Considered by some to be the greatest modern American football player, John Elway (born 1960) played in the position of quarterback for the Denver Broncos for 16 years, leading his team to two consecutive Super Bowl wins before retiring in 1999.
Born to Play Ball
John Elway was born in Port Angeles, Washington, on June 28, 1960. His twin sister, Jana, was born 11 minutes after him, and they joined their older sister, Lee Ann, who had been born 18 months beforehand. Elway's father, Jack, made a living as a college football coach, and he encouraged his children to be athletic from an early age. Elway's family fostered healthy competition among the siblings and they got along well; in later years, Elway recalled that playing with his sisters as a boy formed some of his happiest memories. Jack Elway remembered that the twins shared a special bond, even before they could walk or talk, "jabbering at each other in that special language twins have," quoted Michael BeDan in the Rocky Mountain News.
Even as a baby, Elway seemed naturally inclined to play, and when he was old enough to get on his feet, he wore out an average of a pair of sneakers every month. His sister Lee Ann remembered that his competitive spirit sometimes got in the way of having a good time while playing with him. "I love John a lot," she told Adam Schefter in the Denver Post, "But it wasn't always fun playing with him because he took everything so seriously. He was just so competitive, even back then."
Meanwhile, Elway's father taught him how to play baseball in the back yard. He recognized that his son had a talent, and he aimed to nurture it. While Elway's sisters went on skiing trips, his father made him stay home for fear that he would injure himself seriously before he had a chance to play competitive sports. Until he was in the fourth grade, Elway played baseball and basketball. Then, before he entered fifth grade, his parents allowed him to play football, and there his true talent shined. In his very first game, he ran circles around the opposing team's members, scoring four touchdowns by himself. A basketball coach who was present at the game remarked to Jack Elway, as reported Adam Schefter in the Denver Post, "Either every kid on that field is the worst football player I've ever seen or your boy is the greatest player I've ever seen."
The family moved a great deal while Elway was growing up, as his father traveled from one college coaching position to another. Leaving Port Angeles, the family next settled in Missoula, Montana, then headed back to Washington state to live in the town of Pullman, Washington, before finally settling for good in Southern California.
Recruited by 65 Different Colleges
The young Elway learned plenty about the game of football by watching the games that his father coached at Montana State, Washington State, and California State University at Northridge. Elway often acted as ball boy for these games, and he got a chance to see a great many games up close. A star player on his high school football team, Elway attracted the attention of college athletics recruiters, eventually being courted by no less than 65 different schools. He also played high school baseball, leading the team to the Los Angeles City championship. His outstanding performance on the baseball team attracted the attention of scouts for the Kansas City Royals baseball team, which selected him for the summer draft in 1979. Elway decidedly settled on college at Stanford University, in Stanford, California. At Stanford, he immediately established a reputation as being one of the best football players in the history of the school.
Highlights of Elway's college football career included setting five major NCAA Division 1-A records, as well as nine major Pac-10 records. Of his 1,243 college career passes, Elway completed a record 774, or 62.1 percent, traveling 9,349 yards to make 77 touchdown passes. Elway also found the time to play baseball with the New York Yankees' Oneonta single-A farm team. He played his last baseball season in his second year at Stanford. Elway's twin sister, Jana, also attended college at Stanford University, where she played tennis for the school team. She went on to become a professional tennis instructor.
Became a Top Player for the Denver Broncos
Elway became an All-American college football star at Stanford before graduating in 1983 with a degree in economics. He was the number one draft pick among professional football teams in the National Football League (NFL) and proceeded to become a quarterback for the Denver Broncos. He would hold this position for his entire professional football career.
Elway quickly distinguished himself as one of the best players on the Broncos' team. In 1985, he shattered the Broncos single-season record for attempts (605), completions (327), passing yards (3,891), and more. In 1986, Elway led the Broncos to their first American Football Conference (AFC) Championship in almost ten years. In 1987, Elway was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player (MVP) and was named to the Sporting News All-NFL team. He was also named the Colorado Pro Athlete of the Year by the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame and was voted the Broncos' offensive MVP. Playing in Super Bowl XXII, he made history by becoming the first quarterback in a Super Bowl to catch a pass.
The beginning of 1989 saw Elway at his second Super Bowl in which he scored the only touchdown made by his team. In spite of a persistent shoulder injury, Elway led his team in touchdowns in 1991, with a then career high of six. In the 1992 off-season, he had his shoulder injury corrected by arthroscopic surgery. In the 1992 regular season, Elway was back in action and better than ever throwing the longest touchdown pass of his career, 80 yards.
