He first appeared in the thin air of Mile High Stadium 12 years ago, a gift to Denver from the football gods. He had the arm, the teeth, the hair, the attitude and the aura. He was the first player taken in the '83 draft, but he made the Baltimore Colts trade him and the rest of the country hate him. Still, when he lined up under center, everyone pulled up a chair to watch. He was only the most exciting young quarterback in NFL history.
John Elway could throw, run and do magic tricks in the final minutes of games. He could sell cars, shoot par and tell his grandchildren that he stood up George Steinbrenner when the Boss tried to persuade him to give up football for a career as the New York Yankees' rightfielder. He could do just about anything, on or off the field, and if you were a card-carrying member of the anti-Elway crowd, there was only one consolation: He couldn't do it forever.
From the beginning, it was obvious that the one thing Elway wouldn't do better than everyone else was age. How could he? He took too many hits and relied too much on his unparalleled physical skills. There were too many demands on his time and too much pressure to carry the team on his shoulders. The autograph pests and hotel-lobby hustlers came at him harder than the outside linebackers ever did—tugging, grabbing, everyone looking for a piece of Elway.
How long could he put up with it? Sooner or later, just being John Elway would take its toll. "With John, I don't worry about the physical aspect of the game," says Mike Shanahan, Elway's new head coach and the Broncos' third in four years. "I think the mental part is what will eventually drive him out of the game. There's just such a demand on him that he's going to reach a point where it's no longer fun to play."
The bad news for unforgiving Colt fans is that he hasn't gotten to that point yet. He has a new coach, a solid new cast of veteran teammates and an intricate new offense that makes him feel like a kid again. "For a quarterback it's like dying and going to heaven," he says of the offense that Shanahan brought with him from the San Francisco 49ers, where he was the offensive coordinator for the past two seasons. "I feel like I'm starting over again."
On June 28, Elway made a generation of football fans feel old when he celebrated his 35th birthday. Jack Elway's kid is now old enough to be president. His face looks worn and weather-beaten; touches of gray showing through his sandy, surfer-boy hair. He is beyond MTV age and well into his VH1 years. For the first time in his career he is the oldest player on the Broncos and the fourth-oldest starting quarterback in the NFL. He walks like he just rode a horse in from Kansas, but then he strode into the league with a kind of Walter Brennan hobble. "I've always had a bad walk," he says, smiling. "I know I don't have the quickness I once did, but I'm still learning, still getting better. I honestly don't feel like I'm done yet."
The Golden Boy has reached his golden years, and some people believe retirement won't be far behind. ESPN reported three weeks ago that Elway's wife, Janet, wanted him to retire before this season. Elway thought there was nothing to the story, which went so far as to claim that he would soon need knee replacement surgery, but he couldn't be sure since he doesn't know everything that goes on at home with Janet, his three daughters—Jessica, Jordan and Juliana—and his son, Jack.
"So I asked my nine-year-old daughter about it," says Elway. "I said, 'Jessie, when do you think I should retire?' She said, 'Retire? I don't think you should ever retire.' She wants me to play forever."
In Colorado, everyone feels that way. The Broncos existed before Elway arrived and even managed to lose Super Bowl XII without him, but no player has come to define his team and his town quite like Elway. He has been the biggest star in Denver since the Broncos acquired him from the Colts in '83 for backup quarterback Mark Herrmann, tackle Chris Hinton and Denver's first-round pick in the 1984 draft. Now the NL West-leading Colorado Rockies and Denver's NHL import, the Avalanche, are part of the scene, but there is still no debate. Elway is king of the mountains, now and always. "I can think of few athletes who have meant as much to their city as John has to Denver," says Bronco owner Pat Bowlen. "Maybe Gretzky. Maybe Jordan. It's a short list."
During Elway's 12 years in Denver there has never been an offensive star among the supporting cast, a Rice to his Montana, a Pippen to his Jordan. And Elway has never had an offensive line like the one that keeps Dan Marino safe in Miami. Elway has rushed 596 times in his career for 2,670 yards and been sacked 416 times. Marino, a draftmate, has been sacked just 178 times. On the list of great quarterbacks in NFL history, there aren't many who have had to scrape themselves off the turf as often as Elway.