O.K., O.K., the Super Bowl thing. The world loves to point to the bad endings, the Broncos' three crushing Super Bowl losses, but the fact that Elway has been to three is preposterous in itself. "Nobody but John Elway could've taken those three teams to the Super Bowl," says Shanahan. To this day Elway has never watched a replay of any of his Super Bowls...and no wonder. Denver was thumped by the Giants 39-20 in 1987, by the Washington Redskins 42-10 in '88 and by the 49ers 55-10 in '90. "It hurts too much," he says.
Elway doesn't have to hide the razor blades and the rope when he thinks of those losses. He doesn't blame himself. "I'm just a cog in a machine," he says. "I'm not the machine. You can have a fan belt that works terrific, but if the engine's broken, it's not going to run. Besides, there's something to be said for getting to three Super Bowls. How many guys never even got there? If I never win one, it's not the end of the world. I know I did everything I could possibly do."
This year—this gleeful year for Elway—is different. For the first time he may end up not taking a team to the Super Bowl but going with one. He is handing off to the NFL's leading rusher, Terrell Davis. He is throwing to two Pro Bowl sets of hands, those of Sharpe and wideout Anthony Miller, two men who, remarkably, are actually bigger than Eddie Gaedel. He is setting up behind one of the finest lines in football, anchored by Pro Bowl tackle Gary Zimmerman. It must take all of Elway's willpower not to come to the line grinning. "This is so great now," he says, beaming. "Before, I'd go into a game just dreading it."
With his quiver finally full of arrows, Elway is having his sharpest all-around season. Admit it, none of us thought he would be a good old quarterback. We figured that howitzer arm or those Energizer legs would be gone by now, and his sandlot shtick would be over. But he's more of a technician than anybody' thought. He can be Montana if he wants—checking options 1, 2 and 3 and then dumping—or he can still be 23 years old, the human escape clause, leaving a trail of panting defensive ends in his wake and then throwing the ball from here to February. If he is not the league's MVP—most versatile, most volatile, most valuable player—then they should melt the trophy into a hubcap.
The joy is back. On Dec. 1, long after Denver had skunked the Seattle Seahawks 34-7 to win the AFC West title and home field advantage through the AFC playoffs, he went back out to the dimly lit Mile High Stadium field and saw about 15 kids playing football. Naturally he played too. On a bad hamstring.
But it wasn't just Reeves's departure that put him in his current mood. Elway had to learn how to be happy. He was thrown too early into the klieg lights and was burned. Who can forget his rookie year, when he lined up to take the snap behind guard Tom Glassic? He couldn't have known how starved Denver was for a megastar. It nearly killed this one in the crib. There was, for instance, "The Elway Watch"—the daily column that ran in the Denver Post that first training camp. As the Broncos beat writer for the Post at the time, I found myself writing the sentence, "Elway didn't eat his peas at lunch." There were news bulletins about his getting a haircut, a piece about what kind of candy he gave out at Halloween (Reese's peanut butter cups). Bartenders breathlessly called radio stations to report that Elway had left them only a buck tip. On the field Reeves was strangling Elway, and off it the city was. "There were times when he really wanted out of here," says Janet. But when he finally asked for a break, publicly saying in 1989 that he was being suffocated, he learned to stop fighting the town's infatuation with him. In 1991 he opened the first of his seven car dealerships in the Denver area, and in his commercials he gave the locals offbeat looks at him that fed their Elway jones.
These days, against all logic, Elway seems to be getting younger. Look at the great quarterback class of 1983: Elway went first in the draft, then Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, Ken O'Brien and Marino. Blackledge has been a broadcaster for five years. Eason was gone from the league by '91, O'Brien by '94. Somebody should check the warranty on Kelly, because the parts are wearing out. It seems that every week Marino is being fit for some new orthopedic shoe popular at the Shady Rest Nursing Home. Elway, meanwhile, has missed a total of 10 games in 14 years because of injury.
He has played through rotator-cuff tears, elbow sprains, finger sprains, knee sprains, a fractured rib, groin pulls, hamstring pulls, turf toe, turf burn, bruised biceps, bruised thighs, a bruised butt that stayed technicolor for four weeks, five knee scopes, irritations of the heel, irritations of the psyche and a swollen elbow bursa sac that for an entire season stung every time he threw the ball. When it was finally removed, it was the Spruce Goose of bursa sacs, measuring eight inches in circumference.
Even curiouser, Elway has only gotten stronger. In one late-November week this year, he set three personal weightlifting records (for one, he bench-pressed 275 four times) and one team conditioning record (25 minutes on the StairMaster at a setting of 18 out of 20). On the Friday before the bye week this season, when most of the Broncos were scattered across the country, there was one guy in the workout room soaked with sweat: Elway. Imagine that. A car dealer you can trust.
He is down to 211 pounds, which is within about 10 pounds of his rookie weight. So maybe it's not so mind-warping that in October he had statistically the finest month of his career. Or that the two best rushing days of his life have come this season. Or that Elias Sports Bureau stats chief Steve Hirdt says that if Elway stays healthy and with Shanahan, "he could conceivably own every major passing record there is before he's through."