Perhaps the most remarkable element of Elway's legacy as a champion is how much skepticism he had to overcome to achieve it. For much of his career Elway was regarded as an exceptional athlete doomed by tragic flaws. Bradshaw wasn't the only one to label Elway, a coach's son, a spoiled brat, and until 15 months ago he stood as a symbol of big-game futility. It's telling that Bowlen, when asked to name the Elway moment most imprinted in his memory, recalls a scene following the Broncos' 55-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXTV: "It was our worst loss ever, and eventually I was the only one left in the locker room. I heard the shower running, and I looked in and saw John. We stared at each other for a long time, but neither one of us said a thing. There was this look in his eyes of utter dejection. I'll remember that moment until the day I die."
Bowlen gets choked up for a moment and then continues: "I was the owner for 15 out of John's 16 years, and, believe me, every bit of respect he got around here, he earned. He worked his butt off every day, even in the off-season, even in his twilight years, and part of that was to set an example for his younger teammates."
On Sunday, Bowlen reiterated an old offer to sell Elway a minority share of the Broncos. That's just one of the many post-football options open to Elway, who says he'll be so unnerved by Denver's season opener in September, "I'm not even sure I'll be able to watch." Elway might audition for a spot in the Monday Night Football booth, and the one handicapper will have plenty of time to fine-tune his golf game. The Broncos will defend their titles under the leadership of excitable quarterback Bubby Brister, who turns 37 in August, though some fans have suggested that Elway's ultimate successor should be his nine-year-old son, Jack. Says Janet with a laugh, "Our daughter Juju, who's eight, took those comments a little too literally. She freaked out and said, 'Does that mean Jack has to start playing for the Broncos now?' "
If young Jack someday attempts to tread in his father's athletic footprints, many will say he was fed from a silver spoon. John heard the same snipings, and it's true that he benefited from his parents' affection and his father's football acumen. But the Elway bashers missed one of the central components of the equation: They weren't there with 15-year-old John when he and his father, then a Washington State assistant, boarded the team bus in Seattle after the Cougars had blown a two-touchdown lead in the final two minutes and lost to archrival Washington. "Just sit there and shut up," John remembers Jack growling as the five-hour ride began. John sat in silence, afraid even to ask for a snack, awed by the cost of competing and the price of caring.
Some 23 years, 148 NFL victories and 51,475 pro passing yards later, John and Jack sat alone in a darkened room in the middle of the night, celebrating the completion of a career that exceeded their wildest dreams. It was a conversation John chooses to keep private, possibly because no one else could really appreciate what it meant to him.
When they were all talked out, Jack asked John, "You want to get something to eat?" John shook his head. "Not hungry," he said, and he headed off to bed.
The next morning Elway woke up smiling. "The pressure's all gone," he said to Janet. "I can't believe how happy I am."