ANAHEIM — “John?”
“Can I get two minut–“
“Excuse me. You’ll have to get John in the press conference.”
“This way, John.”
“Where we goin’?”
“Over here, big room.”
“Not now, guys, John’s got a press conference.”
“Right there, stupid!”
“Oooh . . . “
“We are from Japan.”
“John, let’s go.”
“Sorry, guys I–“
“This way, John.”
“Hey, John, four o’clock, today?”
“Guys, he has a press conference.
“This way, John.”
“Go! . . . “
Go. This way. That way. Lead the way. The impossible he does right now, miracles might take a little longer. Isn’t that John Elway’s calling card here at Super Bowl XXI? Rarely has there been one player so tied to his team’s fortunes in this biggest of big football games. Elway or no way. The media have circled him alone from the Broncos’ roster photo. Heck, even his own teammates are saying that unless he is super they don’t have a chance.
Ask him whether he cares.
“I can’t get real caught up with that,” said the quarterback, shrugging off the question as if it were a would- be tackler. “Whether they say I have to have a great game or not, it doesn’t matter. I figure I have to play my part and so does everybody else.”
That’s true. It’s just that his part has all the lines. It is not because of the miraculous 98-yard drive he engineered against Cleveland in the final minutes to force an eventual overtime victory in the AFC championship. That was just to get your attention. He is The Force in Denver’s galaxy, and as much as any Bronco he seems, at 26, to be at the Super Bowl for a different calling.
He is meeting his destiny.
Remember, this is the son of a football coach, a specimen, as they say, 6-feet-3, 212 pounds, big hands, arm like a slingshot. He has been a football star since his loose-leaf notebook days. A guy who in high school threw a 75-yard touchdown pass, had it called back on a penalty, then did it again on the next play. A guy who could have been a baseball hero with the Yankees, a guy with enough moxie to tell the Baltimore Colts to take a hike after they drafted him, and who, from his first day in Denver, faced about the same expectations as the animals had of Noah.
So why let a little thing like Super Bowl pressure get him down? Why, indeed? The truth is, he has wandered through this whole weird week with squinting eyes that seem slightly amused, and a slow loping walk that is the kinetic of all high school football players — all the cool ones anyhow — a sort of heel-to-toe, hands-dug-in-your-pockets thing.
“Aren’t you sick of all the media attention by now?” he was asked.
“No, I told myself I was going to enjoy this week. It’s been pretty enjoyable so far.”
“Are you bothered by your team being nine-point underdogs?”
“Nah, it takes all the pressure off of us. We can just go out there and cut loose. Everybody expects us to lose anyhow.”
“Are you nervous?”
He fields the questions in a slouch, like a kid who needs to be told to get his feet off the table. Parts of John Elway seem to have never grown up. The overbite, the yuk-yuk laugh. Just as well, for he plays a kid’s game like a kid, to the point of spookiness. During that 98-yard drive against Cleveland — with the country watching and a potential $36,000 per Bronco riding on it — his teammates recall that he smiled in the huddle between plays.
Yes. For it seems that it has never been for John Elway to live up to greatness, but rather for him to come down to it. “When he first started out he was too pumped up,” said his coach, Dan Reeves. “He’d want to win so bad he’d force things.” Everyone knows Elway can heave a ball 80 yards in the air, on target. His receivers have all worn the “Elway Cross” — a skin mark made when the ball accidentally gets through their hands and hits them in the chest.
“Guy dislocated three of my fingers in one game,” said Vance Johnson, the Broncos’ fastest receiver. “And that was in warm- ups.”
Can he run? Can he read defenses? Good Lord. He is a football warehouse. Need a part? He’s got it, and he’s using it.
Only the intangibles now, the leadership, the confidence, the amalgamation of all that glorious talent that remains as he sleds down the learning curve.
Don’t bother with all the Broncos’ records he already has set in his four years for completions and passes and rushing — which he does as effectively as many halfbacks in the league. “The big difference with him now is he is relaxed out there,” Reeves said.
How far has he come? Early in his career he was in a two- minute drill against San Diego when, in his excitement, he lined up behind the guard instead of the center.
He reached down for the hike. “What are you doing?” asked the startled guard.
“Oops,” Elway said.
That’s how far he has come.
So, how’s he doing in the week of his life? Just fine so far. The papers have cast the Giants’ Phil Simms as the “lunch-pail” quarterback and Elway as the “executive” version.
“I got a kick out of reading that,” Elway said, “because I consider myself very ordinary.”
Swell. Nobody else does. As far as the press and the fans are concerned, the other Giants and Broncos arrived by airplane. Elway rode in on Pegasus.
But so much for everyone else. Elway, his way. He has handled the merry-go-round here as steadily as a porcelain bronco. The rest of us are getting dizzy from the ride. He is the ride.
“See you guys tomorrow,” he said after 30 minutes of non-stop press-conference questions. He gets six steps into that lazy athletic gait, and, boom, those three Japanese TV reporters encircle him. Roll tape. Action. Ask about Japan. Ask about his ankle. Ask about anything.
“What . . . is . . . game . . . point?”
“The point spread?”
“You mean the points?”
“He mean key point.”
“The . . . I’m sorry, what?”
“Yes. Key point of game.”
“Oh, key point of game. OK. Uh, I’d say whoever makes less mistakes.”
“How many touchdowns you make?”
“How many?” He laughs. “I don’t know. I’m hoping four or five.”
“Yes. And finally, do you have message for Japanese peep- pole?”
The Japanese people. This is a question he has not heard 30 times yet. Rise to the occasion, John. Lead the way, John.
“A message to Japan. . . . ” he repeated. Got it. He lifted a warning finger at the camera and looked dead into its glass eye. “Root for the Denver Broncos this Sunday! . . .
” . . . the guys in white.” CUTLINE The Broncos’ hopes will be riding on John Elway’s strong arm Sunday. “I figure I have to play my part and so does everybody else,” he said.