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As a former Bishop of Baltimore, I have come to admire the choice John Elway made.
—J. FRANCIS STAFFORD
Thank you, Your Excellency. We would expect as much from a man whose business is forgiveness and who, not coincidentally, happens to root for the Denver Broncos.
But what about those hard-luck Baltimoreans who felt that John Elway, leader of the famed "Class of '83" (the quarterback equivalent of the Bloomsbury group), had spat on their city when he said he would rather play minor league baseball than pro football in Baltimore? The Colts took his threat seriously. They chose Elway first in the 1983 draft, then traded him to Denver for tackle Chris Hinton, backup quarterback Mark Herrmann and Denver's first-round pick in 1984 (who turned out to be Ron Solt, a guard from Maryland). A lot of people resented Elway for forcing the Colts' hand.
"Baltimore," says Elway now, addressing the entire city from a stool in the Broncos' locker room, "I'm sorry."
He packs ice on his sore left ankle, injured three weeks ago against the Patriots, and shakes his head. "I never should have said I wouldn't play in Baltimore. I really regret that. What I meant was the Colts' organization. I'd never even been to Baltimore. I had nothing against the city. I just didn't want to play for the owner. Robert Irsay, or the coach, Frank Kush. Kush was a military type. I wouldn't even take a recruiting trip to Arizona State when he was the coach there."
In fact, Kush lasted just one more season with the Colts, and Irsay's midnight defection to Indianapolis should have wised up at least some of Elway's Baltimore detractors. Still, Elway is genuinely pained by the way he has been perceived since entering the NFL, and this being Super Bowl Hype Time, he would love to do some image polishing. "I hope people can get to know what I'm really like," he says. "I have the image of being a spoiled brat, and I hate it."
What he really is, says Elway, is "a private, fun-loving, family man." He and wife Janet have one child, 14-month-old Jessica, and another baby is due this spring.
The Broncos quarterback was hurt in the beginning by comments by such critics as former Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw ("He ought to grow up and pay his dues") and a sort of vague public impression that Elway just looked*** like a smart aleck. He had that blond hair and those big white teeth, and he always seemed to be half-smiling. Some people were irritated by his too-good-to-be-true background—No. 1 prep quarterback in America, minor league baseball player for one summer in the Yankees organization (.318 average, team-leading 24 RBIs for Class A Oneonta), two-time All-America QB at snooty Stanford, owner of five NCAA Division I-A records and nine major Pac-10 records, and son of a successful football coach (how fair was that?). Furthermore, Elway's five-year, $5 million contract made him the highest-paid player in the NFL—and a lot of people were eager to see him fail.
At first, they got their wish. Elway started the Broncos' first game of 1983, against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, and completed just one of eight passes for 14 yards. He was sacked four times and intercepted once before bruising his elbow and departing in favor of veteran Steve DeBerg. The next week Elway started again, at Baltimore, where the fans were laying for him, and again he looked lost. "You could not hear anything in that stadium," says Denver coach Dan Reeves. "I've never seen anybody treated like that. He couldn't even tell the players the play in the huddle. It was horrible."