SAN DIEGO — At last, the Rocky of the mountains got his happy ending.
John Elway came through. He was the oldest man in uniform on the field, a knocked-down, banged-up challenger who had never won the crown. But with all of Colorado in his corner, and even folks from Green Bay feeling sorry for him, football's hard-luck quarterback finally got his arm raised as the winner and champion.
You could be sure that this one belonged to Elway, more than any other Denver Bronco, because the team's owner announced it to the world. Presented with a trophy bearing Vince Lombardi's name, for defeating the team that made Lombardi famous, the Green Bay Packers, an overjoyed Pat Bowlen accepted the Super Bowl spoils with a shout:
"Four words: This one's for John!"
For so long, the pride of Granada Hills High had longed for this moment. "He wanted this more than anything in the world," said one of the 37-year-old quarterback's receivers, Ed McCaffrey, after the Broncos' 31-24 defeat of the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII, here in the state where Elway went to both high school and college.
How badly did he want it?
"Other than my wife and kids being born, there's nothing better than this," Elway said, squeezing the game ball as he would his kids.
This one was for his son, Jack, age 8.
Elway asked his boy recently, "Do you understand what the Super Bowl is?"
"Yes," young Jack said. "It means that you get to win some kind of ring."
This one was also for another Jack.
Viewing the game at Qualcomm Stadium was the quarterback's father, Jack Elway, now a top talent scout for the Bronco organization. Jack clutched his face with his hands when it became clear that John would get an NFL championship ring, to go with all the hundreds of awards that had filled the Elway family's trophy case.
John said after the Broncos' victory, "My dad, he's the reason we've got a lot of these guys here."
If ever a team sympathized with an opponent, it was the Packers, whose fans had been so long-suffering themselves in the years between Super Bowls II and XXXI. Hardly a soul with ties to Wisconsin--with exceptions such as Bowlen, the Bronco owner, who was born in Prairie du Chien--wanted the Packers to fail, but if they had to, even quarterback Brett Favre agreed that he would be thrilled for Elway.
Mike Holmgren was similarly moved.
"I have to admit, in a strange way, I'm glad for John," the Green Bay coach said on his way off the field. "I just wish he hadn't done it against me."
Funny the way things work out. John Elway was hardly anybody's idea of an unsuccessful player. He is famous for his fourth-quarter comebacks. He is among the NFL's five leading quarterbacks in stat after stat. But he was the superstar who had never won a Super Bowl, and that seemed to make him everybody's sentimental favorite.
Elway was aware of how others felt. He acknowledged it after the game, saying, "I know that I've been labeled The Guy Who's Never Been on the Winning Super Bowl Team. Boy, am I glad to get rid of that."
He came to this game cool, relaxed.
At least, that's what he insisted. Elway said he slept soundly Saturday night, wasn't at all anxious Sunday morning. The only emotion he admitted to, before the game, was that everything was going by so fast, going "800 miles per hour," going so quickly that John didn't even catch a glimpse of the B-2 bombers that flew overhead, just as he was introduced to the Qualcomm crowd.
"All I saw was smoke," Elway said.
In the game, he took charge. He had an easy-does-it pass to Howard Griffith in front of him, wide open in the end zone, but ran the ball over the goal line himself, apologizing to Griffith on the sideline by saying he didn't want to pass the ball and take the slightest risk of making a mistake.
A play many in Denver will remember for years came late in the third quarter. On third down, deep in Packer territory, a scrambling Elway hurtled himself into and through three defenders for a first down. It led to a Denver touchdown and had the Broncos bucking.
Tom Nalen, his center, said of Elway's leap, "It motivated us. He was giving it up for the team. We were tired. We were the walking wounded. When we saw that, we were giving each other high-fives and head butts."
And pretty soon, people in the Rockies would be doing that all night.
"For everybody in the Rocky Mountain State, this is for you," Elway declared. "So many fans from Colorado have been disappointed so many times. There's no more deserving fans than the ones we have.
"I'm not just talking Denver. I'm talkin' the whole Rocky Mountains."
Was this his last game?
Elway said to wait, to let him enjoy this, to hold off any further discussion of when to put a Bronco out to pasture. He had lived with that loser's pity for so long. Boy, was he glad to get rid of that.