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"I've given 110 percent on every play. I always want to win, no matter what it takes."
John Elway never quit, even when the odds were against his team, the Denver Broncos. During his sixteen-year career, he led the team to numerous remarkable fourth quarter come-from-behind victories, and in the process, quarterbacked the Broncos to four Super Bowl games as well as six American Football Conference (AFC) championship games. Elway holds the regular season record for most wins by a starting quarterback with 148, was the only signal-caller to start five Super Bowls, and was only the second quarterback in National Football League (NFL) history to pass for more than 50,000 yards in his career. Elway captured the league's ultimate prize when he led the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl titles in 1998 and 1999, gaining Super Bowl Most Valuable Player honors on the way to his second championship. After missing only fifteen starts in sixteen seasons, Elway retired from the sport in May 1999, the winningest—and perhaps toughest—quarterback of all time, with 148 victories.
John Albert Elway (along with his twin sister, Jana) was born June 28, 1960, in Port Angeles, Washington. His dad, Jack, was a college football coach, and moved with his family from job to job. When he was a kid Elway's favorite sport was baseball. "I remember Dad was a very hard worker, but when there was time for us to be together, it was always quality time," Elway told the Orlando Sentinel. "We'd go out and have batting practice, and those times were very special. Sometimes I'd be [Yankees's great] Mickey Mantle, and other times I'd be [former Giants's star] Willie Mays. It changed every day." A natural right-handed hitter, Elway was encouraged by his dad to practice left-handed hitting as well.
Elway batted over .500 playing baseball at Granada Hills High School in Los Angeles, California. He led the school to two city football championships and as a senior in 1979, passed for 1,837 yards, 19 touchdowns, and was the most highly sought player in the country by major colleges. He credits his football ability to his dad, who taught him how to run and throw. "He had enormous confidence," his high school coach Jack Neumeier told the Los Angeles Daily News. "I don't think I ever coached a competitor like John Elway." In addition to athletics, Elway was a straight-A student.
Elway eventually decided to attend Stanford University, where he played on both the football and baseball teams. In his four seasons at Stanford, he threw 77 touchdown passes, was a two-time All-American selection, broke five National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) records, and finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting in 1983 to Herschel Walker of the University of Georgia. (The Heisman Trophy is awarded annually to the best college football player.) Though Elway quit playing college baseball in his sophomore year, the New York Yankees signed him to play in the minor leagues, where he batted .318. "It was enjoyable," he told the Akron Beacon Journal. "I found out what pro baseball was all about—and maybe I could have made it."
Colts no, Broncos yes
Elway almost got the chance to make baseball his full-time career. In April 1983 the Baltimore Colts, who had finished last among the NFL's 28 clubs the season before, made him the first pick of the draft. Elway who had asked the Colts not to draft him, did not like their coach, Frank Kush, and wanted to play in the West. After the draft he considered giving up football to sign a long-term deal with the Yankees. A week later, the frustrated Colts traded Elway to the Denver Broncos for two first-round draft picks and quarterback Mark Herrmann. Before he played one down, Elway signed a contract that made him the second-highest paid quarterback in football.
Tough rookie year
His rookie year was tough and Elway struggled to meet the high expectations of the team and the fans. He was taken out in each of his first two starts, replaced by veteran Steve DeBerg, and suffered a sprained elbow, making it difficult for him to pass. But Denver coach Dan Reeves stuck with his rookie, and Elway improved enough that season to lead the Broncos to a 9-7 record. His statistics were not impressive: seven touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, with less than half of his passes completed. Fans began to boo when Elway took the field. "That was the first time I realized there were people who hated me," he told the Boston Globe. "I just felt terrible. I'd come in and everyone thought I was supposed to walk on water. A young kid is entitled to make mistakes in college but, at this level, you're not entitled to do that."
Elway's playing improved in 1984, and Reeves traded DeBerg—a move designed to show Elway that the quarterback job was his. He responded by completing 56 percent of his passes, throwing for 18 touchdowns, and leading the Broncos to a 13-3 record and the AFC West division title. Denver lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 24-17, in the first round of the playoffs, but the Broncos had proven they were a team on the rise.
