In this wheat and meatpacking town south of Laramie and Cheyenne, Wyo., John Elway rehearses for the great years expected of him. He throws tracer bullets to the sidelines and 50-yard parabolas downfield as reedy receivers glide under the leather without a hitch or hesitation.
The temperature lately hovers around 100 degrees. The wind blows hotter than a hair dryer on full tilt, and when it dies, the muggy air will choke you and the mosquitoes will ravage your shins. Yet hundreds of fans flock from all over Colorado and southern Wyoming just to see Elway warm up, work out, warm down.
The appeal is obvious. It's Willie Mays shagging flies in his first professional spring, Chris Evert dealing rudely with her elders in her Forest Hills debut, Man o' War in his first awkward shamble around the corral. In Elway's first practices with the Denver Broncos these fans see the promise of many autumns of athletic pleasure. The impediments of weather or distance are nothing to them. They mob him for autographs. They call his name. A few hundred yards away, a little stand sells John Elway T-shirts at $9.95 a crack.
"Business is great," the saleswoman says as she returns the nickel change to a customer.
If fans have been enthusiastic, the press has been somewhere between vigilant and silly.
One of the papers publishes a daily feature called the "Elway Watch." On a typical morning over coffee, Coloradans read that the 22-year-old quarterback, say, iced his shoulder after a long practice or ate with so-and-so at dinner. Twenty-eight reporters live full-time in the University of Northern Colorado's dormitories along with the players. Many more visit periodically. A flotilla of television trailers is here for the occasion and will not budge until the Broncos begin the regular season in September. Intrasquad scrimmages are broadcast live.
After morning practice the other day, Elway conducted his usual lunchtime press conference. Between bites, he said, "There's one thing that scares me. I want to be a normal person. I want to be able to go down to the A&W and buy a root beer."
Elway can't even get a haircut in peace. In the first week of rookie camp, Elway thought his blond tresses were hanging too far out of his helmet and set off for the barbershop.
He never made it. A television reporter wanted an interview.
"Where are you off to?" the reporter asked.
"I think I'm gonna get a haircut."
"Well, we'd just like to follow you around. Do you mind?"
Elway rendered a verdict that shattered the poor man's design for that day's 6 o'clock news: "I don't think I'll get it cut today," he said.
That night, team officials made plans for a clandestine trim. An unmarked police car would be parked outside Elway's dormitory at 10. With the coast clear, Elway would get in the cruiser and a uniformed driver would take him to the home of a barber. There, with no one around to record the dramatic event, Elway would have his hair cut.
To everyone's great relief, the plan worked with chalkboard precision. John Hadl, who once led the San Diego Chargers to an AFL championship and is now the quarterback coach for Denver, said, "I need a haircut, too, but I don't need a damn posse to get me there."
Hadl calls Elway the "best quarterback prospect ever," and he is not alone in his evaluation. Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys' personnel director, has said he would draft Elway first even if he had Dan Fouts, Joe Montana and Danny White on his team. Bill Walsh coached Elway at Stanford before taking the head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers and says Elway is the best college quarterback he has ever seen.
A study of Elway's play--his quick release, strong arm and ability to read pass coverages--confirms those endorsements and so do his statistics. He completed 62.1 percent of his passes at Stanford for 9,349 yards and 77 touchdowns.
Sid Gillman, who will run the Oklahoma Outlaws in the USFL next year, came by to watch the Broncos work out. As Elway threw tight spirals in the distance, Gillman said, "John's a grand prospect. His father (Jack) coaches San Jose State, so John grew up talking football all the time. He knew the game so well at an early age. He's had all the advantages."
With endorsements like those it is little wonder that Elway threw this year's NFL draft into a frenzy of recriminations (in Baltimore) and jubilation (in Denver).
Elway, who hit .318 and earned $140,000 playing for the New York Yankees' Class A farm club in Oneonta, N.Y., last summer, said he would rather work for George Steinbrenner than for Robert Irsay's and Frank Kush's Colts, the team that had this year's first draft choice.
"I'd rather have done other things than play there," Elway says now. "I'd heard a lot about Kush and Irsay and I've known players who've played there." Elway would not comment any further, but Kush's reputation as a fanatical coach is well known around the league.
