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Still Driving

As former Denver quarterback enters Hall of Fame, he is eager to help Los Angeles land an NFL team

August 08, 2004|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

When it comes to bringing the NFL back to Los Angeles, the quarterback who orchestrated "the Drive" is among the driven.

"I guess it's a challenge when people say there's no way the NFL would work here," John Elway said. "And I say, 'You've got to be kidding me ... ' "

That's why Elway, who today will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, can't help but envision pulling off another spectacular comeback -- one that would top the 47 fourth-quarter and overtime masterpieces that already adorn his resume. He's serious about helping put an NFL franchise in the nation's second-largest market, where the clock has been ticking for almost a decade.

Said Elway: "One exciting thing about L.A. is, out here it's such a huge market that if you do the things the right way, and if there's a team here that comes out and treats the people the way they need to be treated, I think you can have one of the top franchises in the country. So I'm intrigued with this market."

A first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee, Elway has impeccable football credentials. He has more victories than any other quarterback, 148, and ranks second in attempts, completions and yards passing.

He's the only quarterback to have started in five Super Bowls, and was selected most valuable player of Super Bowl XXXIII, his final game. He's perhaps best remembered for his ability to perform in the clutch, as he did on the Drive in January 1987, when he led the Broncos on a score-tying, 98-yard march in the AFC championship game at Cleveland. Denver went on to win in overtime, and Elway ascended to superstar status.

He is part owner of the Arena Football League's Colorado Crush -- along with Bronco owner Pat Bowlen and St. Louis developer Stan Kroenke -- and said his new role went some way toward quieting his football pangs.

"It's come as close as anything, as far as replacing that emptiness I felt when I retired," he said.

Elway, who was in L.A. last week promoting the acid-reflux medicine Prevacid, understands the heartburn of the Southern California quandary. In 1999, when competing L.A. groups were trying to land an expansion franchise -- the team eventually awarded to Houston's Bob McNair for $700 million -- Elway had face-to-face meetings with L.A. impresarios Eli Broad, Marvin Davis and Michael Ovitz. Less than one year removed from his spectacular career with the Broncos, he wanted back in the game.

"I never really got aligned with any of them," said Elway, who attended Granada Hills High and Stanford. "But there was definitely an interest on my part."

Over the years, he said, that interest has intensified. He still has relatives in Southern California, spends a lot of time honing his golf game in Palm Springs, and is partner in a high-powered group that in March bought Crown Toyota in Ontario.

As a businessman, Elway has had both successes and setbacks. In 1998, he sold his seven car dealerships for $82.5 million. Two years later, he started an Internet sporting goods retailer,, with Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan. The company went belly-up within a year.

"Any person that has as much money to invest as John is going to have things that go well and things that don't," said Michael Young, his close friend and former teammate. Young, the Broncos' director of special projects, also looks after Bowlen's investment in the Crush.

"[John] has a proven record in business, and it's because he's very frugal and hands-on. He's as competitive in business as he is on the field."

Elway said he planned to thoroughly reevaluate the L.A. situation, and weigh his options about getting involved, as the league inches closer to making a stadium decision in the market. In the meantime, his time is consumed with running the Crush.

"John's made it very clear he's very serious about L.A.," Young said.

So why would Denver's biggest sports hero not angle for a piece of the Broncos?

Well, Elway considered it in 1998, when Bowlen offered him a 20% stake in the team upon retiring and title of chief operations officer. That offer triggered a lawsuit by Edgar Kaiser, former owner of the team, who claimed Bowlen had violated a term of the sale by not offering him a chance to buy back a piece of the Broncos. Kaiser also claimed that Bowlen had lied to him about distributing ownership among the Bowlen family.

A federal grand jury in February issued a split decision, ruling that Kaiser should get the right of first refusal if Bowlen wanted to sell, but jurors rejected the assertion that, by distributing shares of the franchise to relatives, Bowlen violated a stipulation in the contract.

Regardless, Elway sees L.A. as a clean opportunity, a fresh start, provided the league moves forward with a stadium plan.

NFL owners hope to vote in May on the three competing sites -- the Coliseum, Rose Bowl and Carson -- with the idea of putting a team in place by the 2008 season.

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