Under the kaleidoscopic cover of a Rocky Mountain twilight, after an afternoon of vintage highlights, John Elway finally began to act his age. Elway, the Denver Broncos' 36-year-old quarterback, had just produced one of the more energetic performances of his extraordinary 14-year NFL career in leading Denver to a 34-7 rout of the Kansas City Chiefs at Mile High Stadium on Sunday. In addition to throwing for 286 yards and three titillating touchdowns, Elway had run with the reckless abandon of a much younger man. Twice he had found himself in the middle of the field just short of a first down, and twice he had lunged forward for the needed yardage. Elway finished with a career-high 62 rushing yards. "It felt like a thousand," he said at game's end. He was only half joking.
"I'm really tired," Elway added as he trudged off the field. "I kind of feel old." Then he flashed that toothy grin—the most famous smile in all of Colorado—and left a bystander to wonder about the relative degrees of seriousness and sarcasm contained in the statement. For as he puts the finishing touches on a career that will land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot, Elway is being revitalized by a precocious group of Broncos.
After missing the playoffs three of the last four seasons, Denver is enjoying a revival under second-year coach Mike Shanahan, who has quietly produced the AFC's best team. This season's Broncos, who are 7-1 and own a two-game lead over the Chiefs in the AFC West, are not of the same breed as their Elway-era predecessors, including the three teams in the 1980s that advanced to the Super Bowl only to be pushed around like unwelcome drunks crashing a party. This year Denver is physical, purposeful and well-rounded. But though there are many compelling reasons for the Broncos' sudden status as Super Bowl contenders—a burgeoning star halfback in Terrell Davis (SI, Oct. 28); an unstoppable tight end in Shannon Sharpe; a silent but deadly offensive line; an aggressive, unrelenting defense; and the leadership of Shanahan—it all comes back to Elway, as it always does in Denver.
With apologies to Troy Aikman, Brett Favre, Jim Harbaugh, Dan Marino and Steve Young, the most dangerous quarterback in football is Elway. Still blessed with a cannon arm, a scrambler's flair and remarkable durability, he has become comfortable in the jazzed-up version of the Bill Walsh offense that Shanahan brought with him from San Francisco, following three years as the 49ers' offensive coordinator. "If John had had a system like this—not to mention this kind of personnel—when he was a rookie, I'm not sure there's any record he wouldn't hold," Shanahan says.
As it is, Elway has a record collection that would make John Denver proud. On Sunday Elway joined Fran Tarkenton as the only NFL quarterbacks to exceed career totals of 40,000 yards passing and 3,000 yards rushing. An equally amazing achievement is that in 14 seasons Elway has missed only eight starts because of injury. Yet as recently as five weeks ago, after he threw two interceptions in a 17-14 loss in Kansas City, he was being described by the Denver media as battered, creaky and, yes, old. Elway is one of three surviving members of the celebrated Quarterback Class of 1983, and when the other two, Marino and Jim Kelly, went down with injuries earlier this season, some assumed Elway would be the next to fall.
That columnists and radio commentators were making a big issue of Elway's age was hardly shocking. The real surprise was that Elway bought into it. "It's almost like I was brainwashed," he said last Saturday while munching on a doughnut covered with maple frosting. "When all you hear about and talk about is how old you are, it starts to sink into your mind. For a while I was believing what everybody was writing, that I was old and couldn't move anymore."
He broke out of that funk a couple of days after the setback in Kansas City, when he began considering his age in terms of nonfootball pursuits. Old at 36? As the owner of seven Denver-area car dealerships, Elway is a fresh-faced executive. As a father of four, he's a relatively hip parent. His wife, Janet, says he remains spry and virile on the domestic front. "Except when he wants to get out of doing something," she says. "He'll say, 'Honey, I'm too beat up to take out the trash. Have one of the kids do it.' "
With all this in mind, Elway made a decision before practice one day: "I finally said, 'Screw this, I'm tired of worrying about it. I'm going to run around when I need to, and if it doesn't work, fine.' It was an awesome decision. I probably should've done it a heck of a lot earlier."
In the four games since his epiphany, Elway has been brilliant, throwing 12 touchdown passes and only four interceptions, while ringing up a quarterback rating of 107.7 over that span. He had three consecutive 300-yard passing games, the first time he had done that in one season, before the near miss on Sunday, when he sat out most of the fourth quarter.
With excellent protection and a typically innovative Shanahan game plan, Elway was free to hang back and fire away against the Chiefs, and some of his tosses were magical. One play after missing on a pass to Sharpe near the goal line late in the first quarter, he lofted a 10-yard touch pass to Sharpe in the left corner of the end zone for a 17-7 lead. With 46 seconds left in the first half, he floated a tight spiral down the left sideline that appeared to be beyond the grasp of wideout Mike Sherrard, who had a step on cornerback Darren Anderson. But Sherrard, who earned the nickname Venus Flytrap during his years with the 49ers in the late 1980s and early '90s, reached out and snatched the ball for a 25-yard score.