In 1993, Elway was named AFC MVP by the NFL Players Association, as well as AFC Offensive Player of the Year by United Press International (UPI) and AFC Player of the Year by Football News. Also this year he was named to the all-AFC team by UPI and Football News, as well as second team all-NFL by the Associated Press, College and Pro Football Weekly, and Football Digest. In 1995, Elway scored 26 touchdowns, made 14 interceptions, and threw for more than 300 yards five separate times—all career bests for him. His 26 touchdowns also set a record for the Broncos. He repeated this performance in 1996 with 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Also in 1996, he set Broncos records for most games played (192) and most consecutive games scoring touchdown passes (15).
Recognition for Elway's achievements came yet again in 1997, when he received the NFL Players Association Mackey Award as the best quarterback in the AFC. Also in 1997, Elway helped the Broncos' offense become the best in the NFL for the second season in a row.
Playing with the Broncos, Elway became famous for dramatic, last-minute game-winning scores. He also topped the NFL by making first place in the history of the league in victories by a starting quarterback, first in rushing attempts by a quarterback.
During his 16 years with the Broncos, Elway played in five Super Bowls, the final two of which, Super Bowl XXXII and Super Bowl XXXIII, his team won. Also during his career with the Broncos, Elway became only the second player in NFL history to throw for over 50,000 yards, and he topped the NFL in victories for a starting quarterback and in rushing attempts by a quarterback.
During the height of his popularity, Elway was an internationally recognized star: he regularly stopped to sign autographs wherever he went, including Europe and Asia. He took to wearing sunglasses while out in public and walking with his head down in an effort not to be recognized. He also had to change his telephone number every month or so to avoid getting thousands of telephone calls.
Retired as a Top Player in the NFL
Looking ahead to his retirement from football, Elway opened an automobile dealership in the Denver area in the 1990s. This business grew to include seven auto franchises by the turn of the century. He also became an active philanthropist, donating time and money to victims of child abuse and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Elway decided to retire in 1999, after two Super Bowl wins in a row and 16 years as a Broncos quarterback.
Immediately following Elway's retirement announcement, the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame Committee waved its usual five-year waiting time after a player retires from the team to induct Elway into the Ring of Fame. The purpose of the Ring of Fame is to honor Broncos players and administrators who have made outstanding contributions to the team. The committee also retired Elway's jersey number, seven, making him the third player in Broncos history to have his number retired. Elway was inducted and his number retired in a halftime ceremony at Mile High Stadium in Colorado on September 13, 1999.
In March 2001, Elway sold most of his stake in his chain of auto dealerships, earning $82.5 million for the sale. Uneasy in retirement, Elway, at 42 years old, wasn't ready to turn to a life of leisure. "I didn't really know what to do," he told Sports Illustrated 's Josh Elliott. "I was searching for something, and that was pretty tough." He found his answer in the form of a part ownership stake in an Arena Football League (AFL) team called the Colorado Crush. The team, which intendeed to begin regularly scheduled games in 2003, gave Elway the spirit of competition and the role in a business for which he had been searching. Best of all, it allowed Elway to stay in the game of football.
Bowed by Tragedy
Elway's happiness was soon dampened by tragedy. Elway's father, Jack, died of a heart attack in April 2001. The two were very close; Elway considered his father his best friend, and Jack was the earliest supporter of Elway's football career. Elway blamed part of his father's illness on stress brought on by news that Elway's twin sister, Jana, had been diagnosed with lung cancer.
Tragedy again struck the Elway family in 2002. In July, his twin sister, Jana Elway-Sever, who had become a school teacher in San Jose, California, died after a two-year battle with lung cancer. She was 42 years old. She had been seriously ill at the time of Jack Elway's death the previous year, although she had managed to attend the funeral service.
Learned that Winning Is Not Everything
As if the deaths of Elway's father and sister had not brought enough heartache, his wife Janet moved out soon after Jana's death, taking the couple's four children with her. Elway and Janet had been married 18 years. It was a wakeup call for the football star, who realized that the pressures of his football career, and his later career as a businessperson, had stressed his family life to the breaking point.
Elway learned to shift his priorities, making more time for his family. He began to go to Janet's rented house when she was not home to pull weeds from her garden. He sent her roses every week and took the kids out for shopping trips and other excursions—things he had not done in earlier years. Responding to Elway's attentions, Janet and the kids moved back in with him within a month. Elway told Sports Illustrated 's Rick Reilly soon afterwards that his shift in attitude was permanent. "I'm trying to do things … that aren't necessarily about achieving. I want to put my family first from now on."
Denver Post, November 28, 1996; May 12, 1999; July 25, 2002.
Rocky Mountain News, July 25, 2002.
Sports Illustrated, June 24, 2002; August 19, 2002..
"John Elway," NFL.com, http://www.nfl.com (March 11, 2003). □