In 1985 Elway became one of the NFL's top young quarterbacks. He was second in the NFL in completions (327) and passing yards (3,891). He led all AFC quarterbacks in rushing for the second straight year and led the NFL in total yards (passing and rushing yards combined). He threw for more than 250 yards seven times. He had a four-touchdown game, three three-touchdown games, two two-touchdown games, and finished the season with 22 touchdown passes. The Broncos won 11 games, but did not make the playoffs. As quarterback, Elway took most of the blame from the fans.
In 1986 though Elway's statistics were not the best, he ranked 11th among NFL starting quarterbacks and threw for 3,485 yards and 19 touchdowns. More importantly, he inspired his teammates who won 11 games and the AFC Western division. The Broncos defeated the New England Patriots, 22-17, in the first round of the playoffs. In the AFC Championship game against the Cleveland Browns Elway was a standout. The Broncos trailed the Browns 20-13 and had the ball on their own three-yard line with just 5:32 left to play. Elway, bothered by an injured ankle but showing great control under intense pressure, led the Broncos downfield in what became known as "The Drive." A five-yard pass from Elway to Mark Jackson tied the score, and the Broncos won the game, 23-20, in overtime.
"The Drive ranks as one of the historic events of football history," wrote Sports Illustrated. "It was movie stuff—Elway picking apart a loose Cleveland defense like a master locksmith opening a vault." The victory over the Browns put the Broncos into Super Bowl XXI, where they played the New York Giants—a team that had gone 14-2 during the regular season. Denver won the first half, 10-9, but after halftime the Giants took command, outscoring Denver 30-10 on their way to a 39-20 victory.
Back to the bowl
In 1987 Elway led the Broncos to another AFC Western division title, with Denver earning a 10-4-1 record in a season interrupted by a player's strike. In only 12 games, Elway threw for 3,198 yards and 19 touchdowns. He passed for two touchdowns and ran for one more as the Broncos defeated the Houston Oilers 34-10 in the first round of the playoffs. For the second year in a row Elway crushed the Cleveland Browns's Super Bowl hopes in the AFC Championship game, leading the Broncos to an exciting 38-33 win. Elway threw for 281 yards and three touchdowns. But that was the end of the line for Denver, as they lost 42-10 in the Super Bowl to the Washington Redskins, with Elway throwing three interceptions.
Denver missed the playoffs in 1988, but came back in 1989 to post an 11-5 record and win the AFC Western division. Elway led the Broncos to another come-from-behind victory in the first round of the playoffs. Trailing 23-17 in the fourth quarter, the Broncos marched downfield to score the winning touchdown in a 24-23 victory. The Broncos defeated the Cleveland Browns 37-21 in the AFC Championship game for the third time in four years. Elway threw for 385 yards and three touchdowns in the game.
In the Super Bowl, the Broncos met Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers, who were going for their fourth Super Bowl win. They got it, routing Denver 55-10. Elway had perhaps the worst game of his career, throwing for only 108 yards and two interceptions. Afterward, he was asked what it meant to have been blown out of three Super Bowls in four years. "It means we've lost three times, nothing more," Elway told Sports Illustrated. "Can I win the big one? I think I can. Will we be back? I like to think so. Only when I give up will I be a loser."
The Broncos fell to 5-11 in 1990, the first losing record of Elway's career. Things went so badly that a local radio disc jockey sat outside on a billboard until the Broncos won a game. He sat up there for six straight weeks. But in 1991 Denver won 11 games and were once again the AFC Western division champions. With Denver trailing in the fourth quarter, Elway made another legendary comeback, leading the Broncos to a 26-24 victory over the Houston Oilers. For the first time in his career, though, Elway could not lead his team to victory in the AFC Championship game. The Buffalo Bills defeated Denver 10-7 with Elway throwing for only 121 yards.
During the 1992 season there were hard feelings between Elway and coach Reeves. Elway, who was coming off shoulder surgery, accused Reeves of being too tough on the players and not using Elway's skill to its best advantage. Elway felt he wasn't allowed to throw enough, and that his statistics were not as impressive as they could be because of Reeves's conservative offense that stressed a strong running game instead. After an 8-8 season, during which Elway missed four straight games with an injury, Reeves was fired and replaced by defensive coach Wade Phillips. The new coach put in place a new offense, signed two quality offensive linemen, and convinced Elway to sign a new contract with the Broncos.
