When you order up the statue of the greatest quarterback of the last 20 years, make sure you get the sock right. It has to be pulled all the way down, preferably with a defensive end's fingernail still in it. Give the right shoe a flat tire, and show the jersey yanked off one shoulder pad, the work of a blitzing linebacker who thought he had himself an appearance on the next NFL's Greatest Hits video but instead got only a fleeting handful of orange-and-blue Denver Broncos nylon. It's true, you know. John Elway has spent more time on the job having his padding adjusted than Pamela Anderson Lee.
While you're at it, see if the sculptor can put in a hint of the bulges of tape and a knee brace underneath the legs of the pants, and of the limp that made Elway walk like John Wayne in high heels yet vanished when he took off sprinting, needing six yards and somehow always getting six yards and an inch.
Try to show the jaw-dropping power of that right arm, the one that shredded receivers' gloves and knocked the wind out of strong men. Elway threw the worst screen passes in NFL history, but he could get the football to you at rush hour in the middle of Penn Station from a hoagie stand across the street.
Make the eyes huge, wide as beer coasters, like the eyes of somebody witnessing a disaster—which, come to think of it, Elway usually was. Seems like every time you looked up from your nachos, it was fourth-and-10, the Denver pass protection had collapsed like a bad soufflé, and he was starring in another cliffhanger: John Elway and the Pocket of Doom.
Keep it honest, too. Show those dark circles under the eyes, and the crow's feet—more crow's feet than any 36-year-old man should have, carved there by 14 years of trying to win with small-fry linemen, cement-footed receivers and witness-protection-program running backs. Everybody wants to talk about Super Bowls, but forget Super Bowls for a second and try this: Punch REWIND on your time machine and put Elway behind all of Joe Montana's lines in San Francisco and Montana behind all of Elway's lines in Denver. Nothing much changes in San Francisco, but by the age of 28 Montana is either dead or selling life insurance.
That is the thing, really. John Elway never had a Guy McIntyre. John Elway never had a Jerry Rice. John Elway had a whole lot of guys who are now waiting tables.
So far in Elway's career, his offensive linemen and wide receivers have been voted to the Pro Bowl a combined six times. In Dan Marino's 14 seasons, Miami Dolphins offensive linemen and wide receivers have been selected to the Pro Bowl 30 times. More than any athlete since Wilt Chamberlain on the Philadelphia and San Francisco Warriors of the late 1950s and early '60s, Elway has had to play at a superb level game after game, year after year, to make his team a winner. Though usually surrounded by a human rummage sale, Elway has won more games as a starter than any other quarterback in NFL history (126). It's the equivalent of carving Mount Rushmore with a spoon or composing Beethoven's Ninth on a kazoo.
But Elway's career has been about more than just winning. It has been about escaping defeat a half page from the end of the novel, leaping over pits of fire with the microdot hidden in his cigarette lighter. On first down Elway was "pretty average," his Stanford coach Paul Wiggin once said. But when the elementary school kids are being held hostage and the detonator reads 00:03, whom would you rather have clipping the wires than Elway? He may be the only quarterback in history who could stand on his own two-yard line, trailing by five with less than two minutes to play, no timeouts left, windchill -5°, and cause the opposing coach to mutter, "We're in trouble."
"My fondest memories of John's career," says his wife, Janet, "will always be with me curled up on the floor in the fetal position, my hands over my eyes, and one of my girlfriends giving me the play-by-play."
Once, in New York against the Jets in 1986, Elway dropped deep into his own end zone to pass. As usual, nobody was open. He stepped up toward the goal line, tapping, tapping, tapping the ball, the fall of Saigon swirling around him. Still nobody open. Suddenly, from behind, defensive end Mark Gastineau came flying at Elway's helmet. Without seeing him, Elway ducked, a la Marshal Dillon during a fight in the Long Branch Saloon. Gastineau got Elway's sleeve as he hurtled by, pulling Elway nearly but not completely over. Elway straightened up and looked some more. Nobody open. He broke forward as though to run, an old trick he had pulled a hundred times: Draw the safeties up and then stop a foot short of the line of scrimmage and fire a deep one over their heads and straight through their hearts. But this time the safeties didn't buy it. Something came at him from the left. He danced right. Something came from the right. He danced left. The tension was maddening. Then defensive end Barry Bennett arrived and rocked Elway from the left. Down went Elway, headed for a sack and a safety—except that as he was falling, he unloaded the football, submarined it in a tight spiral to running back Gerald Willhite at the 12. Lying spent on the cold turf, Bennett stared up at the sky, his hands on his helmet, looking like a man who had just had his pocket picked.