Elway, John Albert

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ELWAY, John Albert

(b. 28 June 1960 in Port Angeles, Washington), quarterback who led the National Football League's (NFL) Denver Broncos to five Super Bowl face-offs, including two successive victories in 1998 and 1999.

Elway, both a twin and one of three children born to Jan and Jack Elway, was almost destined to play football. As the only male child of a successful high school and college coach, he was exposed to the game at an early age. His father had played quarterback for Washington State University before getting into coaching, and his paternal grandfather Harry Elway quarterbacked a team against the Carlisle Indians, including the legendary Jim Thorpe.

Elway's family moved around a good deal, as Elway's father jumped from one coaching job to another. Elway's first love was baseball, an interest that was encouraged by his father, who urged him to practice batting both left-handed and right-handed. At Granada Hills High School in Los Angeles, Elway batted .500 during his years on the baseball team. However, his interest in baseball did not keep him away from the family game of football. He started playing organized football in the sixth grade as a running back. As time went by, Elway's throwing arm began to develop, and by junior high his coaches encouraged him to make the switch from running back to quarterback.

During his football career at Granada Hills High School, Elway completed 60 percent of his passes for a total of 5,711 yards and 49 touchdowns. He led his high school team to the league championship and the state semifinals. Despite a knee injury that cut short play in his senior year, Elway managed to post a very impressive record, completing 129 of 200 passes for total yardage of 1,837 and 19 touchdowns. Elway credits his father for teaching him how to run and throw, abilities that gave the younger Elway "enormous confidence," according to high school coach Jack Neumeier. The Granada Hills coach told the Los AngelesDaily News, "I don't think I ever coached a competitor like John Elway."

At Stanford University, Elway played on both the football and baseball teams. The Cardinals football team lost more games than they won, but Elway still managed to electrify college fans with some of his gridiron feats. In his freshman year, Elway completed 50 of 97 passes for 544 yards and 6 touchdowns, and the next year was the best in his college career. As a sophomore, Elway completed 248 of 379 passes—an incredible 65 percent completion rate—for 2,889 yards and 27 touchdowns. Over the four years of his college career, Elway completed 774 passes out of 1,246 attempts, for total yardage of 9,349 and 77 touchdowns. He also set a National College Athletic Association (NCAA) record for the lowest percentage of intercepted passes in a career and finished second to Herschel Walker of the University of Georgia in balloting for the 1982 Heisman award.

After graduating from Stanford with a bachelor's degree in economics, Elway came close to turning his back on football in favor of a baseball career. Drafted in April 1983 by the Baltimore Orioles, Elway made no secret of his unhappiness at the prospect of playing for the losing baseball team. He suggested that he would rather play baseball for the New York Yankees and football for the Baltimore Colts, though the Colts had finished last in the NFL standings during the previous season, and Elway did not particularly like Colts coach Frank Kush. Most important, Elway had expressed a strong preference for playing in the West. Fortunately the Denver Broncos jumped at the chance to trade for Elway.

Elway's rookie year with the Broncos was a tough one, but he managed to lead the team to a 9–7 record. However, Elway's personal statistics left a lot to be desired. He completed less than half of his passes, scoring seven touchdowns, but tossing fourteen interceptions. Despite Elway's somewhat wobbly start, Broncos coach Dan Reeves felt confident that he would in time improve and become a first-rate quarterback. Elway himself had his confidence shaken when unhappy fans began to boo him as he took the field.

After his rocky rookie season, Elway returned to California and married college sweetheart Janet. Back in Denver for his second season, Elway's performance improved. He raised his pass completion rate to 56 percent, throwing for eighteen touchdowns, and led his team to the American Football Conference (AFC) West division title. Unfortunately the Broncos were knocked off in the first round of the playoffs by the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the team and Elway had shown the football world that they were capable of great things. Elway truly came into his own during the 1985 season, ranking second in the NFL in pass completions and passing yards. However, even though the Broncos won eleven games, they did not make the playoffs.

Although Elway's personal performance faltered a bit during his fourth season, the Broncos won eleven games and the AFC West division title. Taking down the New England Patriots and the Cleveland Browns in the playoffs, the team made it into Super Bowl XXI in 1987, facing off against the New York Giants. Despite a strong first half in which the Broncos led New York 10–9, in the end the Giants prevailed, defeating Denver 39–20. The following year the Broncos returned to the Super Bowl, but lost again, falling this time to the Washington Redskins 42–10.

Elway led the Broncos to the Super Bowl five times, becoming the first quarterback ever to start in five Super Bowls. However, it was not until Super Bowl XXXII in 1998 that the team finally tasted victory, defeating the Green Bay Packers 31–24. Next year the Broncos were back again, defeating the Atlanta Falcons 34–19 in Super Bowl XXIII.

Elway quit the Broncos in 1999 after his second Super Bowl win. He finished his career ranked second all-time with 51,475 passing yards and third all-time with 300 touchdowns. Already a successful businessman in the Denver area, Elway sold his chain of auto dealerships for a reported $82.5 million in 1997. He has since become involved as an advisor for a number of commercial ventures, including MVP.com, SportsLine.com Inc., and Dreams Inc. Elway and his wife live in the Denver area with their four children, and spend much of their time operating the Elway Foundation, which works to prevent child abuse.

Elway's decision to bow out of professional football at the top of his game seemed to fit well with the image he had shaped for himself throughout his years in the game. Never shrinking from challenge, Elway was always persistent in his continuing quest for football's greatest glory. And when he had proved he could achieve his goal, he stayed around long enough to do it again, just to show that he could.

For information about Elway in his own words, see Comeback Kid (1997), written with Greg Brown, and Elway (1998). Books by others about Elway include Clay Latimer, John Elway: Armed and Dangerous (1998); Michael Silver, John Elway: The Drive of a Champion (1998); Denis Dougherty, John Elway (1999); and Matt Christopher, In the Huddle with … John Elway (1999).

Don Amerman