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Elway excelled in final minutes
By Bob Carter
Special to ESPN.com
"If people dislike me because they think I'm a spoiled brat because I get upset if I lose, that's okay with me. Because I'm all about winning. I like to win and I don't like to lose," says John Elway on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
The numbers never told John Elway's story. They built him up at times, flogged him at others. His overall statistics were impressive, but his true measure as a player ran straight to his heart.
He didn't always lead in passing statistics, but he instilled fear in opponents. A renowned scrambler, Elway led 47 winning or tying drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, more than any quarterback. "In tight situations I stop worrying about turnovers," he said. "There's no pressure. I can just cut it loose."
At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, he was always good at cutting loose, zipping the ball at unearthly speed. Critics, though, saw him as one-dimensional, devoid of the touch pass and slow to read defenses. They looked at pallid touchdown-to-interception ratios and figured his inconsistency would foil him.
They were wrong.
Elway became the first quarterback to start five Super Bowls, was selected for the Pro Bowl nine times and in 1987 was voted the NFL's Most Valuable Player by the Associated Press. By taking risks as a passer, he made plays other quarterbacks couldn't.
"Elway is the master of the inconceivable pass thrown to the unreachable spot," announcer Pat Summerall said.
Elway is the only player to amass 50,000 yards passing and 3,000 rushing. He ranks second to Dan Marino in passing yards (51,475), completions (4,123) and 3,000-yard seasons (12, tied with Brett Favre). He threw for 300 touchdowns, one of only four quarterbacks to reach this milestone.
Though his play in his first three Super Bowls was undistinguished -- two touchdowns and six interceptions -- he closed his career with an MVP performance in the 1999 Super Bowl.
He was born on June 28, 1960 in Port Angeles, Wash. His father Jack was a football coach, and John participated in several sports. After moving to the Los Angeles area, Elway starred in baseball and football at Granada Hills High School. Batting .491 as a senior, he led his team to the city baseball championship. As a quarterback, he was a prep All-American, receiving scholarship offers from 60 colleges before choosing Stanford.
While Elway never led Stanford to a bowl game in his four seasons and lost twice to his father's San Jose State team, he set Pac-10 career passing records for completions, yardage and touchdowns. Said Stanford coach Paul Wiggin: "Every team we play puts up a picture of John and says, 'That's our battle cry.' "
Elway was a consensus All-American as a senior in 1982, when he passed for 3,242 yards and 24 touchdowns and finished second to Herschel Walker in the Heisman Trophy voting.
The Baltimore Colts made Elway the No. 1 pick in the 1983 draft, but he snubbed them, saying he wanted to play elsewhere. He used baseball as leverage. After hitting .361 with 50 RBI in 49 games as a Stanford sophomore, the Yankees drafted him. In the summer of 1982, he batted .318 for their Class A team in Oneonta, N.Y.
Fearing Elway might turn to baseball, the Colts traded his rights to Denver. After signing a five-year, $5-million contract with Denver, Elway became a much admired starter. "He throws 50-yard bombs like 10-yard curls," cornerback Louis Wright marveled.
When the season began, Elway struggled. Denver finished 9-7 and made the playoffs despite Elway throwing 14 interceptions in 11 games and ranking 17th among AFC passers.
Coach Dan Reeves said he erred by starting Elway so soon. Elway, looking back, said, "All of a sudden there were no weaknesses on defense."
Though his interception rate remained high, Elway led Denver to a 13-3 record and a division title in 1984. The next year, he set multiple team records, including throwing 605 passes, four shy of Dan Fouts' NFL mark.
In 1986, Elway made his first Pro Bowl. After losing to Denver that season, Raiders cornerback Lester Hayes said,
In the AFC championship game in Cleveland, Elway did something remarkable when he took Denver on "The Drive," a tying, 98-yard, 15-play march late in the game. "It doesn't look good, stuck way back like that," Reeves said. "But when you've got John Elway on your team, you've always got a chance. Always."
The Broncos defeated Cleveland 23-20 in overtime, but then lost the Super Bowl to the New York Giants 39-20 despite Elway passing for 304 yards.
In the MVP strike-shortened season of 1987, Elway passed for 3,198 yards and 19 touchdowns in 12 games and ran for a career-high 304 yards. He became the first quarterback since Pittsburgh's Terry Bradshaw (1978-79) to lead a team to consecutive AFC titles. Denver lost to Washington 42-10 in Super Bowl XXII, though Elway passed for 257 yards.
Injuries slowed him the next fall when he threw more interceptions than touchdowns (19-17) and the Broncos missed the playoffs. His erratic play continued for much of 1989, and media criticism grew. Playing behind a rebuilt line, Elway complained that Reeves' offensive plan was turning conservative.
Elway's play improved, perhaps because he was reunited with quarterback coach Mike Shanahan at midseason, and the Broncos made their third Super Bowl appearance in four years. This time, they lost even more handily, 55-10 to San Francisco.
The defeat was a low point for Elway. Leaving the field with his wife Janet, he turned to preying photographers and said, "Can't you let a guy sulk in peace?"
The Broncos sank to 5-11 the next year, Elway's first of two losing pro seasons, and his relationship with Reeves deteriorated. The team, though, rebounded in 1991 to go 12-4 and gain the AFC title game. Reeves was fired after the Broncos went 8-8 in 1992 and replaced by Wade Phillips, who favored an offense featuring quick, short passes.
After a 10-touchdown, 17-interception performance in 1992, Elway adapted to the offense quickly and threw for a career-high 4,030 yards and 25 touchdown passes with only 10 interceptions.
Shanahan, his good friend and mentor, became head coach in 1995, and that summer Elway insisted he still had goals. "There's such a stigma about the guys who've never won it," he said. "It's not fair, but I know that's the way it is. I would love another chance."
Elway led Denver to a 13-3 record and the second round of the playoffs in 1996, then got his chance the next season when a 12-4 Broncos team (with Elway throwing for a career-best 27 touchdown passes) rode to the Super Bowl as a wild card.
Facing the defending champion Green Bay Packers, running back Terrell Davis scored three touchdowns and won the game's MVP award as Denver ended the AFC's 13-game Super Bowl slide with a 31-24 upset. A poised Elway threw for only 123 yards but ran for a key first down that ended with a spectacular pirouette as he was tackled, and a 23-yard pass that set up Davis' winning touchdown.
In January 1999, the Broncos were again in the Super Bowl, this time against Atlanta and his former coach. Reeves' game plan: Stop Davis and let Elway beat us. "My thought, 'Good, let's go,' " Elway said.
By throwing for 336 yards and one touchdown - and running for another score - Elway led Denver to a 34-19 triumph.
"I don't think there's any doubt now that he's a winner," said his father Jack.
Three months later, Elway retired at 38 after considering the decision for weeks. "The pressure's all gone," he said to his wife the next day. "I can't believe how happy I am."
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