Nobody likes to look into the valley of death and spit as much as John Elway. Nobody is better when the dogs are at his cuffs, the barn is burning and the rent hasn't been paid. No wonder Elway owns three car dealerships in the greater Denver area. Who runs a better year-end closeout drive than he? Eighteen times in his nine-year career he had gathered up his outrageous nerve, magic cleats and nuclear right arm and taken the Denver Broncos from behind in the fourth quarter to win. But surely not this time. Not again.
For one thing, the Houston Oilers had just punted the Broncos into a cozy little corner at their own two-yard line. For another, there was only 2:07 left in regulation, and Houston's murderous and underrated defense was going to blitz everybody but the Gatorade boy. There were 98 yards to go, no timeouts to go it in, and Elway was ready to be fitted for a stretcher. At one point in the fourth quarter of this semifinal playoff game in Denver, he was so out of breath that one of his linemen told Elway that his teammates were having difficulty understanding him in the huddle. Yeah, he had pulled off The Drive, the 98-yard wonder in Cleveland in the 1986 AFC Championship Game, but this situation here was downright unthinkable. One thing about miracles: They don't Xerox well.
Mile High Stadium was a giant woofer. On the Denver sideline, Bronco backup quarterback Gary Kubiak was resigning himself to permanent goathood. He had hobbled a perfectly good snap and ruined an extra-point attempt in the first quarter. Now, as the minutes ticked down, Denver was behind by that one botched hold, 24-23. "I was standing there thinking, I've got to live all year knowing I messed up that PAT," Kubiak said.
As Elway got ready to drag himself back onto the field one more time, Kubiak yanked on his arm. "Pick me up, Wood," Kubiak said. In sportsese, "pick me up" means "save my bacon." Wood is what Kubiak calls Elway, Wood being short for Elwood, Kubiak's handle for Elway. To Elway, Kubiak was always Koob. Drafted the same year—Elway the shiny first pick in '83, Kubiak the 197th—Kubiak always knew what the score was in Denver. He would sweep up after Elway's parade. Still, they became roommates and best friends. In Elway's first few tumultuous years in Denver, the years when he felt hounded, confused and ready to quit, nobody dealt out more hang-in-theres than the Texas farm kid, Kubiak.
But there was more than just bacon to be saved this time, and they both knew it. Elway knew that Kubiak was going to retire after the season. Maybe nobody but Elway cared about the retirement of a lifetime understudy. Here was a guy who had spent his best years behind one of the most durable and celebrated quarterbacks in history, with not a hope of starting, hardly a hope of playing. And yet Koob had never bitched, sniped, complained or even short-sheeted anybody.
"As I was walking out there," Elway said, "I was thinking, We can't let Koob end his career on that bobbled snap."
Some great things are done for history. Some for glory. Some for country, family, God, self. But once in a while, in the dark of a chill January afternoon, great things are done in the name of a roomie.
Not that Elway didn't have a few career pressures on the line himself. He is the one man nobody wants at his Super Bowl party. Three appearances in the Big Bowl so far and three train wrecks. A bad blond joke. Unfortunately, Elway has this annoying habit of not taking a hint. He knows that for all his greatness—he is the NFL's winningest quarterback from 1984 to '91—nothing seems to stick in people's memories quite like the flash of a world championship ring.
"I have a vision of getting a perfect team and winning a Super Bowl," Elway was saying one day before the game against Houston. "Us going in against a team we should beat, and winning big." And if it means he has to "go 10 times" and "get beat 10 times," he says he will. "I just want another chance to win it."
Of course, all of that looked dead now at the feet of the Oilers. All day Elway had been trying to match Houston quarterback Warren Moon missile for missile. Moon started out blazing, three touchdown passes in his first three drives for a 21-6 lead. Elway and his tiny receivers led the Broncos back, picking and begging and running for their lives during a second-quarter 88-yard drive to pull within eight, 21-13. Kicker David Treadwell's field goal—a clothesline 49-yardcr in the third—made it 21-16, but Moon was a vision. Of the three dozen passes he threw on this remarkable Saturday, only nine weren't caught, and three of those were drops. One, by Haywood Jeffires in the end zone, would have been a touchdown. At one point, Moon saved a sure sack with a preposterous lefthanded flip to Lorenzo White not six inches before the quarterback landed face-first on the turf. It set up a 25-yard field goal by Al Del Greco and another eight-point lead, 24-16.