With his 50th birthday looming, the living legend reflects on empty nests and new knees, the difference between golf and footbal
As Lake Tahoe's scenic blue waters shimmered under a hot mid-July afternoon sun, John Elway and I sit in the shaded corner of a deck behind Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course. Elway, bottle of brew in hand, is in two-minute-drill mode. He prefers fast-paced conversation, ready to bolt the scene after completing the pro-am portion of the 20th annual American Century Championship celebrity tournament. The former Broncos quarterback has participated in all 20 and, having never once won the event, spent most of the summer working on his game with the expectation of changing his fortunes.
Before pressing the record button to begin an interview, my mind rewound 17 years to December 13, 1992 and my first encounter with Elway in the corner of a locker room inside the Denver Broncos' practice facility. We were the same age—he, the 10-year NFL veteran who would go on to pass for 50,000 yards, 300 touchdowns and win two Super Bowls; me, the 32-year-old “rookie” reporter assigned to a story on his possible comeback after a shoulder injury.
Today, ten years after his retirement from the NFL, we both find ourselves closing in on the half-century mark, and it's clear one of us has far more gray hair than the one who doesn't have a bronze bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Wait. John Elway’s turning 50 next year? No way. Not Elway. See, there's only one number affixed to his name. Seven. No. 7 remains forever young. In Denver, he's always going to be the broad-shouldered, cannon-armed quarterback who can leap tall buildings—or helicopter over defenders—in a single bound.
“Physically I feel 50,” Elway says. “Mentally I feel 25. The funny thing is, we all look at it the same. Mentally, we don't feel any different—even though we've aged. Mentally we just think we're a little smarter. Not that we think that much different than we did when we were 25, even though we do.”
The ten years since Elway retired from the National Football League have been filled with personal highs and lows. His father, Jack Sr. died of a heart attack. His twin sister Jana, succumbed to cancer. He divorced after 18 years of marriage, opened two Denver-area steakhouses, invested in several business ventures and underwent knee replacement surgery. He got engaged to wed model Paige Green and watched his four children graduate high school and enter college.
When it comes to the Broncos, the franchise's greatest player has become one of the team's biggest fans. Coincidentally, this season the Broncos will celebrate their 50th year in professional football—and Elway will be watching with a keen eye.
It's the keen eye many expected the Broncos to use in some front-office capacity.
There always has been behind-the-scenes innuendo that former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan didn't want Elway in the front office. But when team owner Pat Bowlen relieved Shanahan of his duties as head coach and executive director of football operations shortly after the end of the 2008 season, his response to whether he would bring Elway into the organization was, “John's a busy man.”
It would seem like a perfect fit, a natural move—except the Broncos, Elway said, haven’t called.
“They've got to want me to do something,” Elway says. “The Broncos make their decisions on what they want to do. Pat makes his decisions. Pat Bowlen is now the face of the Denver Broncos. Mike Shanahan is gone. John Elway is gone. Pat's got a bunch of players that nobody knows, a new head coach (Josh McDaniels) and a new general manager (Brian Xanders).
The newness within the Broncos' organization, Elway believes, has led to a “disconnect” between the franchise and the city of Denver. It's a rather astounding observation coming from a man who spent 16 seasons in the middle of one of pro football's great relationships.
“I guess the way I look at it is, you want to get the connection back,” Elway says. “There doesn't feel like there's a connection with the Broncos and the city, and I don't know where that's come from. Maybe that's because you have two brand new guys (McDaniels and Xanders), players that nobody knows . . . Maybe that is the 'why,' but Pat Bowlen still is there.
“I look at them and I just know that offensively they will be pretty good. They're pretty talented offensive—the running back they drafted is pretty good, the offensive line is good, good tight ends, good wideouts . . . it's just a matter of if they take to this new offense. Defensively they drafted some young guys, but . . . who knows?”
Until that call comes from the Broncos—rather, if it comes— Elway will be content to watch football, make decisions in the business world and, of course, play some golf. The business world, which for Elway has been more kind that cruel, takes precedent over the pleasures of the links.
Shortly after his retirement in 1999 Elway partnered with fellow sports icons Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan for the on-line sporting goods venture MVP.com. It failed. He partnered with Bowlen and Nuggets/Avalanche/Pepsi Center owner Stan Kroenke to field an expansion Arena Football League team in 2003. The Colorado Crush won the AFL title in 2005, but financial problems could force the league to fold before 2010.
In 2008 Elway invested in the Professional Bull Riders. And the two Denver steakhouses that bear his name are busy nightly. With plenty of business to tend to, Elway also remains active with his charity work in the Denver community. He hosts the Jack A. Vickers Invitational golf tournament played annually at Castle Pines Golf Club. (“When you think of Jack Vickers you think about class,” Elway once told me. “He's done everything the right way, so that's why he's always been an idol for me.”) Last year's tournament raised over $250,000 for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Denver.
