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Why Does Elway Save His Worst for Last?

January 25, 1998|JIM MURRAY

SAN DIEGO — Pity poor John Elway. How sad!

He comes off in the public mind like the prisoner of Shark Island, Joan of Arc, a tragic victim of undeserved misfortune. Football's version of Job.

His fate? His cross to bear? He can't win the Super Bowl. He gets his chances. Every few years, he gets in one. That's just the trouble. He gets beat, 55-10, 42-10, 39-20. It's humiliating. You can't bear to look.

It shouldn't happen to such a nice young man, the public tells itself. I mean, he takes his hat off in elevators, calls women "ma'am," smiles a lot, always replaces his divots.

On the surface, you wouldn't think he had that much to complain about. For instance, he's rich. He recently sold his seven automobile dealerships. He makes more money in a year than the king of Norway. He's good-looking, healthy, plays to a one-handicap and takes the spoon out when he drinks coffee.

But when it comes to Super Bowls, he's snake-bit. He has lost three of them. And he has a chance to make it four today in Qualcomm Stadium, where he lost in 1988, 42-10. It's embarrassing.

Now, it might not seem like such a big deal to you, but Elway has had a football in his hands since he was 2 years old. He was born to play quarterback, born to win a Super Bowl. Or three. Dad was a football coach and, before he bought the family home in Granada Hills, he made sure it was near a high school where they liked to pass a lot.

John could do everything with a football short of making water come out of your ear. He has thrown 6,894 passes as a professional, 278 of them for touchdowns, threw 774 in college, 77 of them for touchdowns. He has been the winning pitcher in, oh, say, 125 games for Denver. That's just the trouble. He keeps putting himself in the Super Bowl.

He's too good for his own good. You would think the last place in the world John Elway would want to be is a Super Bowl. For him, it's Dracula's castle. Nightmare Alley.

But he keeps pulling off these heroics to put himself and the team in harm's way. Like the famous series of downs known as "the Drive" when he moved the team 98 yards in the AFC championship game against Cleveland in 1987 to tie the score and win in overtime. He should have fumbled.

He comes into focus a little bit like one of those brilliant generals whose genius was saddled with inferior forces--Robert E. Lee, Erwin Rommel, Hannibal.

He gets to the Super Bowl and he has to do it all himself. It's Snow John and the Ten Dwarfs. You get a mental picture of him out there in the midst of all the carnage like Gen. Custer with all these arrows sticking out of him. Magnificent in defeat. But it's still a massacre.

The problem is, this becomes your identifying feature. It defines you. You see a Roy Riegels play hard all his life--then he runs the wrong way in the Rose Bowl. His epitaph might become "Here Lies Roy Riegels--He Ran the Wrong Way in the Rose Bowl." Elway's might read "Here Lies John Elway. God Loved Him but He Couldn't Win the Super Bowl."

It has happened to others. Sam Snead won more than 100 tournaments, 81 on the regular tour, but none of them was the U.S. Open. So you forget the 81 wins.

Is Elway's streak going to continue? You get the feeling down here this week, Elway himself fears the worst. I mean, it's probably like the guy who returns to the haunted castle and this time he notices the eyes in the portraits move and he hears the wolves howling at the moon and notices his host has sharp purple teeth and looks a little bit like a bat.

If I were Elway, I wouldn't show up. Who needs it?

Elway gives the obligatory responses. But he's kind of bemused. He seems to be kind of biting his lip and wishing he were somewhere else. Yes, he has a much better supporting cast this year. Yes, the defense is much better. Next question.

But the public has the sense, Elway is almost alone out there. The Denver Broncos are just a kind of complicated punching bag for the NFC. The piano on which they will give a recital. The straight man. The ones the magician saws in half. They die in the end of this flick. You wonder why they bothered to show up. Sometimes, it looks as if they hadn't.

Horatio at the bridge had nothing on John Elway. Because, brilliant as he can be has not been enough in these. Inferior quarterbacks end up beating him--unless you consider Phil Simms and Doug Williams to be Elway clones.

In 1988, the last time the Super Bowl was played here, Elway passed for a 56-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. But in the next quarter, the Washington Redskins scored 35 points.

Their next appearance, the 1990 game, San Francisco's 49ers turned it into a track meet, 55-10.

It's not easy being John Elway anyway. Being John Elway in Denver, he tells you, means "You're not allowed to be in a bad mood. You've got to be numb. You can't go downtown to get gas, you can't go down to buy doughnuts, you're singled out. You go take your kids where they want to go to play, pretty soon you're like one of the toys."

So, does this mean if Super Bowl XXXII goes the way XXI, XXII and XXIV went, Elway goes home, pulls the shades, shuts off the phone and orders takeout and sits in the dark watching soap operas?

Or does he go out and wince as someone says "How's come you can't win one of them there Super Bowls, John?"

He probably should be getting used to it.

It's the rest of the country that may go into seclusion. Elway has become the sentimental favorite. From coast to coast, the public roots for him. "I'd like to see the Broncos win because I want to see Elway win it" is the national refrain.

It would be nice. But maybe the only way it's going to happen is if he can get Brett Favre to swap teams with him.

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