Part of it, of course, is the name, a product of being the only boy in a Deep South household with five older sisters. "My sisters killed me by naming me Bubby," he says, "though it probably made me tougher." Brister developed a strange relationship with his nickname, simultaneously being protective of it and embarrassed by it. During summer league baseball games, Brister, whose fastball was clocked at 92 mph in high school, heard chants of "Buh-bee, Buh-bee" from opposing dugouts. "People would say it in a way that made me sound like some sort of girl," he says. "I confronted a few people and made sure they'd never chant that again. But even now, people call me Bubba Brewster or Buddy Blister or Bobby Breaster. I end up having to repeat my name three times and then spell it, and they still get it wrong."
Drafted out of high school in the 10th round by the Detroit Tigers in 1981 and converted to shortstop, Brister "got bored watching the grass grow" during 48 games of rookie and winter ball and decided to head to college to work on his football. By the time he got to the NFL, he was a man's man who enjoyed bachelorhood, free to pursue his true loves (hunting and bass fishing) while not tied down by any romantic strings. Then, while back in Monroe rehabilitating his right knee following the '91 season, Bubby saw Bonnie in a burger joint one night, and everything changed. "She was wearing jean shorts, a tight red shirt and looked like the finest tiling you've ever seen in your life," he says. "My friends wanted to go, but I said, 'I'm not leaving till I get her phone number.' "
Bonnie, eight years his junior, was a tough sell. "I'd heard he was a player," she says, "and I don't mean football player." Bubby smiles and finishes the story: "She had just gotten out of a relationship. I was in about five of 'em. We got married a year later, and it's the best thing that ever happened to me. She likes to cook, and she doesn't mind getting on a four-wheeler and having fun. As we say back home, I'm way overchicked."
Brister never seems too far from back home. Last fall teammates began calling him Bubby Boucher, after Adam Sandler's swamp-dwelling character in The Water-boy. The nickname started with Elway, who had witnessed the bayou lifestyle firsthand while accompanying Blister and his hometown buddies to the Rota Quinta fishing retreat in Clayton, La., shortly after the 1997 season. Among the three-day trip's highlights were Elway's snagging of a nine-pound bass—"the biggest one any of us had ever caught," Brister says, "which was typical John." Among the lowlights was the night the guys had to crash on a screened-in porch in the rain. At one point, Brister says, "I snuck a peek at John, who was curled up in his sleeping bag, shivering and getting poured on. I'm thinking, Great, John's gonna get pneumonia, and I'm gonna get cut."
Denver's huddle figures to be significantly louder this season, not to mention wetter: Brister is a nervous spitter and constantly loogies during games. But as long as All-Pro halfback Terrell Davis stays healthy, the Broncos don't expect many substantive changes. The offense may be expanded slightly to account for Brister's arm strength, which Shanahan says—seriously—is more potent even than Elway's. "Bubby can throw the ball 70 yards," Shanahan says. "There are maybe five guys in the league who can do that."
The passing of the torch came in early May, toward the end of the all-night celebration following Elway's retirement press conference. The after-hours crew included the Bristers and the Elways (John and his wife, Janet), and the man of the moment turned to his successor and said, "Bubby, you're the greatest, but if there's one thing I could tell you, it's calm down a little bit—just calm down." Brister pondered that statement for a moment and then looked at the TV set a few feet away, where a career retrospective was flashing a clip of a younger Elway brawling with an opposing defender. "Hell," Brister said, "why would I possibly listen to that guy?"
Bubby laughs at the recollection of that moment as he sits with Bonnie in a steak house south of Denver and finishes his filet mignon. A woman from an adjacent table approaches and hands Brister a napkin. "My husband and I are celebrating our 30-year anniversary," she says. "We used to worry about Life After John, but you've eased our fears." Brister signs the napkin and grins. "Thirty years?" he asks. "Can I have your autograph?"
The check comes, but Bubby and Bonnie take their time leaving. They're talking about his good buddy Robert Cobb, who the previous week suffered a massive heart attack and went into a coma. When he heard the news Brister chartered a plane and flew to his friend's bedside in Baton Rouge, but it was too late. Within hours Cobb, a married man whose wife is due to have a baby in July, was dead at 30. "I was just lying there in my hotel room paralyzed, mentally and physically crushed," Brister says, fighting back tears. "Then I thought about his wife, and the grandparents who raised him, and I said, 'Get your punk ass out of bed and do something to help them.' " He ended up handling all the arrangements and paid for the funeral.
Bonnie reaches across the table to grip her husband's throwing arm. A minute passes before anyone speaks. "Every day when I'm working out, Robert is with me," Bubby says. "I'm going to play my ass off for him. There'll be a lot of pressure this season. It's going to take everything Bonnie and I have got, both of us, to pull it off."
Reenergized, Bubby bounces from his chair, walks out the front door of the restaurant and stares up at the shimmering moon. Finally, undeniably, things are looking up.