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100 Things Broncos Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die
By Brian Howell
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 Brian Howell
All rights reserved.
The circus came to Denver in the spring of 1983.
People all around town wanted a front-row seat. The press analyzed it from every angle. Denver had never seen such a show, even if it was a one-man production.
May 2, 1983, was the day John Elway became a Denver Bronco. From that day forward, Denver and the Broncos haven't been the same.
"The team was fairly anonymous, and the No.1 overall pick in the NFL Draft decides that he will play for the Denver Broncos," said Tom Jackson, a former teammate and current analyst at ESPN. "He comes to the Broncos and he brings legitimacy."
As a franchise, the Broncos were already 23 years old when Elway arrived. They had been to a Super Bowl. They had the Orange Crush defense. They had seen several great players don the orange and blue.
Elway's arrival was different.
"We had a lot of good things that had happened to us, but John legitimized us in many, many ways," Jackson said. "Making us legit as a football team and as an organization probably meant more than any other one thing that happened to us."
Now, nearly 30 years after Elway's arrival in Denver and more than a dozen years after he threw his last pass, nobody disputes that Elway was the best player in franchise history and the greatest athlete in the history of Colorado sports. "The Duke of Denver," as he became known, played his last game on January 31, 1999, yet he is still the most recognizable and beloved athlete in Colorado. His No. 7 jersey is worn all around the state, no matter the time of year.
"John Elway is the greatest of us all," said former Broncos great Floyd Little, who, like Elway, is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
During Elway's career, from 1983 to 1998, he led the Broncos to two Super Bowl wins, became the first quarterback to start in five Super Bowls, made the Pro Bowl nine times, won an NFL Most Valuable Player award (in 1987), and engineered 47 game-winning or game-tying drives. His 148 wins as a starter rank second in NFL history to Brett Favre (186). Through the 2011 season, he ranked among the top five in NFL history in completions (fourth, 4,123), passing attempts (third, 7,250), passing yards (fourth, 51,475), and touchdown passes (tied for fifth, 300). Elway is the only starting quarterback in league history to win the Super Bowl in his final game.
"It culminates with back-to-back Super Bowl wins, which really put an exclamation mark behind everything that he did," Jackson said. "But there's nothing more important that ever happened to this organization than John Elway coming and playing for the Broncos."
It all started in 1983. He was the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft that season — but many forget that he was taken by the Baltimore Colts. After refusing to play for the Colts, Elway was traded to Denver (more on that deal later).
Through 2012, there had been 31 quarterbacks who were taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. Few ever came into the league with as much hype as Elway. He always seemed destined for greatness. Born in Port Angeles, Washington, his father, Jack, was a football coach who made a name for himself at the high school level before a successful career as a college head coach, most notably at San Jose State and Stanford University. Elway was a star baseball player and quarterback at Granada Hills (California) High School and was the most highly recruited prep quarterback in the country in 1979.
He went on to Stanford, where he became an All-American and etched his name all over the NCAA and Pac–10 Conference record books. He threw for 9,349 yards and 77 touchdowns for the Cardinals, finishing second in the 1982 Heisman Trophy race (Georgia running back Herschel Walker won the award).
Elway was also a star on the baseball diamond and actually earned his first money as a pro athlete in baseball. Out of high school, he was selected in the 18 round of the draft by the Kansas City Royals but chose not to sign. In 1981, he was a second-round pick of the New York Yankees (selected ahead of future baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn). Elway signed with the Yankees and, in 1982, played for their Single A team in Oneonta, New York.
Despite his prowess on the baseball diamond, there was no question Elway's future was in football.
"All you had to do was watch the film on him and you could tell he was going to be a great quarterback," said Dan Reeves, the Broncos head coach from 1981 to 1992. "What you didn't know was what kind of work ethic he had and everything else, and that showed up very quickly."
The Denver faithful knew something special was on the horizon when the Elway trade was announced. For a franchise and a city that had to live through the not-so-memorable quarterbacking of Mickey Slaughter, Jacky Lee, John McCormick, Max Choboian, Steve Tensi, and more, Elway was an instant celebrity. Even his veteran teammates took notice.
"We went out to watch him throw mini camp probably a couple weeks after that," Jackson said. "We all came to watch him throw, and I know that somewhere in the conversation was, 'We're going to the Super Bowl. We're going to be going to multiple Super Bowls.' The kid could throw like nobody's business. I had just never seen anything like it."
