Elway drives for another comeback
DENVER -- John Elway arrives at work wearing casual business attire, wrap-around sunglasses and a wireless earpiece for his cell phone. He carries a coffee in a cardboard-to-go cup. Looking every bit the manager, and with that familiar gait, the Broncos icon navigates the hallways of the administrative offices of the Colorado Crush, where he's been CEO and part owner of the Arena League team since 2002.
Elway is still in charge, still calling the shots, but the setting is so far removed from where he left us it's hard to miss the stark differences. Arguably the greatest quarterback the NFL has seen, and the most famous sports figure Denver has known, he settles into his office in the bowels of a dog track on the mile high city's industrial north side.
"I think it is always so hard. You bump up to that retirement line and it is dramatic to take that added step 'cause you don't know what is on the other side," Elway says, reflecting on his decision to retire after 16 seasons. "Once you get through football and retire and look back and you are proud of what you did, then all of the sudden real life starts."
In the years following his retirement, real life robbed Elway of two people he held most dear and pushed his marriage of 18 years past the breaking point. Real life losses forced the architect of the NFL record 47 fourth-quarter comebacks to question who he was and whether he had the strength to pick himself up and overcome one more time.
"Athletes are human," Elway says. "So many times we get put on a pedestal. We are still humans that go through emotional times and have tough times happen to us."
In the months after he retired, Elway struggled to fill the competitive void. He turned down TV analyst jobs, preferring instead to coach his son Jack's youth football team. He whittled his way to a one handicap on the golf course. His business dealings had earned him far in excess of anything he made as a premiere NFL quarterback -- the sale of seven car dealerships to Auto Nation in 1997 netted him, at the time, $82.5 million in stock and cash. Elway was rich and, by all accounts, successful. But he wasn't complete. He still needed something to scratch his famously competitive itch. It was just the kind of quandary that led Elway to lean on his father Jack.
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Jack Elway had been his son's mentor since John's high school days in the San Fernando Valley, when the two would break down John's performance on the field.
"Guys would go to Shakey's pizza parlor and I would go home and talk to my Dad about the football game before I went to Shakey's, 'cause I wanted his opinion to find out how he thought I played and where I could get better," Elway says.
Their relationship continued in college, when Jack was head coach at San Jose State and John played at Stanford. It grew closer in the NFL. John, who refused to play for the then-Baltimore Colts after they drafted him No. 1 overall in 1983, eventually signed with Denver. Jack missed his son by a year at Stanford. He was head coach for five years after John left for the NFL. But the two would reunite in Denver in 1993 when Jack was hired to work in the Broncos' pro scouting office.
"He was a guy that was always there," Elway says. "I mean, his support was unshakable no matter what I did, or how I played, he was always there."
"It was a huge, huge shock and it was something that even still it is very difficult to lose him because there were times before I lost him that I thought about what would happen if I lost him," Elway says.
"It was devastating for all of us," says Kathy Hatch, Elway's long-time executive assistant.
Hatch, who met Elway more than 12 years ago through a prayer group she attended with his wife Janet, recalls how much Elway counted on his father for advice.
"John had gone though so much with his dad and his dad was such a mentor for him and just taught him not only about football but about life and how to handle himself," Hatch says. The lessons passed from father to son would be tested far more in the months that followed.
Growing up, Elway always had a strong bond with both of his sisters, but it was his fraternal twin sister, Jana, with whom he'd always shared a special connection.
"We never had an argument, and she was always a great support system and really just another one like my dad, she was just always there for me," Elway says.
In August 2002, just 15 months after losing his father, Elway's sister Jana died of lung cancer. She never smoked. She was 42.
Michael Young, Elway's close friend and teammate in the late 80s, said Elway struggled to cope with his sister's death.
"Outside, John's always tough enough to put on a good front, but he was just ripped apart inside," Young says. "We talked a lot, and you know it's funny, I remember just going, 'I wouldn't want to be John Elway right now.' I mean, how many people would say you wouldn't want to be John Elway? But at that point in time I said I wouldn't trade places with him for anything."
As Elway tried to move past personal tragedies his marriage of 18 years was crumbling. John and Janet Elway had met at Stanford and become college sweethearts. They'd been toasted for years as Denver's first couple and raised four kids together. In June of 2002, just two months before Elway's sister Jana died, Janet moved out of the couple's home, taking the couple's four children with her.