In 1993 with the team's new offense in place, Elway had his best individual season ever. He led the NFL with 4,030 yards passing, led the AFC with 25 touchdowns, had only 10 interceptions, was the highest rated quarterback in the AFC, and was named the starting quarterback for the AFC in the Pro Bowl (all-star) game. "I wish I'd been able to run this offense my whole career," Elway told Sport. "This offense is perfect for me." Denver finished 9-7, but lost in the first round of the playoffs 42-24 to the Los Angeles Raiders. Despite the loss, Elway was happy with his season.
The Broncos struggled in 1994. They lost their first four games and fell out of playoff contention. Elway finished the season with 3490 yards, 16 touchdowns, and a 62.1 completion percentage. Denver finished the year 7-9 and Coach Phillips was fired at the end of the season. He was replaced by Mike Shanahan from the San Francisco 49ers.
The West Coast offense installed by Shanahan—who had been an assistant for seven years in Denver—excited Elway. "For a quarterback it's like dying and going to heaven," he said. "I feel like I'm starting over again. This offense will bring out the best in me." Elway entered the 1995 season at the age of 35, the fourth-oldest starting quarterback in the NFL.
The Broncos failed to make the playoffs again in 1995, but several pieces were put into place that would lead to future success. The team discovered a gem when sixth-round draft pick Terrell Davis from the University of Georgia ran for 1117 yards. Davis finally gave Elway a running threat to take some of the offensive pressure off of his shoulders.
With a legitimate running threat, Elway compiled some of the best statistics of his career in 1995. He passed for 3970 yards and 29 touchdowns and had only 14 passes intercepted. The Broncos had the highest-ranked offense in the AFC. Denver rewarded Elway with a new five-year, $29.5 million contract.
The Broncos put it all together in 1996, earning the NFL's best record at 13-3. Davis became a superstar and Elway enjoyed being able to hand the ball off more than he had in previous years. During the season the veteran signal-caller joined Fran Tarkenton as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to accumulate more than 40,000 yards passing and 3000 yards rushing. Denver's regular-season success had Elway thinking championship. "Winning the Super Bowl is always No. 1," he admitted. "You'd like to be known as being able to win the big one."
Denver's first playoff opponent was the Jacksonville Jaguars, an expansion team appearing in the postseason for the first time. In one of the biggest upsets in NFL history, Jacksonville defeated the Broncos, 30-27, at Mile High Stadium. The Jaguars were led by quarterback Mark Brunell, who claimed that Elway was his childhood idol. "It stings," a disappointed Elway admitted. "After everything we've done all year to get in the position where we were and not take advantage of it, that's what is disappointing. Time heals a lot of wounds, but this is as disappointed as I've been." Elway completed 25 of 38 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns.
One more time
Elway turned 37 before the 1997 season began and it seemed his career may be coming to an end. In a preseason game he tore a tendon in his throwing arm. Miraculously, the injury healed and Elway said his arm felt better than ever. "I'm like a little kid again," he revealed. "It doesn't hurt to throw. It's great."
In 1997 Elway went out and played like a kid, throwing for 3635 yards and 27 touchdowns. By the end of the season he had established some remarkable records. In his fifteen years in Denver, Elway had thrown for 48,669 yards (second all-time) and 278 touchdowns (fifth all-time) and had accumulated 51,982 total yards from scrimmage (second all-time). He had led the Broncos to 45 fourth-quarter comebacks and was the all-time leading starting quarterback in games won.
The Broncos qualified for the playoffs as a wild-card team with a 12-4 record, finishing second in the AFC West Division behind the Kansas City Chiefs. Denver's first-round playoff opponent was once again the Jaguars, but this time the Bronco's did not take them lightly. Elway and his teammates got revenge with a 42-17 victory over Jacksonville. "I guess it's nice to get that little monkey off our backs," Elway admitted.
Denver now had to travel to Kansas City to face their arch-rival, the Chiefs. The game was a defensive struggle, but in the end the Broncos had survived, 14-10. Elway played a controlled game, completing 10 of 17 passes for 170 yards in the face of intense pressure.
Now Elway stood one game away from his fourth Super Bowl appearance, but the Broncos would have to defeat the Steelers in Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game to reach that goal. The game featured a showdown between the veteran Elway and first-year starter Kordell Stewart of the Steelers. In the end, experience won out, as Denver captured a 24-21 win. Elway completed 18 of 31 passes for 210 yards and two touchdowns, while Stewart threw three interceptions and lost a fumble. "This is as good a football team as I've been on," Elway said after the win. "And we're playing our best football of the season. Hopefully we've saved the best for last."