Sammy Winder, who was in his second year as a Broncos running back in 1983, said, "That was the first time I had ever been a part of anything on that level. He was in that fishbowl and everybody was watching him. The good thing about it, he turned out to be the quarterback that all the hype was about. But that first year, with the media and attention and all that he got, if you wanted to be in the paper, be somewhere with John."
For Denver fans, Elway was something they had never seen. To that point, the best quarterbacks in franchise history — Frank Tripucka, Charley Johnson, and Craig Morton — all came to the Broncos as veterans with only a few years left in their tanks. Elway was young, supertalented and, God willing, he would be there a while. Denver's media rode the wave of the hype. During training camp, both Denver newspapers, the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News, ran daily updates on what Elway was doing — on the field and off.
Veteran Steve DeBerg was the incumbent starter and he had five years of NFL experience under his belt. He wasn't Elway, though, and when DeBerg was introduced as the starter for the preseason — yes preseason! — opener against Seattle on August 5, 1983, the 53,887 fans at Mile High Stadium actually booed. When Elway came into the game in the second half, he executed a 10-play touchdown march on his first drive, completing five of six passes along the way.
Elway's accomplishments in college and his tremendous skill earned him instant respect from his teammates. That preseason opener aside, though, it took a little while for the results to show up.
Reeves named Elway the starter coming out of training camp, but Elway wasn't ready. He completed one of eight passes for 14 yards and an interception in the opener at Pittsburgh before being pulled for DeBerg. Elway started the first five games, but in four of them he was relieved by DeBerg. Through those five games, Elway threw one touchdown pass and five interceptions. "He struggled early because I really started him probably before he was comfortable with the terminology [of the offense]," Reeves said.
Reeves benched Elway for several games, just so his young quarterback could sit back and observe. "When he came back after I had let Steve DeBerg play, John kind of had time to learn the offense," Reeves said. When all was said and done, Elway's rookie year was certainly nothing to brag about. He completed just 47.5 percent of his passes, with seven touchdowns and 14 interceptions. On one play that year, he lined up behind left guard Tom Glassic to take the snap; after a few seconds, Glassic turned around and motioned Elway toward the center. Elway took a lot of heat for his troubles, but former Broncos quarterback Craig Morton, who retired before the 1983 season, said it made Elway better.
"He had to go through all the learning steps," Morton said. "He paid he price. It did not come easy for him. He took all the shit that he could take. When you're that great, you just tone it out. You don't read what your critics are saying. He was destined to be the greatest. If you come out of it, you're going to be great. If you don't, you'll be like a lot of them that can't do it, and you're not going to win anything. You've got to take a lot of crap to be successful."
As disappointing as Elway's rookie year turned out to be, that season also provided the first glimpse into what was to come. In Game 15 of that season, the Broncos played host to the Colts. The team that Elway spurned jumped to a 19–0 lead after three quarters. In the fourth quarter, Elway threw salt on the wound by tossing three touchdown passes, the last with just 44 seconds left, to lead the Broncos to a 21–19 win. It was the first of his legendary comeback wins. "That's when you knew you had something special," Reeves said. "It didn't take long to figure out you were going to have a chance in every ballgame you were in."
In 1984, the Broncos went 13–3, including 12–2 in Elway's starts. He led them to three fourth- quarter comebacks as they won the AFC West division. Then he started all 16 games in 1985, going 11–5 with six more comebacks.
"That first year, he just wasn't sure what he was going to call and what he was going to do at times," Winder said. "To a certain degree, he had to earn some respect. As an athlete and as a passer, he got that respect from the first day of camp. After that, becoming a team leader and someone we looked up to, certainly he had to go out and produce and earn that. It took him a couple years before he really got it down, before he stepped into the huddle with confidence, in my opinion. I think at that time is when he started telling people what they do on this play and things of that nature. He gained more and more respect."
With each win, the Broncos could tell Elway was a special player. He led them to a Super Bowl in his fourth year and again in his fifth. Then he took them to another in his seventh season. During those years, he never had a star running back or a Pro Bowl receiver on his side, but he willed the Broncos to success. During his career, he accomplished at least one fourth-quarter comeback in each of his 16 seasons.
"You never knew what was going to happen," said linebacker Karl Mecklenburg, who was a rookie with Elway in 1983 and played with him through 1994. "He would scramble around and throw the ball across the field and do some crazy stuff, but he was a special guy. He lived for that [final] two minutes. When you get in the two-minute drill, then John is calling the plays. Everything changed, and I know he lived for that. He loved that opportunity, and that's where his real competitive nature was able to come out. Those were huge.
