When the winningest quarterback in NFL history retired, in 1999, he took all that cool, all that glory and all that cash, and he galloped into the sunset.
But somebody ran off with John Elway's happily ever after.
Since he quit playing, lucky number 7 has hit the worst losing streak of his life. Elway's father died, most of his business ventures flopped, his wife left him and, three weeks ago, his twin sister passed away. Boy, where's the parade when you need it?
"When you're a quarterback, you're in control," says Elway, 42. "The football's in your hand, and it's fourth-and-12, and if the wideout doesn't take the right route, I'm going to run around and make things happen. But now, things go wrong and I don't have the football anymore."
It seemed that everything he made a pass at fell incomplete. MVP.com, his online sporting goods venture with Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky, flopped. His chain of upscale Laundromats, with lounges and big-screen TVs, washed out. His try at getting Los Angeles an NFL franchise busted. His bid to buy the Denver Nuggets, the Colorado Avalanche and the Pepsi Center was low.
Then, in the winter of 2001, Elway's twin, Jana Elway-Sever, the person he shared every birthday with, had double-dated with, had that weird twin telepathy with, was told she had lung cancer. Elway figured he could save the day. Hadn't he always? He made sure she had the best doctors, medicine and hospitals. But she only got worse.
Two months later, in April 2001, John's best friend, his father, Jack, died of a heart attack. "My dad took the news about Jana terribly," says John. "He kept flying [to Jana's home in San Jose], worried sick. I think it was just too much for him. He would've never been able to handle losing Jana."
This year, in early June, Elway's wife of 18 years, Janet, moved out and took their four kids with her. "It's like we were lonely inside our own marriage," she says. "It was time for drastic measures." All of sudden it looked as if Elway could hold his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in a phone booth.
"My whole life I had a carrot to chase," he says. "For 16 years winning the Super Bowl was my carrot. Everything revolved around that. All of a sudden there's no carrot anymore, and you start wondering what you're going to do with your life. You play golf or you try business stuff, but it's not even close. You end up spinning yourself like a tornado. And here was Janet, who sacrificed all those years, thinking she was finally going to get me to herself."
Then, in mid-July, Jana's health took a turn toward heartache. In the middle of shooting a commercial for his new Arena Football League team, Elway got word and flew immediately to Jana's bedside. She motioned him over with a crook of her finger, put her lips near his ear and whispered, "I don't want to die." Within hours she was gone.