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It's About Time
Michael Silver
December 21, 1998
Friends Off the field but strangers on it, Half-of-Famers-to-be Dan Marino and John Elway face off for a second—and last?—time
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December 21, 1998

It's About Time

Friends Off the field but strangers on it, Half-of-Famers-to-be Dan Marino and John Elway face off for a second—and last?—time

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Hall of Fame Numbers

Since entering the NFL in 1983, John Elway and Dan Marino have piled up impressive numbers, many of which rank them 1-2 alltime.

 

ELWAY

MARINO

Seasons

16

16

Games played

232

229

Wins as a starter

147*

141†

Fourth-quarter or OT winning drives

43

34

Quarterback rating

79.8

87.2

Pass attempts

7,178†

7,915*

Completions

4,084†

4,719*

Passing yards

50,986†

58,238*

3,000-yard seasons

12*

12*

Touchdown passes

296

403*

Interceptions

224

232

Times sacked

513*

259

Games missed

21

24

*Ranks first alltime
†Ranks second alltime

He gathered friends and family around the big-screen TV and served stone crabs, California cabernet and Cuban cigars. It was only fitting that Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, who has passed for more yards than anyone in NFL history, would throw one hell of a Super Bowl party at his Weston, Fla., house last January as his friend, Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway, realized a dream that both he and Marino had longed to fulfill.

Like most players who have crossed paths with Elway, Marino was rooting hard for him to shake off three previous Super Bowl failures, defeat the heavily favored Green Bay Packers and cap his Hall of Fame career with his first NFL championship. But as the 31-24 upset wound down, the conversation subsided and Dan and his wife, Claire, grew somber. The normally unflappable Marino, whose career has been graced with everything but a Super Bowl ring, couldn't hold off a swell of emotion as he watched Elway savor his moment of glory. "I was pulling for John because he's my friend, but in a way I was jealous," says Marino, who lost in his only Super Bowl appearance, in January 1985. "When I saw him holding that trophy, I almost cried."

Marino was not alone. Other than Packers fans, anyone with a pulse got at least a little choked up at the sight of Elway hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. What other NFL player could have inspired the strange scene that unfolded in the first-class cabin of a 747 bound from Los Angeles to Honolulu on Super Sunday? The cabin was filled with Pro Bowl-bound players, most of whom were listening to a radio broadcast of the Super Bowl over their headsets. "The Broncos would do something good, and you'd hear shouts coming from every direction," Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Trent Dilfer says. "When the game was over, I had tears in my eyes. I looked in front of me, and there was [Minnesota Vikings wideout] Cris Carter overcome by emotion. A few rows up I saw [ABC analyst] Dan Dierdorf, and he was flush in the face. It wasn't that any of us were against the Packers. We were just so happy for John, because of all he had overcome and what kind of person he is."

Suddenly, Marino was alone on the list of active legends never to have won a Super Bowl, while Elway was on his way to paradise. "I know what Dan was feeling, because I've been there," Elway says, "but to finally win it was like living a fairy tale."

A few days after the game Elway and Broncos coach Mike Shanahan began a Hawaiian vacation with their wives, Janet and Peggy. "We had a hard time even getting through the Honolulu airport, because there was such an outpouring of warmth for John," Shanahan says. "Fans everywhere could associate with what he did, the way he fought through adversity and refused to give up. It was as if they'd won the Super Bowl too."

But as inspiring as Elway's redemption was, NFL fans have missed out on another potentially heroic chapter in his career: an on-field rivalry with Marino. When the Broncos and the Dolphins meet on Monday night at Pro Player Stadium, it will be only the second matchup between the two quarterbacks—the first in 13 years.

Since beginning their careers as first-round selections in the famed quarterback class of 1983, Elway and Marino have been kept apart by the vagaries of the NFL's scheduling formula, which uses the final standings to determine each team's intraconference opponents for the following season. Elway and Marino have played in the AFC for 16 seasons and in a combined 33 postseason games, yet excluding exhibition games, they've been on the same field only that one time, on Sept. 29, 1985. Had we known then how precious that game was, we would have paid far more attention to the Dolphins' 30-26 win, in which Marino (390 passing yards, three touchdowns) out-dueled Elway (250, none) on a chilly day at Mile High Stadium. "I barely remember it," Elway says, "because it wasn't that big a deal at the time. Back then my world was still pretty small—I had my college buddies, my family and Janet, and I was basically just trying to prove that I belonged. It was more of a competitive thing: Dan and I would say hello when we saw each other, but then he'd go his way and I'd go mine. Now we've been around for so long and gone through so much that it's a true friendship, and it's nice that we get to meet again."

Though the Broncos' 20-16 loss to the New York Giants on Sunday took some of the luster off the Monday-night meeting, the game between Denver (13-1) and Miami (9-5) could be an AFC playoff preview. It could also mark the final meeting of the only passers to have thrown for more than 50,000 yards, the two active players with the most game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime—and, arguably, two of the five greatest quarterbacks ever.

It's about time Marino and Elway tango on the field, given all the fun they've had together off it. Through shared superstardom and a combined nine children, Elway and Marino have retained their boyish ebullience, partying at golf tournaments, in bars and at casinos. Their friendship dates to an ABC-sponsored tour that whisked six top college football players around the country in the summer of 1982. "Herschel Walker was ABC's guy [he would go on to win the Heisman that year], so we'd go out and have him sign for everything," Marino recalls.

Despite their disparate backgrounds, Elway, a football coach's son who went to high school in Southern California, and Marino, a working-class kid from Pittsburgh, have had eerily similar lives. Each was a high school baseball player and a 1979 draft pick of the Kansas City Royals (Marino, fourth round; Elway, 18th). Both Elway (Stanford) and Marino (Pitt) opted for college football stardom. They fell for spirited women at a young age, started families when they were in their mid-20s and, despite fame and financial success, stayed unpretentious and true to their roots.

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