Elway's a gracious host of the Vickers tournament, but doesn't play in it for the satisfaction of claiming second place. At Tahoe, he has finished in the top 10 nine times. His best finish was fifth in 1998, the summer after leading the Broncos to their first-ever Super Bowl victory.
During the months leading up to this year’s event, Elway made time to work diligently on his golf game, and speaks confidently that it is more polished. “I've worked on it, tried to get a more of a consistent swing,” Elway says. “Paul Lobato (the head PGA professional at Meridian Golf Club) has been my coach. I've worked with him a lot more, trying to get consistent.”
As with much in sports, when it comes to Elway's swing, Lobato says, timing is everything. “We started working on swing change after he noticed others playing (in the celebrity tournament) like Rick Rhoden. John wanted to improve. Now, a guy like John already is a great athlete. If his swing has flaws, he can overcome it.” How much has the student improved? “He beats me a lot more than he used to,” Lobato says. “The grasshopper can snatch the pebble.”
Elway ascribes some of the improvements to his knee replacement. “Now it's a lot easier to get my weight to the left side and my short game is better. My putter still is streaky—not as good as I'd like it to be, but at times it's pretty good. I think the main thing is consistency. I'm still having some bad shots, but the range is coming and I'm learning my golf swing to where I can cut the ball a little bit, and if I have to draw it, how to draw it . . . I'm able to do that more on command than I have been in the past.
“And also, I can self-correct, and understand why a shot did what it did.”
The notion persists that Elway will attempt to join the Champions Tour, looking for golf to fill the ultra-competitive void left by football. “That, to me, is something where . . . I want to take two years to really work at my game,” he says. “I look at the Champions Tour and think of where I might have any advantage. Those guys would all be better players. The only thing I would have is the fact that it's something new and exciting for me, and those guys have been in that grind for 30 years. Maybe mentally I could have a little bit of advantage on them. Other than that, those guys are so good; they've done it since they were six years old.”
Golf, Elway says, “is so different than football. In football it's a grind. It's an absolute, grind-it-out, physical, try hard and if things are bad, you try harder and so on. Golf is such a mind game that you just have to let it go. You can't try harder; the harder you try, the worse it gets. That mentality, I'm getting better at it. I'm obviously not there. And really, when you shoot a good round of golf, you really feel like you haven't done much. You're happy with it, but it's not the same physical feeling you get when you play a good football game, the feeling that you're 'spent.'
“When you play golf and you're playing well, things are going well. In football, it's never easy—unless Terrell Davis is running for you, getting 200 yards a game. Then my job was easier.”
The mention of Davis serves a subtle reminder that Elway will never escape the game of football. “I always miss the Sunday nights after the game—going to dinner, whether with the gratification of a win or the disappointments or a loss. It's the highs and lows, and that's what football brings.”
Two years ago, Elway got a strong reminder of how it feels to be part the game when he coached his son, Jack Jr., during his senior season at Cherry Creek High School. The Friday night lights. Eager players. Cheering fans. The ambiance reminded Elway that no matter what endeavors he pursues in retirement, the game of football will always flow thick through his veins.
“In life, we all have our highs and lows but we just don't have them weekly. Maybe in these times we do have them a little bit more—and the lows last longer, and the highs maybe last a little longer. But in football, you have the high, enjoy it for a day and then you start over. That's what we, as athletes, get used to—especially in football.”
What Elway hasn’t quite gotten used to is coming home to a Cherry Hills mansion filled with somewhat awkward silence. His four kids—Jessica, Jordan, Jack Jr. and Juliana—are gone. “Yeah, it's hard to believe, even more so than seeing that 50 right there, is that I'm an empty-nester now,” he says. “Juliana is now off to college. All my kids are out on their own. That went like a flash. That's the reality of it, the true reality. If I didn't have kids, then I wouldn't feel that much different. I don't look at 50 as the big shocker, but I look at my kids and me being an empty-nester . . . that's when I look at things and think that's my reality.”
Elway’s reality during the next three days at Tahoe was somewhat sobering. He would go on to tie former New York Giant and fellow Hall of Fame member Lawrence Taylor for 13th place in the American Century Championship—a kind of Super Bowl XXI reunion that began last year when he and LT also finished with identical scores, tying for tenth. This year, his 51 Stableford points put him 23 behind the winner, Rick Rhoden.
Although the Champions Tour could work out, it’s a safe bet that Elway shows up again in the NFL. Maybe the Broncos will call. Or maybe Elway will get involved with bringing an expansion franchise to Los Angeles. Gravity will pull Elway back into the game.
Remember, comebacks are his specialty.