn't
return, he will be comfortable going with untested Jeff Lewis or
well-worn Bubby Brister in '98. Although he wouldn't rule out
signing an experienced backup, Shanahan says that you can forget
about the notion of the Broncos' picking up the Ravens' Vinny
Testaverde or the Jets' Neil O'Donnell if either should become
available on or after June 1. That's the date on which clubs can
release players without having all of the remainder of their
prorated signing bonuses count against this season's salary cap.
Brett Favre has met with Elway four times since the Broncos
upset his Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. Two weeks ago, while in
Fort Worth shooting a commercial with Favre, Troy Aikman and
Jerry Rice, Elway knocked on Favre's trailer door and came in to
shoot the breeze. According to Favre, the conversation went
something like this:
Elway: "If I had to play tomorrow, I honestly don't know if I'd
Favre: "You're still on top of your game. Play, man!"
Elway: "But if I play and screw up, I'd be going out on the
bottom, not the top."
Favre: "You've got to do what you want to do. But you're fun to
watch. You've still got it in you."
"Troy and I both told him to play," Favre says. "We've all won
Super Bowls. We know what it's like the year after to go through
it again, trying to repeat. It's a bitch. I don't know what
John's going to do. But I honestly think he's scared that if he
quits, he might want to come back in a year. He's worried about
leaving now and saying later, 'Damn, I had another year in me.'"
Money is not the issue. Since entering the league in 1983, Elway
has made more than $100 million from football and outside
business interests. He's due to make $6.25 million if he plays
this season, but how many more trust funds for unborn
grandchildren does one man need?
No, this is about what Elway wants to do with the rest of his
life. Playing football is his only passion. At most, he is
mildly curious about a career in broadcasting. He's made a
fortune outside of football. He and a partner sold their string
of Colorado car dealerships for about $82.5 million in stock
What leads us to believe he will play? A few things: 1) He's a
team guy, and he knows his retirement would be a double whammy
for the Broncos; Pro Bowl left tackle Gary Zimmerman has told
the team that if Elway retires, he will do the same. 2) Although
Denver owner Pat Bowlen is not pressuring him to play, Elway
could help sustain the momentum for Bowlen's stadium initiative,
which could appear on a November ballot. 3) He's working out
four days a week at the Broncos' complex.
Janet and the couple's four kids want him to play, but they've
also told John, Do what you want.
Easier said than done.
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Issue date: June 1, 1998