John Elway wishes the decision would come easily. He wishes he could wake up one of these mornings, look out into the dawn and get some kind of divine sign—any sign—that tells him what he should do. Instead, he agonizes.
A few weeks ago Elway, who will turn 38 on June 28, set June 1 as his deadline for deciding whether to retire or return for a 16th season with the Super Bowl champion Broncos. But Denver coach Mike Shanahan has urged Elway to take more time if he needs it, and he may. Interviews with confidants and colleagues last week—Elway says he won't discuss the issue until he reaches a decision—painted a picture of a man in a dilemma. A lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Elway is clearly tired of the NFL rat race, but he's torn between going out on top and risking returning for one more season and not playing at the highest level.
Other than the Browns' Otto Graham in 1955 and the Eagles' Norm Van Brocklin in 1960, no Hall of Fame quarterback has led a team to an NFL championship and then quit. "If I talk to him three days in a row," says Marvin Demoff, Elway's agent, "he's feeling three different ways. He's struggling with this, really struggling."
One Elway friend says John's wife, Janet, and his father, Jack, began a recent dinner discussion on opposite sides of the retirement issue. By the time dinner was over, the two had flip-flopped positions, and the talk had done nothing to help John with his decision. "I know John better than anyone," Shanahan said last weekend, "and believe me, he doesn't know what he's going to do."
For his part, Shanahan says that if his star quarterback doesn't return, he will be comfortable going with untested Jeff Lewis or well-worn Bubby Brister in '98. Although he wouldn't rule out signing an experienced backup, Shanahan says that you can forget about the notion of the Broncos' picking up the Ravens' Vinny Testaverde or the Jets' Neil O'Donnell if either should become available on or after June 1. That's the date on which clubs can release players without having all of the remainder of their prorated signing bonuses count against this season's salary cap.
Brett Favre has met with Elway four times since the Broncos upset his Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. Two weeks ago, while in Fort Worth shooting a commercial with Favre, Troy Aikman and Jerry Rice, Elway knocked on Favre's trailer door and came in to shoot the breeze. According to Favre, the conversation went something like this:
Elway: "If I had to play tomorrow, I honestly don't know if I'd want to."
Favre: "You're still on top of your game. Play, man!"
Elway: "But if I play and screw up, I'd be going out on the bottom, not the top."