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Super Bowl XXXII: DENVER BRONCOS vs. GREEN BAY PACKERS

Broncos' Elway Is Probably the Sport's Last Golden Boy

Veteran: This might be the last hurrah for the Denver quarterback, who is a throwback to simpler times in the sports world.

January 26, 1998|KEN ROSENTHAL | THE BALTIMORE SUN

SAN DIEGO — He is the last golden boy. That's why all of the sentiment is with John Elway. That's why America will root for him in Super Bowl XXXII Sunday.

There aren't many like him left in sports, or even the real world, for that matter. This is an age when even the president leads a tabloid existence. An age in which athletes spit, make their own laws and generally act like punks.

Elway is different.

Elway is a throwback to a simpler time.

Elway is the football version of Cal Ripken.

America loves him because he always plays hard. Because he appears true to his squeaky-clean reputation. Because he's 37, and has spent his entire career with the Denver Broncos.

His fourth-quarter comebacks define him, and Sunday Elway gets the ball one more time with the clock ticking.

After three humiliating Super Bowl defeats, he gets the chance to beat the Green Bay Packers for his biggest comeback of all.

There is talk he might retire after this game. Even if he doesn't, this might be his last hurrah.

It took Elway eight years to get back to the Super Bowl. He can't wait that long again.

If he loses Sunday, he will tie Buffalo's Jim Kelly for the most Super Bowl losses by a starting quarterback.

If he wins, it will be the feel-good story of the year in sports.

Funny how we define our underdogs now.

The 1996 New York Yankees were viewed as a team of great heart, never mind their massive payroll.

Elway, too, is a picture of wealth, but even the Packers identify with his cause.

"If I wasn't playing in this game, I'd be right in front of the TV, cheering for John Elway," defensive end Reggie White said, and several of his teammates, including Brett Favre, used almost exactly the same words.

Elway said he would trade all his records and honors for a Super Bowl ring "in a heartbeat."

But he broke into his familiar toothy smile when asked if he'd give up all the money to win a championship.

"My football money," Elway said, referring to his $30 million in NFL earnings--not the $82.5 million he pocketed last October by selling his six car dealerships in Denver.

He labeled the sympathy for his plight "flattering, but kind of embarrassing," adding, "it's kind of 180 degrees from when I came into the league as the spoiled California brat."

Kind of.

As every football fan in Baltimore remembers, Elway refused to play for the Colts coming out of Stanford.

Using a promising baseball career as leverage, he made Colt owner Robert Irsay blink and got himself traded to Denver.

That little stunt helped result in the Colts' departure less than a year later, and it wasn't Elway's last brush with controversy.

He feuded with Coach Dan Reeves in Denver, believing the Broncos needed to rely more on their passing attack.

The rift grew so pronounced, Reeves fired Mike Shanahan as offensive coordinator in 1991, apparently believing that Shanahan and Elway were scripting plays behind his back.

"The last three years have been hell," Elway said after Reeves was fired in 1993.

"I know that I would not have been back here if Dan Reeves had been here. It wasn't worth it to me. It wasn't any fun and I got tired of working with him."

To which Reeves retorted: "Just tell him it wasn't exactly heaven for me, either. One of these days I hope he grows up. Maybe he'll mature some time."

That time is now.

Elway said he gained perspective from his four children. He underwent a religious awakening in training camp. And it doesn't hurt that Shanahan is now his coach.

He was vindicated by Irsay's later actions in Baltimore, and Reeves' later problems with the New York Giants.

He became the NFL's all-time winningest quarterback, a future Hall of Famer, an institution.

"No player in this league symbolizes his team more than John Elway," Bronco tight end Shannon Sharpe said.

"John Elway is everything the Denver organization is. Everything the city of Denver is."

And yet, he retains a certain down-to-earth quality that distinguishes him from say, the larger-than-life Michael Jordan.

As Elway's wife, Janet, recently said, "A lot of people think of him as the boy next door, or kind of like the son they never had."

It helps that he plays in Denver, where he faces intense local scrutiny but not the harsh spotlight of a major media center.

It also helps that he looks the part--blond hair, blue eyes, the classic, All-America type.

Then again, baseball's Ernie Banks evoked Elway-like sentiments years ago, and Michael Jordan stands as the ultimate symbol of the American Dream today.

Elway fits a certain image, but his looks are only part of it.

He plays the glamour position in the glamour sport, plays with a warrior's heart, a gunslinger's mentality.

He is the last golden boy.

America roots for John Elway Sunday.

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