"One of Danny's great traits is he's never lost what he was or where he came from," says John Congemi, Marino's friend and former teammate at Pitt. "You know exactly where you stand with him—good, bad or indifferent."
For his part, Elway is as friendly toward no-name players as he is to the Marinos of the football world. There are countless tales of Broncos whose first day with Denver was brightened by an unexpected "Hey, dude" greeting from Colorado's biggest celebrity. "Anybody who has ever met John knows he's down-to-earth," says Scott Adams, a former Broncos backup lineman. "Even someone like me, a damn nobody, feels important around him."
Dilfer, who says he's a casual acquaintance of Elway's, remembers facing Denver early in the 1996 season, when he was roundly regarded as a washout after less than three years as a pro. "He approached me after the game and spent three minutes telling me what a great job I was doing, even though nobody else thought so," Dilfer says. "You could tell it wasn't lip service. Of all the people I've met in this league, John's probably the best overall person."
Until a few years ago the prevailing image of Elway was that of a spoiled beach boy who whined whenever things got rough. Why did people feel that way for so long?
That question is posed to Elway on a recent Tuesday night, as he munches on Janet's gravy-drenched pork chops in the homey dining room of their suburban Denver house. John traces the negative image to the time he "popped off" in the wake of his final college game: Cal's miracle win on a last-play, five-lateral kickoff return through the Stanford band. He charged that the officials had "ruined my last game as a college player." More bad publicity came after Elway, courted as an outfielder by the New York Yankees, used that baseball career option as a lever against the Baltimore Colts, who had made him the first pick in the 1983 draft even after Elway had said he wouldn't sign with them. That forced the Colts to trade him to the Broncos. In 1989, two seasons after his second consecutive Super Bowl setback, Elway complained that he was "suffocating" in Denver because of the media scrutiny of everything from his tipping habits to the Halloween candy he distributed to trick-or-treaters. When coach Dan Reeves left following the 1993 season, Elway said the last three years had been miserable and that he wouldn't have returned if the coach had. "Part of it is that I've never been good at manipulating situations and twisting words around," Elway says. "But there's no question I've grown up. Parenting makes you do that."
Duty calls seconds later when Janet heads out to a Broncos wives' function and John asks 13-year-old Jessie, the oldest of his four children, to clean up the kitchen. "But I have homework!" she says in protest. "Besides, how come Jack doesn't have to help?" John tells nine-year-old Jack to assist with the cleanup, along with sisters Jordan, 11, and Juju, 7.
Jessie, like her father, does not give up easily. "I have two tests tomorrow!" she says. To which John responds, "Hey, I've got to go to work tomorrow—to make it possible for you to go to [private] school. You kids are going to drive me nuts."
Flash back to the late 1960s: When his father, Jack, became an assistant coach at Montana, seven-year-old John, one of the Grizzlies' ball boys, stayed in the dorms during summer practices. With his father occupied by nightly meetings, John talked his way into the players' low-stakes poker games. "He was a scream," recalls Bob Beers, a former Montana linebacker who is now a Broncos scout. "We'd check to see how much money he had, and when he lost it, we'd send him back to Pop to get more."
Elway is a refreshing leader, a populist who doesn't worry about being politically correct. Though he and Shanahan became close during Shanahan's earlier stints in Denver as an assistant under Reeves, their relationship has changed in recent years. "John's always believed in me more than I believed in myself," Shanahan says. "When he has a strong feeling for someone, he's not afraid to say it. But I don't get the chance to do the things with him that I did as an assistant, and sometimes it's tough on our relationship. One of the things that separates John is that he is one of the guys—he doesn't want to be the guy who's Mike Shanahan's friend."
Says Elway, "I always believed Mike would be a great head coach if he got the opportunity, and I appreciate what he's done for my career. It's hard to relate to Mike the way I used to, because he has changed so much from being an assistant to a head coach. It's more of a boss-employee relationship now. It's not like we can vent to each other about the system anymore, because he is the system."