Special to ESPN.com
He was 37 years old. His body was beaten and broken down. And he didn't have a Super Bowl victory to his name. Only Super Bowl losses. Three of 'em. Three Super Bowl blowouts, in fact. Three forgettable Super Bowl performances.
And now in his fourth Super Bowl -- Super Bowl XXXII against the Green Bay Packers at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium on January 28, 1998 -- Elway was in the midst, statistically, of his worst championship performance. However, this phenomenal quarterback, who holds so many records and was considered the most lethal two-minute drill QB in history, was nevertheless locked up in an intriguing duel with the defending Super Bowl-winning quarterback and MVP, Brett Favre.
With three minutes left in the third quarter of a 17-17 game, Elway dropped back to pass on third-and-6 at the Packers' 12-yard line. He looked to his right, then to his left, then down the middle. He could not find an open receiver. Would he run out of bounds or throw the ball away?
As Elway looks downfield, his feet shuffling one way, then the other, he spots a seam in the defense. His eyes zero in on it, like an arrow soaring toward its target. Defying age and defying laws of gravity, Elway takes off for that seam of daylight, down the middle of the field.
Elway, running like a creaky 37-year-old who's never won a Super Bowl, quickly darts to his right and races to the 10-yard line, then the 8, then the 7. He refuses to slide or run out of bounds. He knows, at some point, he is going to take a hit. He doesn't care. This is January and he has everything in life but a Super Bowl ring. This is not the time to slide, not the time to run out of bounds.
At the 6-yard line, right near the first-down marker, Elway is met, face to face, by Packers strong safety LeRoy Butler. As Butler lowers his head and prepares to unload, Elway hurls his old body right at Butler and then leaps in the air. Airborne, Elway foresees the inevitable: a vicious collision with Butler, one of those moments that make you cringe. Elway's leap averts a direct hit by Butler, yet as Elway's body begins to soar over the Packers' safety, Butler gets a piece of Elway and spins him around like a helicopter.
Just as Elway is about to land on the turf, feet forward, near the first-down marker at the 6-yard-line, Packers defensive back Mike Prior closes in and lands a brutal hit.
Elway crashes to the ground, landing at the 4-yard-line. First down, Denver. But is Elway OK? Without missing a beat, Elway leaps to his feet, thrusts his arm in the air, and races toward the huddle to a group of teammates who just had the adrenaline surge of a lifetime.
"We never felt so much energy after John ran like he did, refusing to go out bounds, absorbing that hit like he did," defensive lineman Mike Lodish would say later. "When I saw that, I just shook my head and said, 'That's some kind of leader.' We were energized beyond control. After John's run, we knew we were going to be Super Bowl champions. Finally."
Denver scores two plays later on a 1-yard plunge by Terrell Davis. But the Packers, led by the unflappable Favre, drive 85 yards to tie the score again, this time on a 13-yard Favre strike to Antonio Freeman.
There's 3:27 left in the game, with the score deadlocked at 24, when Elway jaunts onto the field, smiling, riding an unbreakable wave of confidence. "We knew that we were going to win it on this drive," Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe says today. "You never saw any fear, any doubt, in John."
Elway, however, has thrown for only 123 yards and didn't complete a pass to a wideout until midway through the third quarter. But when it mattered most, on that last drive, Elway made a perfect delivery, throwing a quick toss to fullback Howard Griffith for 23 yards, giving Denver a first-and-goal at the eight with two minutes left. That pass set up Davis' winning 1-yard touchdown run with 1:45 left.
Moments later, Favre's fourth-and-6 pass to tight end Mark Churma arrives just as Broncos linebacker John Mobley does. They collide. The ball drops to the turf. End of game. Redemption for Elway and the Broncos -- thanks in great part to that 8-yard run by Elway in the third quarter.
"That's the play that inspired us," Mobley would later tell reporters. "It got everybody on the team going. My adrenaline went off the charts. We're saying, 'This guy is almost 40 years old and he is laying his life and body on the line.' Who wouldn't be inspired after that play?"