Asked once how he could duck 275-pound defensive ends he couldn't even see, Elway said, "I hear them." This makes sense if you know Elway. He can't be in a room without the radio or television on and can't fall asleep or stay asleep without the TV tuned to Nick at Nile or PBS. ("We get a lot of subliminal Mary Tyler Moore," says Janet.) So maybe it's possible that in a stadium of 75,000 screaming loons, he can hear the padding feet of an assassin. "The other thing is, I like to hang in there and pretend I don't know they're coming," he says. "Then they get up a bunch of speed and go for my head, and I can duck 'em.
"Oh, and shadows," Elway says.
"Yeah, especially in domes. I think I've always done it, but I really noticed it the other day [after a game at Minnesota]. With all those lights, your body gives off shadows in every direction." This is a very hard thing for a blitzing cornerback to work on. Dammit, Smith, you've got to stop giving off such a shadow!
It's weird, but Elway will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer partly because of all the things he does wrong. For instance, he doesn't stand up tall in the pocket. Years ago his father, Jack, a longtime college coach who's now the director of pro scouting for the Broncos, told him, "Always be ready to run." And so John sets up with his knees bent, constantly bouncing on the balls of his feet, more than ready to leave a sinking ship. Nobody else is close to his nine seasons with at least 3,000 yards passing and 200 rushing.
He routinely throws across the field, making the one pass quarterbacks are taught never to try. Elway does it from one sideline to the other and from one 20-yard line to the other. It's a wonderful way to run up your interception total, but not only have the Denver coaches not told him to stop, they also once put such a pass in their playbook—scramble right, turn suddenly and throw 40 yards down-field and 40 cross-field. "Sometimes in practice that play would come up on one of my snaps," says Elway's old backup Gary Kubiak, now the Broncos' offensive coordinator. "I'd always pretend to slip just before I threw. What could I do? I mean, nobody else in the world can make that throw."
And under a heavy rush Elway turns his back to the line of scrimmage, a cardinal sin. He feels the hit on his body and spins away from the pressure, like the Houston Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon, even if that sends him running away from his receivers, blockers and sanity. And yet the spin has been to him what the Aston Martin was to James Bond: his signature means of escape. In one of the most phenomenal plays in the NFL this year—Denver against the Oakland Raiders on Monday Night Football on Nov. 4—Elway was in his usual state of peril. Oakland linebacker Pat Swilling nearly had him, but Elway spun away and then, sensing that Swilling had crashed to the ground in the other direction, spun back toward the line of scrimmage—a complete 360 inside the pocket. As more Raiders closed in, Elway spied tight end Shannon Sharpe creeping along the back line of the end zone. Elway loosed a 25-yard clothesline toward a wall of black jerseys and through a window about the size of the drive-through at Wendy's. The ball hit Sharpe in the palms for a touchdown. "John Elway," Pat Summerall once said, "is the master of the inconceivable pass thrown to the unreachable spot."
Good receivers hope that someday they'll wind up in Denver, where all they'll need is the length of a good cigar on their man and Elway will find them. Once they get used to footballs just traveling under the speed of light, of course. Former Broncos cornerback Wymon Henderson once stepped in front of an Elway bullet in practice, and the ball ended up stuck in his face mask. In Elway's second season, during a game in Buffalo, he broke free from trouble (imagine that) and scanned the field madly for somebody dressed like him. Forty-five yards downfield, receiver Steve Watson was drifting a little behind a Bills defensive back. Watson kept retreating, and the Bill happily let him go. "No way he can throw it that far," the defensive back said, loud enough for Watson to hear. Famous last words. Just then a missile went sailing over the defender's head and into Watson's arms in the back of the end zone for a 52-yard touchdown.
Hall of Fame quarterback Sammy Baugh once said Elway was "the best I have ever seen" at throwing the 40-yard route. Elway throws so hard, in fact, that when receivers come to the Broncos, they are trained on the Jugs passing machine because no other quarterback can throw the ball hard enough. "When we go to the Pro Bowl, all guys want to ask me about is John," says Sharpe. " 'Hey, man, can you get him to throw me a 40-yard out? Just once?' "
Except for Fran Tarkenton, Elway is probably the only quarterback in history who performs better when Afternoon at the Improv breaks out. Says Kubiak, "We'll be on the headphones during a play, screaming, 'Doggone it, John! What the hell are you doin'?—atta boy, John!" This is what comes from having played street tackle in Northridge, Calif., against bigger boys and then trying to stay alive for four years at Stanford behind offensive lines full of physics and lit majors.