For the season Elway finished as the 17th-rated passer in the 14-member AFC. He showed moments of genius along the way—in the Baltimore rematch he rallied the Broncos from a 19-0 deficit by throwing three fourth-quarter TDs for a 21-19 win—but mostly he just looked bewildered.
"He wasn't ready," says Reeves. "The biggest problem was the language. It was like somebody learning Spanish and passing all the classroom tests and then going to Mexico, and all of a sudden it's coming at you so fast, you don't know what's going on."
Elway's failure was inevitable. Nobody could have lived up to his advance billing, especially with a team that had gone 2-7 the year before. "The expectation for John was perfection or nothing," recalls kicker Rich Karlis. "He had to lead us to the Super Bowl and be All-Pro, or he was dog meat."
And the failing nearly unhinged Elway. "All of a sudden there were no weaknesses on defense," he says, thinking back. "In college 15-yard cushions on receivers are common. But in the pros, unless the other team blows a coverage, nobody is going to be wide open."
Elway never completely lost his confidence, but his frustration grew to the point that he and Reeves had open shouting matches on the sidelines. "It was my fault," says Reeves. "I was just too inexperienced. John wasn't ready. There was no way I could prepare him for all the things they threw at him that year."
The two now are the best of friends, bound as much by the trauma of Elway's rookie year as by the team's current success. In fact, the pain of that first season may have been a blessing for the young quarterback. Elway was single at the time, and he frequently called Janet, his college flame who was living in Seattle, to discuss his woes. She heard the depression in his voice but says now that it wouldn't have helped if she had been living with him that year as Mrs. Elway. "Either way, he was going to have to go through what he did by himself," she says. Elway agrees. "The hard times made me stronger and helped me appreciate things more," he says.
There is a stack of mail by Elway's stool, and he picks up an envelope and opens it. It's a telegram from George Raveling, the basketball coach at USC. From sixth to ninth grade Elway, who was born in Port Angeles, Wash., attended Raveling's summer camp at Washington State, where Raveling was coaching at the time. The telegram reads: Dear Shotgun: Congratulations on your great season. Best of luck in the Super Bowl. I still think you should have played basketball.
Elway is such a superb athlete that if the word "natural" weren't already in the dictionary, somebody would have to invent it just for him. "He's good at golf; he's even good at cards," says Broncos guard Keith Bishop. "He remembers all the cards, so I don't play with him."
At 6'3", 210 pounds, Elway is strong, heady and, of course, possessed of a wondrous right arm. He is even moderately fast (a 4.74 for the 40 being his best time), though he admits he gets away from would-be tacklers mostly with "quick feet." The only skill Elway apparently lacks is great leaping ability; indeed, he cannot dunk a basketball. "White man's disease," he shrugs.
Clearly, though, he has chosen the right sport. The way he engineered "the Drive," the 98-yard march to tie the score in the final minutes of the AFC Championship Game in Cleveland, is proof enough of that. "He's got the mobility of Fran Tarkenton and the arm of Joe Namath," said Philadelphia Eagles coach Buddy Ryan after the game. "It was the best drive I've ever seen," said former Denver quarterback Craig Morton. "He's the only quarterback I've ever seen who could have pulled that off."