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The Phoenix Of Palo Alto
Ron Fimrite
November 16, 1981
From the ruins of the Stanford season rises John Elway—the quarterback the pros covet most
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November 16, 1981

The Phoenix Of Palo Alto

From the ruins of the Stanford season rises John Elway—the quarterback the pros covet most

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What's that? If he plays professional football? With NFL scouts forming entire rooting sections and with big bucks being squirreled away to entice him, what could keep Elway from playing pro football? The New York Yankees could. The Yanks signed Elway to a most peculiar contract immediately after Stanford's second game this season, the loss to San Jose State. Under its terms, Elway will play for a six-figure salary next summer, after the school term, for the Class-A Oneonta (N.Y.) team. In doing so he will lose his football scholarship, but, under current NCAA rules, no football eligibility. He will no longer be able to play baseball for Stanford, because the rules do prohibit a student from playing the same sport professionally and in college. This could even prove to be a boon for Wiggin and the football staff, for Elway will now be free to devote his attention to spring football exclusively. Freedom from the double dose of college baseball and spring football—one Saturday, Elway completed 65% of his passes in a morning football scrimmage and went 3 for 4 against USC in the afternoon—will permit him to, as he puts it, "act more like a college student and not like a guy running from one field to another every day." The Yankees, in brief, will provide him with "a nice summer job."

The Yankees are gambling, of course. Elway has told them that, as of now, he prefers playing professional football, so they have no real assurance of signing him to a longer-term contract when his college eligibility has expired. They are also gambling that he will not be seriously injured playing college football, and they will soon be involved in what could be a multimillion-dollar bidding war with whatever NFL team drafts him. By signing him for this year, the Yankees are simply preserving their draft rights and ensuring that they will be the only major league team that can sign him. Had they not signed him by the end of September after drafting him in the second round when he turned 21, Elway, in the words of a Yankee spokesman, "would've gone back in the hopper." Is the estimated $140,000 they will be paying him for six weeks or so of minor league baseball worth it? The Yankees think so.

For a youngster who spends most of his time throwing footballs, Elway is a remarkable baseball player. In his last two seasons at Granada Hills High near Los Angeles, he batted .551 and .491 and was voted the Southern California CIF Baseball Player of the Year his senior year. Although he had already committed himself to attending Stanford, the Kansas City Royals drafted him in the 18th round after high school. He had a disappointing (.269) freshman season but came back this past spring to hit .361 with nine homers and 50 RBIs in 49 games. In the NCAA Central Regionals he hit .444 and was voted onto the all-tournament team. He is a polished right-fielder with, naturally, a powerful arm.

"If he played nine months of the year instead of three or four, there is no telling how good he could be," says Stanford Baseball Coach Mark Marquess. "It's significant that he really starts playing well toward the end of the season, in the pressure games. He's a true clutch performer. It's incredible to me that he can play football and baseball at the same time. He'd have football practice in the morning, miss batting practice, then tear the cover off the ball in the game. He's just an amazingly gifted athlete...and he's got that cannon for an arm."

A lefthand hitter with power, Elway is "made for Yankee Stadium," says Bill Bergesch, Yankee vice-president for baseball operations, who made three recruiting trips to Stanford and watched nervously as the San Jose State team abused his prize prospect, sacking him seven times. "We project him as a superstar. He's got everything a scout looks for—he's big and strong, he can run, he can hit and hit with power, and he's got that strong arm. We see him as our right-fielder down the road. Unfortunately, we are also aware he has some talent in football."

The Yankees, says Bergesch, realize they are playing a long shot, but they are counting on the glamour and tradition that come with a pinstripe uniform to win him over. "We'll take him to our training camp during his spring vacation," says Bergesch. "Our eyes are open. We know how important football is to him. It's the glamour sport in college. But we'll have the chance to show him what a career in baseball can be like. He'll meet some of our star players. We wouldn't take this gamble if we didn't think we could sign him. And we're not hurting Stanford at all. I know one thing, whatever pro football team drafts him had better know that the Yankees will be there. We're not bowing out of this thing lightly. We'll be there."

Elway's negotiator in his dealings with the Yankees and his closest confidant in all things is his father. Jack, 50. Theirs is a father-son relationship abounding in mutual respect and admiration. It is a relationship marred, however, by an accident of fate: Jack Elway is the head football coach at San Jose State, which is 15 miles south on Highway 101 from Palo Alto and is a traditional Stanford football opponent. The annual meetings between the son's and the father's football teams are an excruciatingly painful experience for the entire Elway family, which includes wife-mother Janet and daughters-sisters Lee Ann and Jana. "The season begins for all of us," says Jana, John's twin, "after that game." "It's hard on the whole family," says John, "particularly my mother. It's Dad's job, after all, and the family has always been centered around him. This thing is a whole lot worse for us than people think."

Jack Elway's 28-year coaching career began at the high school level in his native state of Washington. After four years as an assistant at Washington State he became head coach at Cal State-Northridge at the time his son blossomed as a high school football hero. In December of 1978, Jack accepted the San Jose job.

Son John graduated from Granada Hills High the following June and was enthusiastically recruited by 65 colleges, including Stanford, Notre Dame, USC, Washington and...San Jose State. Jack Elway had privately tutored his son but had never coached him at any level (he may finally get his chance as coach of the West team in the January, 1983 East-West Shrine Game at Stanford), and like many fathers who are also coaches, he scrupulously refused to interfere with any of John's coaches. Only once did he speak up on his son's behalf, and that only after an assistant coach in high school had struck the 16-year-old during practice. "I told that guy he could apologize now or meet me outside and get the bleep kicked out of him, or he could wait until John turned 21 and have him kick the bleep out of him. He apologized."

John had developed a yearning to play in the Pac-10 during his father's years at Washington State. The move to California made him more a fan of Stanford, the quarterback's school, than of USC, the tailback's school. "He'd had his heart set on the Pac-10 since he was 12," said Jack one recent afternoon before his own football practice. "And I knew that. Stanford was always his first choice. The only advice I gave him was to go to a school that was solid academically [John is majoring in Economics] and that had quality coaches. I told him when the time came he should make his own decision and never look back. He's done that and he's happy and I'm proud of him."

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