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7 | ERIC SONDHEIMER

The Formative Years

HIGH SCHOOL / Elway Was Already Hitting Peaks in the Valley as Quarterback at Granada Hills

May 03, 1999|ERIC SONDHEIMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Denver, Stanford and Pullman, Wash., all claim John Elway as one of their own, but it was his days as a San Fernando Valley teenager that propelled him to athletic stardom.

From the moment Elway arrived in the summer of 1976, it was as if he inhaled pixie dust instead of Southern California smog. His powerful right arm was immediately identified as a mutation, for no one had seen a teenager hurl spirals, fastballs or even oranges with such velocity and accuracy.

"I told a friend of mine, 'That's the next All-City quarterback,' " said Ron Palacios, who caught Elway's first pass at Granada Hills High. "The guy threw unbelievably. I remember one passing-league game, he hit me between the eyes with a spiral and almost knocked me out."

Elway moved to Northridge as a 16-year-old sophomore when his father, Jack, an assistant coach at Washington State, was named football coach at Cal State Northridge.

Jack bought a house in the Granada Hills district because the school's football coach, Jack Neumeier, used a sophisticated passing offense that was ahead of its time. Jack discovered another coach, Darryl Stroh, who benefited his son. Stroh, the baseball coach, was a stern disciplinarian who settled for nothing less than perfection.

With the help of Neumeier, the passing guru, and Stroh, the fiery motivator, Elway became prepared for the challenges ahead.

On Sept. 23, 1976, Elway made his high school debut, completing four of 10 passes for 41 yards in a 13-0 loss to El Camino Real.

His only mention in the local paper the next day concerned an interception: "Helping preserve the victory was linebacker Geoff Norn, who intercepted Granada Hills quarterback John Elway on third-and-goal at the El Camino Real seven with 9:05 remaining in the game."

As Elway became more comfortable with the run-and-shoot principles of the Granada Hills offense, glimpses of his extraordinary potential began to emerge.

By his junior season, he was a passing machine. In a game against San Fernando, he passed for 454 yards and engineered the kind of dramatic comeback in the final two minutes that would become his trademark with the Denver Broncos.

San Fernando scored a touchdown with 1:32 left to take a 35-33 lead. With first place in the Mid-Valley League at stake, Elway drove Granada Hills 68 yards in seven plays, completing a 24-yard touchdown pass to Chris Sutton with 13 seconds left to pull out a 40-35 victory.

In a City quarterfinal game against Palisades and future NFL quarterback Jay Schroeder, Elway delivered again in a pressure-filled setting. Regulation play ended in a 27-27 tie, forcing an eight-play California tiebreaker, when the ball is placed at the 50 and the teams alternate possession after every play. The team ending up with the best field position wins.

Palisades seemed headed for victory after a 47-yard completion to the Granada Hills 30 on the fourth play of the tiebreaker. But Elway was just getting started. On the next-to-last play, he completed a 28-yard pass to Scott Marshall to clinch the win.

Elway finished his junior season with 3,039 yards passing, the second-best total in Valley history. In baseball, he was the starting right fielder on the 1978 Granada Hills team that won the City championship at Dodger Stadium.

A knee injury cut short his senior football season, but by then, he was everybody's All-American. He had the grades, talent, competitiveness, drive--everything a college coach could want. Stanford beat USC in the recruiting battle, but Elway wanted one last hurrah in high school.

It happened in baseball. His final high school appearance came against Crenshaw and Darryl Strawberry in the 1979 City championship game at Dodger Stadium. Elway had not pitched in a month, but threw 4 2/3 innings of three-hit relief and gave up one unearned run in the Highlanders' 10-4 victory. Elway was named the playoffs' most valuable player with nine hits in 13 at-bats.

"He was a special person," Stroh said. "He had so much character and competitiveness."

Neumeier, 80 and living in Camarillo, played high school football in the 1930s at Van Nuys with one of the Valley's all-time greatest athletes-- UCLA and Ram quarterback Bob Waterfield.

But Neumeier said Elway was one of a kind.

"I've been in the Valley all my life and I can't remember an athlete with an arm like his," he said. "The thing about John, just pick the sport and he'll be one of the best. He could do anything good."

Last June, on a glorious spring day, Elway returned to Granada Hills to help dedicate the renaming of the football stadium in his honor. He was so proud and humble, so gracious and friendly. His 8-year-old son, Jack, was at his side.

He told a group of former teammates, "You are the guys I started with, and I'll never forget you."

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