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SUPER BOWL XXXII: GREEN BAY PACKERS vs. DENVER BRONCOS

Prep Work

Elway still Remembered for His Athletic Exploits During Four Years in Valley

January 18, 1998|ERIC SONDHEIMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Touchdowns were thrown by the dozen, the passing yardage kept in miles. Even back then, more than 20 years ago, John Elway knew how to beat you.

Among his Granada Hills High friends and classmates, Elway earned a reputation as a winner early on, no matter what the activity.

Football and baseball? Of course. Billiards? Absolutely. Tiddly winks? Probably.

But Darryl Stroh, who coached Elway in football and baseball, has a favorite recollection that doesn't involve a last-minute scoring pass or a game-winning home run.

Stroh remembers a simple act of kindness that he says is indicative of Elway's character.

"When John was a senior in high school and my son was 5 years old and playing T-ball, he told John he wanted him to come to one of his games," Stroh said.

"John comes, which is no big thing. But it's a Saturday and it's prom day. John watched a T-ball game for two hours with his prom date."

That Elway has become a sentimental favorite to guide the Denver Broncos to a Super Bowl victory after three unsuccessful tries doesn't surprise Stroh.

"It just seems like everybody in the country is pulling for him," Stroh said. "He's a player's player. He doesn't whine, he doesn't complain. He takes his lumps, takes his hits. He's always been that way. It speaks to his character and class."

The fields at Granada Hills served as Elway's early playgrounds.

He moved to the San Fernando Valley in the summer of 1976 from Pullman, Wash., when his father, Jack, was hired as football coach at Cal State Northridge.

John showed up at Granada Hills during a summer workout as a tall, slender sophomore quarterback with a powerful arm.

"I remember the day as clear as yesterday," said former high school teammate Paul Bergmann, who went on to play tight end for UCLA and the Kansas City Chiefs. "He came in quite literally out of nowhere. Right off the bat, he had a whistle on the ball. [Coach Jack] Neumeier tapped me on the shoulder, 'I think you should go catch for him.' "

Bergmann soon became a member of a large fraternity: receivers whose fingers have been dislocated, sprained or broken by a bullet pass from Elway.

"John had only one speed: flat-out as hard as he could throw it," Bergmann said. "When I see a guy drop the ball [in the NFL] and then complain, 'He's [Elway] throwing it too hard,' I laugh. Imagine myself going back to Neumeier, 'Coach, he's throwing it too hard.' He'd tell us, 'Go run 10 laps.'

"He dislocated my fingers a couple of times. But it forced us to catch the ball with our hands. If you took one of those balls in a biceps, it felt like getting shot."

The velocity and range of Elway's passes prompted Neumeier to tell his receivers, "Never give up. Don't stop running because he'll get it to you."

On a September night in 1978, Steve McLaughlin learned just how far Elway could throw a ball. In the season opener of Elway's senior year against Carson, McLaughlin caught a 64-yard touchdown pass.

'It was unbelievable," Neumeier said. "He [Elway] rolled way back, then let it go. I went to the film and counted it from where he threw it. It was 70 yards in the air."

The legend of Elway's arm strength was on display off the field as well. Bergmann remembers taking a recruiting trip to Washington with Elway.

"It happened to snow," he said. "We got into a snowball fight with our hosts and he [Elway] was throwing 90-mph snowballs that could kill you."

Elway passed for 3,039 yards during his junior season and finished with 5,701 passing yards over three seasons with the Highlanders.

He also was an impact player in baseball, starting on two City Section championship teams. His final high school appearance was at Dodger Stadium in the 1979 championship game against Crenshaw and Darryl Strawberry.

In the third inning, Stroh was ready to make a pitching change. Elway was playing third base.

"He hadn't pitched in six weeks because he was so lousy," Stroh said. "I have a guy warming up in the bullpen. Halfway out, I decide I'm going with the toughest guy I know. I pointed to John and the rest is history."

Elway pitched 4 2/3 innings of three-hit relief to preserve a 10-4 Granada Hills victory. He struck out future major leaguer Chris Brown to end the game. He also had nine hits in 13 at-bats during the four-game playoffs to earn most-valuable-player honors.

"I just went with personality and competitiveness," Stroh said. "That's the way he is. He has tremendous talent, but he's a tenacious competitor."

Friends say Elway has always been one of the guys.

Former receiver Scott Marshall jokes about throwing lemons with Elway in the neighborhood.

"One time we hit this guy's truck and he went after us," Marshall said. "You got a future Hall of Famer's dent on the side of your truck, you might want it autographed instead of repaired."

Tom Ramsey was involved in a bitter rivalry with Elway in high school, college and the pros. He was the quarterback five miles down the street at Kennedy High, and then he went on to UCLA and the New England Patriots.

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