The end, fittingly, came on a broken play. It was just after mid-night on the morning of April 13 when John Elway sat in the bar of his Englewood, Colo., home with his dad, Jack, and finalized his decision to terminate one of the most remarkable careers in NFL history. "So this is it," the son said to the father, and the two men summoned John's wife, Janet, into the room. Now the only thing left for John to do was tell his boss, Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen.
As amazing as it seems in this era of pagers, portable fax machines and mobile phones, getting ahold of Bowlen wasn't easy. Bowlen was in Sydney, Australia, to promote the Broncos' American Bowl exhibition game on Aug. 8 against the San Diego Chargers, and John spent an hour futilely trying to ring his hotel. No quarterback has ever been as adept at producing greatness when forced to improvise, but John was coming up empty with this call. Finally, by using Jack's long-distance company, John got a message to Bowlen, who called back at 2 a.m. Mountain Time and said, "I assume you didn't call me in the middle of the night to tell me you're coming to Australia." They chatted amicably for 10 minutes, and when John hung up, his face was visibly relaxed. "I feel like I just got rid of a 2,000-pound load," he said, and for the next hour he and Jack sipped soft drinks and talked about old times.
Then real-life drama intervened in the form of a tragedy that made Elway's 47 fourth-quarter comebacks and stirring MVP performance in his fifth and final Super Bowl in January seem trifling. Elway had planned a press conference for Wednesday, April 21, the day after Bowlen was to return to Denver, but everything changed in the wake of the horrific April 20 shooting spree at Columbine High in the Denver suburb of Littleton. With 14 students and a teacher dead, the decision to delay Elway's announcement was so obvious—it was later rescheduled for this Sunday—that none of the parties bothered to call one another to discuss it. "There was no need," Bowlen says. "We all just knew."
Years from now, when fans recall Elway's exit, they'll remember him as the Ted Williams of football, a great player who went out in a sun-kissed blaze of glory. Yet for the Elways, John's farewell will always conjure up feelings of fear and sorrow. Janet, having driven the four Elway children to school on April 20, was listening on her car radio as a caller weighed in on her husband's future when an announcer broke in with the news. "You read about the bombings in Yugoslavia or other scary happenings around the world, and it's almost surreal," Janet told SI, "but this was so close to home. Columbine is 12 miles from our house, and a good friend of ours, who's a cop, was one of the first people to go in the library and find all those kids. It made us feel almost embarrassed about our situation and the attention it was getting. John and I were talking that night, and he held me and said, 'It just makes you take a moment to realize how blessed we are. I don't even know why I've been anguishing about this retirement decision.' "
It wasn't supposed to be this difficult. A year ago, after winning his first Super Bowl in four tries, Elway announced he would return for a 16th season, which would almost certainly be his last. The victory tour had so many feel-good moments, it seemed at times to have been scripted: The Broncos flirted with an undefeated season; Elway knocked off friend and fellow legend Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins in the AFC divisional playoffs; and then, after a choppy win over the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game, Elway took what looked suspiciously like a sayonara lap around Mile High Stadium. The victory over the Jets sent him into a Super Bowl showdown against the Atlanta Falcons and Dan Reeves, his former coach and frequent verbal sparring partner in Denver. Reeves produced a game plan that dared Elway to beat him, and Elway responded with the game of his first-ballot Hall of Fame career, throwing for 336 yards and earning MVP honors in a 34-19 win that wasn't nearly that close.
As much as he loved stinging Reeves, Elway may have derived his greatest satisfaction as he stood atop the victory stand. Two hours after the game ended, while he and Janet rode an almost empty team bus back to the Broncos' hotel, John gleefully described what it felt like to hold the Lom-bardi Trophy while Fox announcer Terry Bradshaw, the former Pittsburgh Steelers great and four-time Super Bowl winner, stood close by. Bradshaw had dogged Elway, dismissing him as a spoiled surfer dude after Elway leveraged the Baltimore Colts into trading him before he had played an NFL down and criticizing him again in the midst of his three Super Bowl defeats. Now, said John to Janet, "I was staring at him thinking, You can't say a bad thing about me ever again, dude."
Upon leaving the cleared-out locker room on that magical night in Miami last January, John insisted on returning to the Pro Player Stadium field to pose with Janet for a photo. "We should get busy on the 50-yard line," Janet joked. "That would give them something to shoot." Then John surprised Janet by taking the family to Honolulu for the Pro Bowl, where he punctuated his lone possession with a three-yard touchdown pass to Buffalo Bills fullback Sam Gash. Later, while standing on the sideline, John noticed a fan in a Hawaiian shirt scarfing down a hot dog and thought, Hmmm, that looks good; I wonder if I can persuade a water boy to get me one. He eventually dismissed the idea but took it as a sign that he might be ready for another line of work.
A year ago a sense of obligation had played an important role in Elway's decision to continue playing: With the Denver-area voters going to the polls in November to cast their ballots on a downtown stadium project, he believed he owed it to Bowlen to play another season. The measure passed. Also, Elway felt pressured by Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who at one point showed up in Palm Desert, Calif., where the Elways were vacationing, in an attempt to learn John's intentions.
This time, says Shanahan, "I tried to stay away from him and let him decide on his own." In February and March, Elway toyed with the idea of returning in an attempt to lead the Broncos to an unprecedented third consecutive Super Bowl win. Ultimately, his 38-year-old body told him, Walk away while you can. "I've had a bad left knee since high school," Elway says. "What it came down to was that, physically, I just didn't think I could do it anymore."
Elway, who went into last season having missed only nine starts due to injury or illness, sat out four games in 1998 with hamstring and rib and back injuries. His most painful moment came in a Nov. 8 game against the Chargers. After taking 10 pain-killing injections for his aching ribs before kickoff, he played only one series. A few days later Elway told trainer Steve Antonopulos, "God, last week I could hardly breathe." Says Antonopulos, "He has played with so many things over the years that people don't even know about. He's as tough a football player as I've ever been around."