SAN DIEGO — Let’s face it, John Elway is probably not going to win this Super Bowl, either. Not his fault. Just bad luck. His Broncos were beaten in his first try
— “We were in the game until halftime, and then the Giants dominated us,” he recalls — and they were beaten in his second try — “The Redskins dominated us in the second quarter,” he recalls — and they were beaten in his third try
— “The 49ers dominated us before kickoff,” he recalls.

And now this. Sunday. The Green Bay Packers. Great. He gets to go against the defending Super Bowl champions, a brutal defense and an all-world quarterback. You couldn’t blame the guy for wondering who keeps playing this cruel trick, sending him off to war with his shoes tied together.

But here’s the thing. Don’t feel sorry for John Elway. He doesn’t want your sympathy. It is a measure of his talent as a player that, even in defeat, he has destroyed this stereotype — that you must win a title to be considered one of the great players of your time.

Jim Kelly was a victim of that. His legend would have been complete had he won a Super Bowl. Instead, it’s semi-baked. Same for Dan Marino, who, despite tools of the gods, still has a big question mark for making just one failed Super Bowl appearance in 15 seasons.

Not so Elway. He may have gray peppering his shaggy hair now, and crow’s-feet lining his oft-tanned skin, and yes, he may indeed have lost three whoppers on Super Sunday. But his heroics in the final moments of so many games, his wicked arm, and his clear and unquestioned leadership on the field have earned him a loser’s pardon, a sort of champion-without-portfolio status.

“I’ll tell you what’s different about John from other quarterbacks,” says Willie Green, the former Lions receiver who now catches passes for Denver.
“He’s the boss. He’s not only the boss in the huddle, he’s the boss outside of the huddle. He knows everyone on that team, every single guy, and he knows what it takes to get them going. When he’s talking to you, he’s really talking to you. And you listen.”

Such was the case in the recent AFC championship, against Pittsburgh, where on third-and-six, late in the game, the Broncos needed a first down to ensure the victory. Elway, now 37, called a new play in the huddle, and as it broke, tight end Shannon Sharpe was confused.

“What should I do?” he yelled back to Elway.

“Just get open!” Elway yelled.

Yes, sir. Sharpe did, Elway rifled the ball into his hands, and the Broncos were headed to the Super Bowl.

Again.

From whiz kid to superstar

Now, everyone thinks he knows a lot about John Elway, mostly because Elway has been around so long, and because — and this is strange for these days in sports — he has been in one place the entire time.

So people rattle off his accomplishments, which is sort of like reading first place across the charts. The all-time leader in victories for a quarterback. The all-time leader in quarterback rushes. The all-time leader in fourth-quarter game-winning drives. More than 50,000 yards in his career, blah, blah, blah….

Statistics. After a while, they pile up like leaves. Other things about Elway are lesser understood. For instance, people always thought of him as a California kid, but he grew up mostly in Washington and Montana. They probably don’t know that he must sleep with the TV on, that he chugs Pepto-Bismol. They probably thought his fourth-quarter heroics were a professional trademark, but as a junior in high school, he marched his team in the final seconds, threw a 15-yard TD pass to win the game, had it called back for a holding penalty, and, on the next play, threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to win the game.

Folks in East Lansing might be interested to know that one of the first witnesses of Elway’s talent was Jud Heathcote, the former Spartans basketball coach, who, at the time, was coaching at Montana. He happened to be watching a game in the Montana Grizzly League when a fourth-grader named John Elway — a fourth-grader? — playing his first game of organized football, ran over the other kids and scored four touchdowns in the first half.

“What did I miss?” asked Jack Elway, a friend of Jud’s, who arrived late for his son’s game.

“Well,” Jud said, “either every kid on that field is the worst football player ever, or your boy is the greatest player I’ve ever seen.”

In time, many pundits came to feel the same way. Many of them are here at this Super Bowl. Many will say that Elway is the best ever, and given a choice between the three-time MVP, Brett Favre, and the much older Elway, they would still take the man in orange.

And why not? Elway already lives that way. He cannot go anywhere. His mere presence in a restaurant is enough to shut the place down from crowds. He walks with his head down and sunglasses covering his eyes, and it isn’t because he has a movie star affectation.

“It’s not easy to get gas, go get doughnuts, get coffee,” he says when asked to address life in that spotlight. “You’re not allowed to be in a bad mood. There are times that you just don’t want to talk.

“Probably the hardest thing is having kids. You can’t go where your kids want to go. When you go to those places, there are usually other kids, and once they see you, what were their toys becomes secondary to me — I become the toy.”

His last chance?

So he lives as if he’s the greatest, and he’s treated as if he’s the greatest, and his numbers suggest he’s the greatest; all that’s left is to do the greatest thing in the greatest game, and win.

And it probably won’t happen.

So then what? Does Elway come back again? Does he hope that somebody knocks off the Packers next season? Or does he do as some have suggested he will, say good-bye to the game that has given him everything but its brass ring?

“I can’t answer that now,” he says. “There’s never going to be a right time to say good-bye to football. There’s never going to be a time when I say I don’t want to play anymore. It’ll happen when the bad outweighs the good.

“Right now, I’m probably a lesser player than I used to be, but I’m a better quarterback. The mental part has improved. But it gets harder and harder physically, the things I have to do in the off-season to keep up with these younger guys. And you get tired of being hurt and sore every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of the week, sometimes for six months.”

The worst pain, of course, is losing. Elway wept after Jacksonville knocked out the Broncos last season, ending a glorious autumn far too prematurely. So you know he hurts. And you know, as he says, “This football thing is running out for me.”

So like many of you, I would be inclined to say I hope Elway wins Sunday, because I feel sorry for him. But out of respect for the man, sympathy must not enter into it. Either he wins because he’s able to spin all that magic on one perfect January afternoon, or he goes down with the ship. If that happens
— it says here it will — well, Elway has been in the water before. Sometimes you judge a great man by how well he swims away.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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