"I've learned a lot this year," Elway, ever cheerful, says. "You learn more from losing, I think. Your patience sure gets tested, for one thing. And I've learned self-control. I've learned to deal with frustration. It's a new situation for me—losing. It demonstrates how much the quarterback depends on the people around him. I'm determined to finish this season on a winning note. Then we'll come out fired up for next year."
Stanford's dismal showing has in no way cooled the ardor professional scouts feel for the quarterback. "I've been in this business 20 years, and I'd have to say that Elway is the best I've ever seen," says Tony Razzano, director of college scouting for the 49ers. "At this point, that is. He's the best junior I've ever seen. And sometimes when a player doesn't seem to have the accompaniment he might, you can't let it bother you that they're 2-7. You can't really say Elway hasn't produced." When relatively healthy, as he was last week against Oregon State, Elway vindicates his backers. Playing only 2½ quarters of the 63-9 win, Elway completed 15 of 20 passes for 245 yards and three touchdowns.
"Elway's got everything going for him, no negatives to speak of," says Tom Braatz, director of player personnel for the Falcons. "His possibilities are unlimited," says Gil Brandt, the Cowboys' head of personnel development. "He's an outstanding athlete, with the kind of physical ability that could make a Bert Jones-or a Terry Bradshaw-type of quarterback." Of the injuries and the losses Brandt says, "With all that, with the physical abilities he has, if he were a senior he'd still be the first guy picked in the draft."
College coaches speak of him as if he were discovered in the bullrushes. After he threw for three touchdowns (and ran for another) in Stanford's stunning 31-14 upset of Oklahoma in Norman last season, Sooner Coach Barry Switzer said, "John Elway put on the greatest exhibition of quarterback play and passing I've ever seen on this field." When asked to compare Elway with Ohio State's Art Schlichter, UCLA Coach Terry Donahue said, "It's like comparing apples and oranges. If you ask me who I'd least like to face, it's John Elway." Speculating on Elway's future in professional football, Stanford Coach Paul Wiggin, himself a former Stanford All-America and All-Pro defensive end with the Browns, said, "He's a franchise, an automatic. I played with John Brodie here at Stanford, and John was one of the truly great players in the game, but as a sophomore, at the same stage of development, he couldn't compare with John Elway."
The first week he stepped on a practice field as a freshman in 1979, Elway scared off two top quarterback prospects, Babe Laufenberg and Grayson Rogers, who quickly transferred to other schools—Laufenberg to Indiana, by way of Pierce Junior College in L.A., Rogers to the University of the Pacific—and both have started at quarterback. Turk Schonert, a senior then, now with the Cincinnati Bengals, who had patiently waited his turn through the Guy Benjamin (49ers) and Steve Dils (Vikings) eras, was almost equally threatened by the freshman flamethrower. "Turk felt the pressure, no question," says Fassel. Schonert merely led the nation in passing that year. He almost had to in order to stave off Elway. "If you can play ahead of John Elway," says Fassel, "you're a great quarterback, and I don't care if you are a senior and he is only a freshman."
Andre Tyler, a brilliant Stanford split end who has missed every game this year because of a broken foot, has played with Benjamin, Dils and Schonert and Elway. "I don't think any of the others could be rated with John," he says. "He is clearly in a class by himself.
"The difference is in the raw physical talent, the ability to throw the ball. Steve, Guy, Turk and Jim Plunkett all worked out here with receivers this summer, and not one of them wanted to throw after John. There are situations in a game when most quarterbacks would not be physically able to even think about doing what Elway does routinely. You can be surrounded by defenders, and John will get the ball to you. He can throw that hard and that accurately. He throws so hard that it was a problem for us receivers at first. He was throwing the ball twice as fast as anyone I'd ever seen. It was the difference between catching a 90-mile-an-hour fastball and a changeup. He could throw it on a line for 40, 50 yards, and he could throw it 85 yards if he had to. For a while the coaches debated whether to ask him to soften up. Finally they came to us and said, 'We're not going to ask John to change. It's up to you to adjust. He's our man.' We adjusted. We learned to concentrate on the ball more, to secure it before we took off."
Wiggin invites skeptics to stand behind his quarterback at practice and observe the awesome projectiles firsthand. "I've been standing behind quarterbacks all my life," he says, "and I've never seen anyone who can make it happen the way this kid does." Elway warms up, lofting lazy spirals to his receivers; then, gradually, he cranks up to full velocity. In the end there is just a flick of the wrist and the ball is there, yards away. The receivers, cold at first, drop passes by the dozen. "The old theory that if you can touch it you can catch it goes out the window with John," says Fassel. In time the receivers adjust, and Elway is hitting them with fastballs from 30 to 40 yards out, the ball fairly whistling as it leaves his right hand. It's an eye-opening spectacle. Elway throws footballs the way Nolan Ryan throws baseballs. Wiggin shrugs, smiling an I-told-you-so smile.
No other college or university, not even Notre Dame, has produced more quality T-formation quarterbacks than Stanford. It is a tradition of excellence that began in 1940 with Frankie Albert, the first of the modern-day T quarterbacks, and continued through Brodie, Plunkett, Benjamin, Dils and Schonert. Sprinkled in among these illuminati were some lesser-knowns who also had exceptional careers: Gary Kerkorian, Bobby Garrett, Dick Norman (who in 1959 completed 34 of 39 passes for 401 yards against California), Dave Lewis, Mike Boryla and Don Bunce, all of whom went on to play professional football.
Stanford immortals peer down at the current aspirants from photographs that hang on almost every inch of wall space in the snug athletic-department building. No quarterback who has ever played in Palo Alto has escaped the subtle pressure applied by these ghosts. But in his junior season, Elway has moved into second place in touchdown passes (48) behind Plunkett, and into third place in passing yardage (5,635) and completions (474) behind Plunkett and Benjamin. Barring further injury, and if he continues at his current pace Elway should finish at the top of the list in every significant Stanford passing statistic, including Plunkett's imposing 7,544 total yards. Then, if he plays professional football, he will take aim at the accomplishments of his Stanford predecessors—Albert's 29 TD passes in 1948, Brodie's 30 touchdown passes in 1965 and 31,548 yards gained passing and Plunkett's 1981 Super Bowl championship.