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The Rain was pouring down early Monday morning as John Elway stepped onto the balcony of his Fort Lauderdale hotel room and let out a resounding roar that reverberated eight stories below. Elway had just played the game of his life in Super Bowl XXXIII, throwing for 336 yards and a touchdown to earn MVP honors in the Denver Broncos' 34-19 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. With water splashing on his face, a Cuban cigar in his left hand and an American beer in his right, Elway looked and felt like the king of the world. His broad grin reflected a victory that went beyond a second consecutive NFL championship. Challenged to a duel by his former boss and tormentor, Atlanta coach Dan Reeves, the 38-year-old gunslinger displayed his grit, slaying not only the Falcons but also his remaining demons in what was probably the last game of his Hall of Fame career.
"I never thought it could get any better than last year, but just look at this scene," Elway said, gesturing toward the revelers who had gathered at the entrance to the team's hotel. "You couldn't have planned it more perfectly—no wind during the game, warm weather, a full moon—and now it pours, like a great, big release. I never, ever thought I would be the Super Bowl MVP."
Elway drew on his cigar and flicked some ashes into the rain. The man has always had a flair for the fantastic finish. Had he retired after last season, when he won his first Super Bowl in four tries despite a lukewarm performance against the Green Bay Packers, Elway's finale would have been heartwarming. If Sunday's game was indeed his last, he will have gone out in a blaze of glory. "All week long, all the Falcons talked about was stopping our running game," Elway said, his eyes hardening. "I knew they were saying, 'Make Elway beat us.' My thought was, Good, let's go. I was so motivated, it wasn't even funny."
There was plenty of comedy during the week leading up to American sports' gaudiest spectacle, from the spiked dog collar Atlanta cornerback Ray Buchanan wore on media day, to the insults he exchanged with Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe, to the embarrassing arrest of Falcons free safety Eugene Robinson for soliciting oral sex from an undercover police officer on the eve of the game (THE LIFE OF REILLY, page 118), to the legions of jokes made at Robinson's expense on Sunday. Despite Elway's stellar play, which robbed this showdown of much of its suspense, Super Bowl XXXIII will be remembered for its off-field drama.
Most football fans are well versed in the contentious history involving Reeves, Elway and Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, but when Reeves provided the world with a refresher course during an emotional press conference 11 days before the game, it set off a war of wills he was unlikely to win. As Denver's coach, Reeves had fired Shanahan, his offensive coordinator, following the '91 season, because he believed that Shanahan was trying to undermine his relationship with Elway. (Shanahan has repeatedly denied this.) Despite acts of reconciliation among the three men over the past year, Reeves chose his Jan. 20 meeting with the media to reaffirm his view that Shanahan's work behind the scenes had cost him his job in Denver. (Reeves's contract was not renewed after the '92 season.) In the wake of Reeves's emotional comeback from quadruple-bypass surgery in December, those old wounds were reopened and the Atlanta coach came off looking like the victim again. He had no idea how victimized he was about to be.
"For Mike, this game was personal," Elway said. "I've never seen him more ready for a football game. I knew it meant more to him than any game he has ever coached."
Hell hath no fury like a genius scorned. It's hard enough to deal with a Shanahan game plan when he has two weeks to prepare—in last year's Super Bowl he exploited a flaw in the favored Packers' defense to create running room for Terrell Davis—but the enmity he felt toward Reeves kicked Shanahan's notorious intensity to an otherworldly level. Think De Niro in Taxi Driver, Pacino in The Godfather Part II and Brando in Apocalypse Now, and you're getting warm.
Four days before the game, as he rode to practice in a sport-utility vehicle, Shanahan revealed the depth of his anger toward Reeves, who went 0-3 in the Super Bowl during his 12 seasons as Denver's coach. "Dan made a point of coming up to me at the scouting combine last February, and he looked me square in the eyes and spent 20 minutes telling me how happy he was for me, John and the city of Denver that we had won the Super Bowl," Shanahan recalled. "That really got my respect, and then he asked me to play golf with him at the owners' meetings [in Orlando], and I figured it was his way of letting bygones be bygones. Then, all of a sudden, we're in the Super Bowl, and he's got a national audience, and he's accusing me of insubordination. I thought it was either a tactical move, to try to make me lose my concentration, or, well, you can figure out the rest.
"Dan talked about how getting fired hurt his family. Well, he fired a lot of assistant coaches during his time in Denver. What about the hurt he caused their families? We'll shake hands after the game—I'll shake anyone's hand in that context—but this will never be worked out."
Shanahan refuses to be outworked. "I don't think he was ever without his game plan card all week," Elway said. On Sunday, some six hours before kickoff, Shanahan was sitting in his suite watching A Night at the Roxbury with his 19-year-old son, Kyle, when he abruptly grabbed his game plan folder and ran down to Elway's room. The quarterback was watching The Rolex 24 auto race and doing breathing exercises when Shanahan interrupted. "He wanted to go over plays for specific coverages, and he could barely sit still," Elway said. "Mike's usually very calm before a game, but he was going a hundred miles an hour."