Denver became only the fourth wild-card team in NFL history to earn a spot in the Super Bowl, and only one of those teams, the 1983 Oakland Raiders, had won the championship. That Oakland team was also the last AFC squad to win the Super Bowl. Very few experts expected Denver to break the conference's losing streak against the powerful defending champion Green Bay Packers.
Elway knew that getting to the Super Bowl was not good enough. "I'm not happy about getting back to the Super Bowl, because I've been there before," he said. "I want to win it. I'm not satisfied yet. If we can win that next one, then I'll be satisfied."
Super Bowl XXXII—played at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California—was one of the best of all-time. The two teams were evenly matched and each played their best games. The Broncos relied heavily on Davis to carry the load, and he gained 157 yards despite missing time with a migraine headache. Elway stayed cool under pressure, completing 12 of 22 passes for only 123 yards.
Denver took the lead, 31-24, late in the game, but Green Bay mounted one last drive. On fourth down, Broncos' linebacker John Mobley swatted away Brett Favre's desperation pass and Denver sealed the victory. Despite not accumulation great statistics, Elway played well enough for his team to win. "Other than my wife and four kids, I don't know if there's anything better than this," Elway gushed. "I can't even believe it. We finally got it done and that's really neat. This was the ultimate win. You wonder if you're going to run out of years. But fortunately I hung on."
Drive to repeat
After months of indecision, Elway finally decided to return to the Broncos for the 1998 season. "The bottom line is, I wasn't ready to quit competing," he explained. "I could not imagine having a year where I was just sitting around and not doing anything being relatively young."
The Broncos started out fast and soon posed a threat to become the first team in NFL history to complete a regular season undefeated since the 1972 Miami Dolphins. During one of those victories—against the Oakland Raiders—Elway became only the second quarterback in NFL history to pass for more than 50,000 yards in his career. (Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins is the other.)
Denver's 13-game season-opening winning streak came to an end against the New York Giants, who defeated the Broncos by a score of 20-16, and the Broncos finished the season 14-2 record. Elway—who missed all or parts of three games with injuries—passed for 2,806 yards and 22 touchdowns. He also increased his NFL-record total of regular-season games won by a starting quarterback to 150.
The Broncos defeated the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets to reach their second-straight Super Bowl. There they faced the NFC Champion, Atlanta Falcons, a team coached by former Denver coach Dan Reeves. Elway set a new record by starting his fifth Super Bowl game at quarterback and at 38 was the oldest starting signal-caller in the history of the big game.
The Falcons set their defense to stop the Broncos rushing attack, so Elway took over. He completed 18 of 29 passes for 336 yards and 1 touchdown on his way to winning the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award as he led his team to a 34-19 victory. Elway's 80 yard pass to wide receiver Rod Smith gave Denver a 17-6 lead in the second quarter, and the veteran quarterback also scored a touchdown himself on a one-yard run.
Winning the MVP was a thrill for Elway. "It is unbelievable," said Elway. "Something I had never done. I mean, it definitely hit my heart because it was a great thrill. And to be able to help the team out to win today it was great."
Elway did not want to discuss whether the Super Bowl would be his last NFL game. "I'm not even going to talk about that," he explained. "I'm just going to enjoy this win. I'm thrilled to death with this win, and I will cross that bridge later on."
Plagued by injuries and certain to have knee replacement surgery, Elway announced his retirement in May 1999. "It's been great," he's reported as saying in the New York Times. "It was a tough decision to make. I really don't look at it like it's retirement. It's a graduation." Elway ended his career with 51,475 passing yards (second in NFL history), 4,123 completions (second in NFL history), 300 touchdown passes (third in NFL history), 7,250 passing attempts (second), and twelve 3,000-yard passing seasons (second). He also threw one touchdown pass in his appearance at the NFL Pro Bowl all-star game (his ninth) in February 1999.
Off the field
Now that he's retired, Elway plans to spend more time with his wife, Linda, who had been critically ill with cancer in 1998, and their children, Jessica, Jordan, Julianna, and Jack. Following his first Super Bowl win, Elway's high school named its stadium after him. In 1997 Elway sold his chain of automobile dealerships for an estimated $82.5 million. He and his wife operate the Elway Foundation, which works to prevent child abuse.
Gale Document Number: EJ2108100725