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With 12 minutes left in the Kansas City Chief- Denver Bronco game at Mile High Stadium on Sunday, sportswriter Reggie Rivers burst through the left side of the Chiefs' line and blocked Bryan Barker's punt. The play set up Bronco quarterback John Elway's 25th career fourth-quarter game-winning drive and took participatory journalism into a new realm.
Rivers the scribe (his weekly sports column appears in a dozen newspapers) doubles as a third-year special teams player and reserve running back for the Broncos, and this was clearly the most important career move of his life. Not only did his block give the ball to Denver at the Chiefs' 11-yard line—three plays later Elway would throw a short touchdown pass to tight end Shannon Sharpe, giving the Broncos a 24-21 lead en route to a 27-21 victory—but it also provided Rivers with fodder for this weekend's column.
"I blocked that ball with my hands," the writer said in the locker room afterward. "I think the man across from me, Bennie Thompson, thought I was trying to hold him up, so he released wide. He probably thought he beat me." The ball rocketed backward off Rivers's hand, then Barker inexplicably swatted it toward his own end zone before the Chiefs' Todd McNair grabbed it and was tackled at his 11-yard line for a 47-yard loss. The play resulted in a net gain of some 80 yards in field position for the Broncos, as well as a mighty swing in momentum, and the thoughtful Rivers considered this after his shower. "I should get that as rushing yards, don't you think?" he said politely to the assembled fellow writers.
Absolutely, we all agreed. But then Elway should get a Purple Heart for the 10 years he spent directing the conservative attack of former Bronco coach Dan Reeves, taking a whupping while all of Denver waited for the last two minutes and the patented Elway Drive to Victory. The brief game-winning drive against the AFC West-leading Chiefs was the first for Elway in the year 1 A.D. (after Dan), and it was sweet for two reasons. One, it showed that Elway could work his come-from-behind magic under easygoing first-year coach Wade Phillips; and two, it "silenced the critics who said I couldn't do this, couldn't do that," said Elway.
Just what "this" and "that" are is unclear, though the answer undoubtedly has something to do with the fact that Elway has gone to the Super Bowl three times without winning, and that even his "touch" passes sometimes leave sinkholes in his receivers' chests. It is Elway's desire to be appreciated for being the great tactical quarterback that he is, not just as an "athlete" running around in a dither and hurling last-second, cross-field missiles for improbable and ultimately irrelevant wins. Indeed, the 33-year-old Elway is thriving as never before, in Phillips's West Coast offense, an attack that allows the quarterback to mix runs and passes in a creative fashion, much as Elway did in the offense he steered at Stanford in 1982 under guru Jim Fassel, who is now Denver's offensive coordinator. Elway's 22 touchdown passes are the most in the AFC this year, and they equal his previous high for a season. But above all he is overjoyed to be free of Reeves's heavy yoke. "We're going to open it up from Play One," he crowed at spring minicamp.
All this is courtesy of Phillips, Denver's former defensive coordinator and a man with a resemblance to the young Captain Kangaroo. "When I took over," Phillips says, "I said that Elway was on a par with guys like Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, and they were throwing 25 touchdowns a year while he was throwing 10."
Sunday's outing was a good test of Elway's mettle, for the game was a critical one. A loss would leave the Broncos' record at 7-6, three games behind the Chiefs, and would probably knock them out of the playoffs. A win would keep them in line for a wild-card berth. The Chiefs, 9-3 going into the game—tied for the best in the NFL—had been looking tough, with a 5-0 mark against AFC West opponents. Moreover, this was the game in which the aging and fragile Joe Montana would be making his debut as a Chief at Mile High.
A major concern in the Kansas City camp was that Montana, who had already missed 25 quarters this season with wrist and leg injuries, would not hold up in the face of the Broncos' blitzing defense. What's the difference between Montana and a dollar bill? went the local gag. A dollar will give you four quarters. When 37-year-old Kansas City kicker Nick Lowery bumped a speedy Seattle Seahawk returner out-of-bounds on Dec. 5, Montana, also 37, had jokingly accused Lowery of "overtraining."
"Yes," answered Lowery. "But I didn't pull a hamstring."
Touch� More troubling, however, was the bundle of oh-fers the Chiefs carried with them to Denver. Not only was Kansas City winless at Mile High Stadium over the last decade, but coach Marty Schottenheimer was also oh for six there if you took his 4� years with the Cleveland Browns into account. Furthermore, Montana, the three-time Super Bowl MVP as a San Francisco 49er, was oh for two in Denver. Was there a jinx? "I don't believe in jinxes," said Schottenheimer.