The Elways reconciled, but in January 2003 John moved out for good and said the couple was divorcing. The events played out in public in the mile-high fish bowl that has been Elway's existence ever since he arrived in Denver.
"I lost Dad, and a year and half later I lost my twin sister Jana and then a year later there was divorce and it was a boom, boom, boom," Elway says. "I don't know if you ever hit rock bottom. Really, the pain just doesn't go away."
Elway's resiliency on the football field is most often attributed to his fourth-quarter heroics. But his friends point to another, perhaps more telling statistic. He was sacked 516 times, the most in NFL history. Even at his lowest point, Elway knew how to pick himself up.
"You can either say that you are unlucky and the world is picking on you or you can pick yourself up and say you know what, I have an opportunity to be the best that I can," Elway says.
In many ways, Elway's re-entry into football in June of 2002, as one-third owner of the Colorado Crush, helped rescue him. There was the on-the-field success, an Arena Bowl Championship in June 2005, but for Elway there was also the added comfort of something familiar to finally fill the competitive void. (ESPN recently acquired a minority stake in the AFL, along with TV and multimedia rights.)
Those who work closely with Elway in the Crush front office see an executive as driven and competitive as he was during his playing days.
"He loves grinding over numbers and he loves to negotiate and he loves to win the game of business," says Young, the team's Executive Vice President.
Elway still owns a Toyota dealership in California and remains busy as a pitchman. He has his own signature line of furniture, co-owns one Denver-area steakhouse and is about to open another in downtown Denver.
"In Colorado and nationally I kid him and tell him the only thing bigger in Colorado is Pikes Peak," says Tim Schmidt, who co-owns the steakhouses with Elway.
Elway is described by his employees as a blunt communicator -- demanding but fair.
"He thinks about things in finance terms and he is aggressive. Failing isn't something that happens," says Tom Moxcey, general manager of Elway's Denver restaurant.
Jeff Sperbeck, Elway's business manager since the early 1990s, says his client has remarkable staying power, particularly at an age when most superstars begin to fade.
"John is not only coveted because of his success and his stature but because of his pedigree," Sperbeck says.
Sperbeck says Elway's corporate partners are often surprised by his business acumen. With an economics degree from Stanford, Elway has stumbled only occasionally in the corporate world -- closing a chain of upscale Laundromats, failing to land an NFL team for Los Angeles and bidding low to buy NHL and NBA teams in Denver. His investment in the troubled online retailer MVP.com remains one of his most highly-publicized setbacks.
Elway's friends say he's emerged from his personal struggles an even better businessman but for Elway there are more important areas for growth. He realizes now that he needs to focus on being a bigger part of his children's lives. With his two oldest daughters, 21-year-old Jesse and 19-year-old Jordan already in college, Elway says he can't get enough time with his 17-year-old son Jack, a standout athlete at Cherry Creek High School, and his 15-year-old daughter Juliana.
"I think there is some guilt there and now all of the sudden your kids are in a broken family," Elway says, reflecting on his divorce.
Elway acknowledges he was often less than engaged as a father during his playing days. Even when in the same room with his children, he says, he frequently "zoned out" on a football game.
"Now I am begging for their time rather then them begging for my time," Elway says.
Determined to help his children lead as normal a life as possible, Elway still lives a short distance from his ex-wife and has been much more involved as a parent. He's a fixture at Cherry Creek athletic events, where Jack is a varsity quarterback.
"I don't want him to live in the shadow and expectations," Elway says.
"He is a junior in high school and in a couple years he is going to be gone, and my youngest daughter is a sophomore and in three years she is going to be gone, so I am really looking at trying to cherish the time I have with them before I don't get to see them every day."
Elway is 46 -- eight years removed from the moment that defined him as a player -- the quarterback who could always come from behind, still working on the most important comeback of his life.
When asked if he's finally found happiness after the years of dealing with personal loss, Elway, never one to be completely satisfied, volunteered he's "a lot further along."
"Being an NFL quarterback helps you become stronger," Elway says. "Even though those punches in the gut they hurt eventually you are going to battle through it and things are going to be OK."
John Barr is a reporter and Ben Houser is a producer for ESPN's "Outside the Lines."