"I always thought Dan Marino was the perfect quarterback," Elway says. "The way he stands back there, the way he releases. But I think I'm something else. I think I'm a football player." Actually, Elway is more than that. He is one of the best athletes of this generation. During a 1979 workout with the Kansas City Royals, who had selected him in the draft, Elway took grounders at third and looked as if he was born to play there. (It was his regular position in high school.) K.C. star George Brett was heard to say, "God, I hope this [bleep] plays football, because if he doesn't, I'm out of a job." Elway went on to Stanford instead. He did sign with the New York Yankees in 1981 and was paid nearly $150,000 for a summer in the minors, during which he hit .318 with four home runs and 35 RBIs in 42 games as an outfielder with the Class A Oneonta (N.Y.) Yankees. In the last four years, since he's begun concentrating on golf, Elway has gone from a seven handicap to a one. He is practically unbeatable at Ping-Pong. He has punted with success and is the Broncos' backup kicker.
But Elway was put here to throw things very hard. His grandfather Harry Elway was a semipro quarterback in Altoona, Pa. As a boy John threw so many rocks out of a neighbor's driveway in Missoula, Mont., that his father had to pop for a load of gravel for resurfacing. When John hit the sixth grade, Jack stopped tossing the baseball with him. "My hand would hurt too much to hold the martini," he laments. On one of John's first dates with Janet at Stanford, the two were throwing a football around. "Show me the heat," she said, and he broke her pinkie.
But some of the joy gradually went out of the game for Elway after he turned pro in 1983 and found himself playing under a coach whom he would grow to hate, Dan Reeves. It sounds crazy, but it wasn't until four years ago, after Reeves was fired, that the Broncos built their offense around Elway. For 12 years Denver's offense reflected Reeves's conservative philosophy. Reeves's idea of letting his hair down was to allow a running back to go out for a pass once a month.
Marino and Montana worked under Hall of Fame coaches (Don Shula and Bill Walsh, respectively) whose teams revolved around their quarterbacks. How would Elway have done with Walsh's West Coast offense? "Well," says Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who spent three seasons as the Niners' offensive coordinator under George Seifert, Walsh's successor, "I don't believe there's a record he wouldn't own."
Since the split with Reeves, Elway's passing yards per season have increased 23%, his touchdowns have gone up 47% and his interceptions have been reduced by 24%. But the most definitive stat of Elway's career remains the record 40 times he has brought the Broncos from behind or from a tie in the fourth quarter and won the game. The stat not only shows Elway's two-sizes-too-big heart but also shows how deep a ditch he often has found himself in. "There's a reason he was always making those come-from-behind victories," says Sharpe. "We were always behind. What Reeves did, it was like making Picasso paint with a spray can."
"Man, that drains you," Elway says of all the last-minute heroics. "I hated that, always having to stay close, stay close, stay close until Dan would say, 'O.K., go ahead and win it now.' " True, it's a strategy that provided some of the NFL's best moments: the classic 98-yard drive in the final freezing two minutes to tie the 1986 AFC Championship Game at Cleveland Stadium (and the drive in overtime to win it); the 75-yard pulse-stopper to beat the Browns in the AFC title game the next year; the killer 98-yard, no-timeout, 107-second, two-fourth-downs-and-the-season-on-the-line wonder against the Houston Oilers in January 1992. "I mean it wasn't just the drive that was draining," Elway says. "I'd be pacing up and down the sideline, waiting for us to get the ball back, wondering how I was supposed to do it. Then I'd go home and just lie facedown on the couch."
Says Janet, "I saw him hide a lot of pain, but most of it was in his heart."
Elway squirmed at the end of Reeves's leash. "There'd be times when I just didn't like the play that was called," Elway says. "So I'd just let the rush come in, find a lane out and make up my own play." The metaphor for his career.
Elway has thrown to a White Pages of wideouts and tight ends in Denver—57 and counting, including five Johnsons (Barry, Butch, Jason, Reggie and Vance), nine number 85s and one of his current favorite receivers, Ed McCaffrey, who, by all rights, should be an Amway distributor by now, he's so slow. Of the 57, the most famous were the Three Amigos (Mark Jackson, Vance Johnson and Ricky Nattiel) in the late 1980s. Not one of them was over 5'11". When the Broncos broke up that fabled triumvirate in '92, all three disappeared like David Copperfield assistants. Jackson was cut by the New York Giants and then by the Indianapolis Colts. Johnson, who has caught more touchdowns from Elway than any other receiver, was released by the Minnesota Vikings and later by the San Diego Chargers. Nattiel went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and got pink-slipped.
Do you want to know whom Elway handed off to for five years, his absolute No. 1 go-to running back for all that time? Sammy Winder. Montana was handing off to Roger Craig, and Elway was handing off to Sammy Winder. It did not take Vince Lombardi to understand how to beat Denver: Send everybody, up to and including the comptroller's wife, after Elway. And still Elway could not be beaten—until Super Bowl week.