For Elway, Retirement Is Official
By Leonard Shapiro
It was particularly hard for him this afternoon during a news conference aired live on national and local TV and punctuated by frequent tears from Elway, a competitor known for keeping his emotions in check in the most tense of times. Today, his wife Janet had to rush to the podium with a box of tissues.
Wearing a Broncos orange tie and a ribbon in his lapel in honor of the Columbine High School shooting victims, Elway had a difficult time getting the words out as he thanked his family, his friends, his teammates and his fans for what he called "a great run."
"I don't look at it as retirement," Elway said. "I'm just graduating from pro football."
He will leave the game at age 38 as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer in five years. None of the 18 quarterbacks enshrined in Canton has thrown or completed more passes, has more yards passing or touchdown throws than Elway. He is "the best quarterback ever to play the game," Broncos Coach Mike Shanahan said.
Elway is the only quarterback to start in five Super Bowls. In addition, 47 times over his career, he directed fourth-quarter or overtime game-saving or game-winning drives, 21 with less than two minutes left and 13 with less than a minute to play.
Still, his ultimate comeback was not to be. Elway said today the prospect of returning for an attempt to become the first quarterback to win three consecutive Super Bowls was tempting. But the further he got from the end of the 1998 season, the more he became convinced he could not go through another offseason of preparing his body for the rigors of a game at which he has excelled since his pee-wee days in Southern California.
"As much as I tried to talk myself back into it, myself wasn't budging," Elway said, grinning that toothy smile that made him the most popular athlete in this city's history. "I wanted to give myself a chance to think about it. When it was time to start the offseason program on April 5, less than two months after my last football game [in the Pro Bowl], I said 'You know what? I can't do it any more.'"
Elway began discussing his future with his father Jack, the former Stanford coach, and Janet. Jack Elway told his son he still could play and win, but that as he was getting older, he was becoming more susceptible to injury, and "Dad was dead right," John Elway said.
"I have a chronic bad [left] knee," he said. "It got to the point where it was preventing me from doing the things I wanted to do. Last year, I fell on the football twice and hurt my ribs on both sides. I'd never done that before. Nagging things that used to go away in a week were lingering four and five weeks."
Jack Elway sat in the front row next to Janet and his four grandchildren. A year ago, John's children voted unanimously for him to return for the 1998 season. This year, his 9-year-old son Jack was the only voice for another year, mostly his father said, because he couldn't stand the prospect of not going with his dad to training camp.
Shanahan and team owner Pat Bowlen, both on the verge of tears as they introduced Elway, had left the door open for him to return at any time. Shanahan had even told Elway he would be happy to use him for only a part of the season until the playoffs.
"The bottom line, as I told Mike, was that's not me," Elway said. "I'm either all in or all out."
As late as Saturday night, Bowlen said he had asked Elway about changing his mind and stunning the 250 media members, family, teammates and friends at his news conference by announcing he had decided to play one more year.
"I've done everything I could do to try to convince him not to retire," Bowlen said. ". . . But I knew once he had made up his mind, the chances of him changing it were slim and none. John has given everything he could possibly give to this team. It would be wrong for me to put pressure on him."
A shrewd businessman who has parlayed his earnings into a multimillion dollar nest egg, Elway said he hasn't decided what will come next.
There has been talk about him being a third announcer in the ABC "Monday Night Football" booth, but he said that was not particularly palatable because he would like to spend his weekends watching his children play their sports. Bowlen has said he will discuss the possibility of Elway becoming a minority owner, "but we'd like to let the dust settle a little first and see what he wants to do."
Already though, retirement hasn't been all that kind. Bowlen said that Saturday night, Elway's car was towed from a no-parking zone near a downtown Denver restaurant while he was eating dinner with his former teammates. Elway walked about two miles to the impoundment lot to pay a $100 fine and get his car back. The clerk even asked for identification, until she looked up and, according to Bowlen, said "Oh my God, it's John Elway."
The memories of him always will linger.
"I never wanted to stop competing, I just can't compete at this level the way I want to," Elway said. "I'd like to be remembered as a competitor. It may not look good for sixty minutes, but no matter what it looks like, I'll stay after it and try to win the football game. I'll never be able to fill the void of playing a football game on Sunday afternoon. It's the biggest part of what I'll miss."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company