"As a defensive player, it allowed us to do things we probably couldn't do either, normally. On a lot of teams if you get behind, it's over. With our team, we were able to take chances. We were able to overload situations, we were able to blitz more, we were able to do a lot of things that could come back and bite you, but with John there, we had a comfort level that as long as we kept it close [until] the end of the game, we had a chance."
What Elway did as a player was special. He had a rocket for an arm and still owns just about every significant passing record in Broncos history. He also had exceptional athletic ability that allowed him to get out of trouble and make plays with his feet. He rushed for 3,407 yards and 33 touchdowns.
In the postseason, he won 14 of his 21 starts, compiling 5,425 yards in total offense and accounting for 33 touchdowns in those games.
Through it all, Elway was a mega-star. Denver had never seen anything like him. Neither had the people of Tokyo. The Broncos played an exhibition game there one year, and Elway was the man.
"We arrived [for a practice] and I was on the team bus," said KOA Radio's Larry Zimmer, who called Broncos games for 26 seasons. "There were, I would say, 400 to 500 young little Japanese kids. When the buses pulled up they were just chanting, 'Elway! Elway! Elway! Elway!' John was just engulfed by these kids when he got off the bus."
By the time Elway arrived in Denver, Jackson had been with the Broncos for a decade, already helping them to a Super Bowl. Elway's arrival gave Jackson something he had never seen before, too.
"There was a point at which Elway was leaving the stadium after a game his rookie year, and he was surrounded by 10 or 12 police officers just getting out of the stadium and to his car," Jackson said. "I remember thinking at the time, Oh my goodness, he's one of those athletes. It's the moment I realized he truly is a superstar, even though to know John, I think the reason we all didn't realize it is that he was so unassuming in the role of superstardom. He probably handled it as well as anybody I've ever known. He really did make us feel like he was just another guy on the team doing his job, but his job obviously was more important than anybody else's."
His down-to-earth personality was a big part of what made Elway so popular among his teammates. Mecklenburg said Elway hated when the team was introduced as "John Elway and the Broncos." Elway lifted weights with his offensive linemen and ran sprints with his wide receivers. On different days, he would eat lunch with different position groups, just to get to know the players on a personal level, including the names of their wives and kids. In turn, they got to know him.
"He wanted to be at everything," Mecklenburg said. "He's a superstar, and he didn't have to show up to everything. He showed up at every single team function and was as dedicated to winning as anybody I've ever met. He willed it to happen and really was a great leader in so many different ways. I've got great respect for John."
Fans embraced Elway for the same reasons. He was not only a great player, but he took time out for the fans when he could. Jim Saccomano, the Broncos' vice president of corporate communications, tells a story of the Broncos being on the road in New Jersey. Elway was riding in the elevator when the door opened and a new bride walked in. A wedding was going on at the hotel and the excited bride, recognizing Elway, told him how much her new husband would love to meet him. Elway politely declined, saying he had meetings to get to. After the bride got off the elevator, Elway felt regretful, and he went out of his way to find the wedding party and meet the groom.
Zimmer tells another story of a preseason game in Indianapolis. The rest of the team headed to the stadium for a walkthrough, but Elway and Zimmer stayed back to do a pregame interview. When they were done, they started to walk to the stadium together.
"We come out and there was a kid waiting on the loading dock," Zimmer said. "He had obviously watched all the players file out and he didn't see Elway, so he waited. He wanted John's autograph. John gives him the autograph and puts his arm around him and said, 'Do you want something to eat?' The kid hesitated and John said, 'Oh, come on with me. The team is going to have lunch. You can come have lunch with me.'
"He is a very humble person. He never did let celebrity go to his head."
Elway's life has been a remarkable journey since that day he became a Bronco in 1983. As a player, he enjoyed tremendous success and went through trials, including painful Super Bowl defeats and a well-publicized feud with Reeves.
His personal life has also included highs and lows. He and his wife, Janet, raised four children in Denver before divorcing after his playing days. His father, Jack, was by his side throughout his life and literally by his side at the end of his career. Jack worked as a Broncos scout from 1993 to 1999. Jack passed away at the age of 69 in 2001, shortly before John's twin sister, Jana, passed away from lung cancer in 2002.
Excerpted from 100 Things Broncos Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die by Brian Howell. Copyright © 2012 Brian Howell. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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