Elway was not quite so blunt about his inclinations before the draft, saying he would prefer a West Coast home, that he had never played in less than 45-degree weather. In the confusion, he came out sounding like a dissolute surfer and his blond, California schoolboy looks didn't help erase that impression. Elway now admits he made a mistake; he should have worried more about clarity than Baltimore's feelings. But, Elway said, Irsay knew Baltimore was out.
Irsay ignored Elway's warnings and on April 26 drafted him. Elway balked, as he said he would. To some, Irsay made an obstinate, bum call; to others Elway was a manipulator, Irsay a sympathetic figure. Terry Bradshaw, the last quarterback to earn such high ratings coming out of college, favored the latter evaluation and said Elway ought to "quit whining."
Bradshaw has not changed his view, although he "wishes John the best."
"I don't apologize for the things I said," Bradshaw said the other day by phone. "I'm a traditionalist and the tradition says the worst team gets the best player. He sounded to me like a spoiled brat. When I was drafted by Pittsburgh and they were the worst team, I considered it an honor that they chose me. I would never have had the slightest thought of doing anything else."
"I don't think he understood where I was coming from," Elway said. "It wasn't Baltimore, it was the Colts organization."
Elway received letters saying that everyone else had played by the rules of the NFL, that he ought to let himself get drafted and do his athletic duty. "But not everyone had a choice," Elway said. "I had another option. I had a chance to play another professional sport."
After a week of secret negotiations, Irsay concluded that Elway would indeed play baseball rather than come to Baltimore. So, he traded him to the Broncos for Chris Hinton, the highly rated offensive tackle from Northwestern, backup quarterback Mark Herrmann and a first-round draft choice. Elway signed a $5-million, five-year contract with owner Edgar Kaiser of the Broncos.
"The reason to get a John Elway was not to increase ticket sales. We've had sellouts for years (since 1969)," Kaiser said. "The reason was that we think he's the best there is."
When he hears himself compared to Namath and Bradshaw and Staubach, Elway says he "lets it fall in one ear and go out the other."
"I'm second-team now (behind Steve DeBerg) and that's fine," he said.
Coach Dan Reeves has a honeyed airline pilot's voice, a "we're runnin' into a little bit o' rough air, folks, so why dontcha latch up yer seat belts" type voice. When he speaks softly into his young quarterback's ear, they break their huddle nodding solemnly.
"He's learnin' so quickly," Reeves said. "The only guy I can compare him to is Staubach, the strength of the arm. But Namath, Staubach, all those guys achieved theirs. John's got his ahead of him. I don't want to expect too much too soon. He's had an awful lot thrown at him. Steve's our starter and he'll have to be beaten out."
DeBerg answers all questions about Elway the only way possible. "I'm doing the best I can," he said. "If that means starting or second string, that's the coach's decision."
But the transition is surely inevitable.
"I've seen all the young quarterbacks, and the one I really like is Elway," Bradshaw said. "He's so far ahead of me when I came out (of Louisiana Tech) in 1970, it's a joke. I was just a talented guy who could throw the ball. I didn't realize how much people expected of me until I got here, and when I did it scared the wham out of me.
"I couldn't read coverages, I didn't know game plans, but I think John's more sophisticated that way. Just coming from a big school and getting all that media attention, getting used to that, is a big step."
Bradshaw directed this advice toward Elway: "I don't think he needs to improve. He can do it all. But the thing young quarterbacks have to understand is that it takes time. They'll lose sometimes, and they'll even lose their confidence. They may not show it outside, but they'll feel it inwardly."
Elway himself tries his best to keep himself on a straight rail.
"I'm looking outward, not inward," he said. He has the untried confidence of youth. In response to Irsay's celebrated remark that his players will be out to "get" Elway, the quarterback said with a smirk, "I've been hearing that kind of stuff since high school, that somebody was going to get me. I've learned that the people who say that kind of thing are the ones you have to worry about the least."
But Bradshaw knows what he is talking about. Absolute confidence is a chimera, especially for one so young, and once in a great while there are punctures in Elway's spirit.
He gave this advance advice to his successors: "Don't play quarterback. Don't get drafted by the Colts. Don't raise Cain."