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In This Final Four, He's the Jolly Good Fellow

January 11, 1998|BILL PLASCHKE

PITTSBURGH — Four is such an easy number. The NFL whittles its field to four, and instantly an average postseason is awash in the celebration of themes.

Somebody must compare the four quarterbacks. Somebody else must contrast the four coaches. There are tales of four cities, celebrations of four seasons.

It usually adds up, but this year it does not.

This year, the 37th in the life of a certain Denver Bronco quarterback, there are no fours.

There is only a one.

He is here, on a Saturday morning, hobbling to a podium the way he hobbles out of a huddle, as if he just rode 200 miles on a bad saddle.

"What, you think people are like, 'Win one for the old man?' " John Elway asks. "Naw."

That's exactly what people are like.

Four teams, but only one story, and this is it:

Will John Elway leave us as a champion?

Will 15 years of grace and courage finally be rewarded with even one moment of football's ultimate triumph?

Will the guy finally win a Super Bowl?

On a field in San Francisco today, the NFC championship between the Green Bay Packers and 49ers will feature players who have been there and done that.

Far more intriguing will be the AFC championship here in Three Rivers Stadium, featuring what could be the last stand for a quarterback who has been there, and been there, and been there . . . and been done in every time.

He is here, on a Saturday morning, talking out of the side of a mouth that looks as if it is filled with marbles or tobacco, as if he is just dying for a good spit.

"I feel good about what I've done in my career no matter what," Elway says. "If I never win a Super Bowl, it's not like I'm going to commit hara-kiri."

And then he says this: "Last time I was here, it was so important for me to win. This time, I'm just sitting back enjoying everything."

Yeah, and the way you refused to sign autographs to anybody wearing Kansas City gear last week after you beat the Chiefs . . . that was just an act?

And the way you came back from a career-threatening torn biceps injury in the preseason to throw for a career-high 27 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions . . . you were just trying to increase the value of your Denver auto dealership?

Elway sold the business this season for $82.5 million, ensuring that he and his children and their children are financially set for life.

He is a lock for a first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame. He has cemented his niche on the sports landscape as a legitimate hero.

But what he wants now, you can't get with money or votes or hyperbole.

Four teams, one story, and it is Elway's alone.

Can he lead his tight, veteran team to a victory today in the unfriendly home of a reckless group fueled by emotion?

If so, the Broncos would become only the third wild-card team to advance to the Super Bowl since the playoffs were expanded 19 years ago.

Then, two weeks from now, could he lead that same team to a victory in San Diego over the more polished NFC champion, be it San Francisco or Green Bay? If so, the Broncos would become the first AFC team to win the Super Bowl in 14 years.

The odds are stacked. In a year when much of the football public is finally backing him, Elway has become a sucker bet.

But bet it, many will, for reasons that have less to do with the actual story than with Elway's place in it.

He is at the end. This is it. He will probably play one more season, but the odds of the Broncos catching enough breaks to be in this position next year are slim.

Urgency? Elway says that with the addition of a star running back and smart offensive line, he has never been more relaxed.

"I really feel good about the team, because I don't have to do everything," he says. "There's not really as much weight on me as there used to be."

He says he knows this because of his superstitions, the tics that used to make him wear the same socks, drive the same route to work, park on the same side of the airport.

After three Super Bowl losses, he says he doesn't have them anymore. Says he actually wore the same suit to Pittsburgh that he wore to Kansas City, "where in the past, I couldn't do that because I thought my first suit would have used up all its luck."

He laughs. "I am now superstitious about not being superstitious," he says.

So John Elway will take the field today relaxed, confident, prepared to swat away yet another demon on his final reach for football redemption.

My fingers are crossed.

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