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Would He Rather Be A Unitas Or A Mantle?
Ralph Wiley
April 11, 1983
Whether John Elway will choose football or baseball is a toss-up, but either way he's ticketed for stardom
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April 11, 1983

Would He Rather Be A Unitas Or A Mantle?

Whether John Elway will choose football or baseball is a toss-up, but either way he's ticketed for stardom

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The most desirable hunk of flesh to go on the scales in the professional sports marketplace in many a year is Stanford's 6'3", 205-pound John Elway. As a quarterback he has such a keen intuitive understanding of football that he's said to possess a sixth sense, and he'll be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft on April 26. If he signs with a team in that league, it will undoubtedly be for the largest contract ever given an NFL rookie—possibly the largest ever given any NFL player. But Elway's a baseball player, too, with a longbow of an arm and a propensity for hitting fastballs on a line to distant places, and those talents could get him a contract commensurate with the size of George Steinbrenner's pocket-book. The New York Yankees owner has the baseball rights to Elway, and he has already paid him upwards of $140,000 for playing six weeks of Class A for the Oneonta, N.Y. Yankees in 1982.

The Yankees will make an all-out pitch for Elway's services late this week, the period they've chosen for a formal presentation. How high will they go? "The money isn't an issue," says Steinbrenner. "Never has been with us."

In the eyes of the prospective bidders, at least, as Elway debates which way to go, John the quarterback and John the outfielder appear to be about athletic equals. And he has done nothing to indicate that his liking for the two games is anything other than equal.

"I love to take two steps into a fly ball and then hum it home, just let it fly and watch it move," Elway says. "There's no feeling like that. But then, throwing a football is a tougher release, a much harder thing to do." As he speaks he's taking in the spring vista around Stanford Stadium, his home football field during a career in which he set five NCAA and 17 Pac-10 passing records, despite playing for a team that not once in his four years received a bowl bid. "I'll just let them all do the wheeling and dealing and then I'll decide," he says. "I know I can be happy either way. I won't look back."

Elway flashes his toothy, triangular grin. With aqua eyes and a mop of blondish hair, he is handsome in the California style. But he looks even better with a helmet on, which is no insult. Framed by a face mask, his eyes bespeak the acuity that gives him an immediate grasp of a developing play.

"I first saw that vision when he was young, playing basketball. He could see everything on the court," says his father, Jack, who's in his fifth year as head coach at San Jose State and was himself a quarterback as a freshman at Washington State in 1949. "I was always the first to quit, in whatever we played. God, he was fun. As he grew older, I thought, 'Is he as good as I think he is?' "

He was that good. Young Elway isn't made up, dreamed up, trumped up or otherwise overblown. He's the legitimate article, the McCoy, and his timing is perfect. At 22, an economics major who will earn his degree in May with a 3.0 average, he can't miss.

Says Steinbrenner, "I put an old scout, Dutch Dotterer, on John [Dotterer's grandson, Mike, is also a major league prospect, as an outfielder, and played in the same football backfield with Elway at Stanford]. Dutch reported he has an outstanding arm, is a fine defensive player, will hit with power and is a great competitor. He's rated a definite. I see a lot of Mickey Mantle in him.

"We invited John to our Fort Lauderdale training camp last spring. He got into the batting cage for the first time, and [Batting Coach] Mickey Vernon told him to bunt one down the third-base line. He did. Told him to hit behind the runner, between first and second. He did. Same for second and third. Then he told him to hit it out of the park. He did."

NFL men are no less admiring. Dick Steinberg, the New England Patriots' personnel director, says Elway has "no flaws." Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys' personnel chief, says if he had Joe Montana, Dan Fouts and Danny White on his team, he'd still pick Elway No. 1.

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