Jack removed his blue SJS baseball cap and fanned himself with it. "We, of course, were in the process of recruiting a quarterback at the time, since Ed Luther [now with the San Diego Chargers] was in his last year. I tell people that my offer to John was $2,000 under the table, a new car and a mortgage on the house. I said I would go so far as to have an affair with his mother. Still, he didn't go for it. I'm not sure she would have gone for it. I know that if I had said, 'John, come with me to San Jose,' he would've come, but that wouldn't have been fair to him. Still, there are nights, after I've had about three vodka martinis, when I'll say to myself, 'Jack, old boy, you've got to be the dumbest sumbitch in this whole world. You had the best quarterback in America sitting across the breakfast table from you and you let him get away.' "
Father and son remain each other's biggest boosters for all but one week of the year. They talk by phone or in the family home in San Jose several times a week during football season—except when San Jose is playing Stanford. Before this season's game they made a public appearance together at a football writers' luncheon in San Francisco. "I've been a fan of my dad's all my life, but when it comes down to this game, I have to be selfish," John told the reporters. "Last year, no kidding, Dad gave me San Jose's first play of the game, a quarterback draw. I told Coach Harbaugh [Stanford defensive coordinator Jack Harbaugh] what it was going to be and he said, 'Yeah, sure.' Well, it was a quarterback draw, and the coach and I just looked at each other. This year, I don't know whether I can trust the old man."
Said Jack, "Sure I'll tell him the play when I know it. That's what makes us so effective. We never know what we're doing on offense." Such jocularity masks the genuine anguish both men feel on the week they must play each other. John was significantly absent from a family gathering two nights before the San Jose game. This was the week for Elway schizophrenia. "We're all confused," said Janet Elway, a stately blonde. She hoisted the family dog, a spunky black poodle, to her lap. "Except you, Corky." She nuzzled the animal. "You don't care what happens as long as John comes home to play with you on the floor."
"The kids were all born at once—18 months apart for all three," said Jack, sipping his vodka martini. "I like to tell people I got married, had a honeymoon for 18 months and then all hell broke loose the next 18. But having the twins was quite a thrill, and all of the kids, being so close to the same age, developed a special bond. Even as little kids, I can remember John crawling on the floor by himself, then looking around to see where Jana was and crawling right over to her. And then the two of them would start jabbering at each other in that special language twins have."
"It's so strange now," said Janet. "John comes home here and sprawls all over the furniture, making a mess of things, destroying the whole house. And then I'll see him on TV, a hero. It's like he's two different people."
The only opponent to hold John to under 200 yards passing last season was San Jose State. This year, against his father's team, John suffered through the worst day of his career, completing only six of 24 passes for 72 yards, hardly a quarter's work for him on a normal outing. He threw five interceptions and was sacked the seven times, the combination of his offensive line breaking down and his own sprained ankle leaving John a virtual sitting duck. The San Jose victory was one of the most important in the school's football history and its first over Stanford in six years. For Jack Elway it was the triumph of a lifetime and, along with last year's upset of Baylor, led to speculation that more than one Elway might be joining the NFL one day.
For John, it was the low point of his young career. Janet Elway smiled and embraced her husband after the game, then, spotting her battered son, burst into tears. Jana, a San Jose junior, wore a hat that had the Stanford emblem and colors on one side and San Jose State's on the other. She didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
At the final gun John limped across the field to throw an arm around his father. They walked tearfully together out the south end of Stanford Stadium. Jack Elway drank a Pepsi with shaking hands as he met the press under the trees outside the San Jose locker room. His blitzing linebackers had given his son a terrible beating in helping Jack to his biggest win. His manner was deadly serious. "How do I feel?" He hunched his shoulders. "As a father, I'm not very goddamn happy. As a coach, I'm thrilled. I thought John showed great courage. He was obviously injured." Later, he would bitterly criticize the Stanford coaches—most of whom are his close friends—for leaving his son in the game so long when he should have been on the sidelines nursing his injured ankle. But it was John, driven by God knows what competitive forces, who had insisted upon playing in pain.
The following week, still limping, he rebounded from an indifferent first half (7 for 15 for 55 yards) against Ohio State to complete 28 of 42 for 248 yards and two touchdowns. His rival, the much-publicized Schlichter, was 16 for 32 for 240 yards and two TDs. But Schlichter, who also had an ankle injury, tailed off in the second half, while Elway rallied Stanford to near-victory.
This season's Stanford Cardinals are scarcely the touchdown-happy bunch of a year ago. Elway's best receiver in 1981, Ken Margerum, has gone to the Chicago Bears, and Tyler, his second best, has yet to play. Nelson, who ran for 1,000 yards and caught 50 passes in both his freshman and sophomore years, has been bothered by a bruised hip he suffered in the first quarter of the Purdue game, and the young offensive line isn't providing Elway with the protection he had a year ago. It all adds up to frustration, as in the Ohio State game. Elway's performance against the Buckeyes would have been even more extraordinary had his receivers not dropped at least four catchable passes, one a perfectly thrown 50-yarder which Tight End Chris Dressel muffed in the open field. With his team trailing by five points and 6:55 left in the game, Elway's ankle was reinjured. He missed one series of downs and then returned, the reincarnation of Frank Merriwell, for the final minute and 33 seconds of play. From his own 16 he completed passes of 22 yards to Eric Mullins and nine yards to Moore before dumping off a swing pass to White, who fumbled the ball away with 54 seconds left.