Go Deep! I'll Hit Ya' : John Elway: He's a Living Legend, on the Field and in Comic Books

Times Staff Writer

Drums along Mission Bay, vibrations on the water, trumpets tuning up down the street. This isn't just a game we're getting ready for but a coronation, if things only go as expected:

John Elway's installation-- at long last! --into the pantheon of big guys.

All the groundwork has been laid. In recent weeks, his peers, with little prompting--OK, with lots of prompting but little resistance--have compared him to Dan Marino, John Wayne, Superman, Hercules and Sampson. Yet to be alluded to are Zeus, Roger Staubach, Clark Gable, Albert Einstein or Albert Schweitzer, but the week is still young.

The Elway watch is beginning to whirl off its moorings. The limits of normal inquiry have been expanded so that a disc jockey from WWWE in Cleveland, on the air, asked Elway's wife, Janet, about her pregame sexual life with her husband

Janet demurred.

The DJ persisted: Was John going to face the Browns exhausted?

"My attitude is, John has to win the game first. And then . . . ," said Janet, obviously a good-natured woman.

"You ever going to let your wife do another interview on Cleveland radio?" John was asked last week.

"Anywhere but Cleveland," he said, equally as good-natured.

The things your basic 27-year-old folk hero has to put up with.

He gets to play the game he loves as the quarterback of the Denver Broncos and has a $12-million contract besides, so ordinary cares and woes, as the rest of us understand them, are taken care of. But of course there are new ones.

In the land of Broncomania, which is sort of like a year-long Super Bowl week, he is set off from his neighbors as surely as Gulliver among the Lilliputians, to be stared at if he sticks his head out the door--his home address was once published by a local paper--and dive-bombed by autograph seekers if he dares try a restaurant.

He is asked to live up to the highest expectations. When he can't, he is made to feel he has let the side down.

When he can, he becomes a cartoon character.

Teammate Vance Johnson decided that Elway's walk to the huddle before the famous 98-yard drive at Cleveland last season, looked like John Wayne's and now refers to Elway as the Duke.

"I walk," says Elway, managing to smile and wince at the same time. "That's all I do is walk. Vance is a lot of fun."

The Browns' Bubba Baker, swearing defiance the week before this season's American Football Conference championship game, said he was tired of all this stuff.

"He's not God," said Baker, actually sounding a little unsure. "At least not the God I pray to.

"Was that John Wayne in the Super Bowl? I've had enough of the immaculate John Elway. . . . Hercules and Sampson are retired, the way I hear it."

Elway, who is still working, then proceeded to guide the Broncos past the Browns once more, and Elway's prowess and repute became someone else's problem.

"He's a one-man show but believe me, he can be stopped," said Washington's Dexter Manley last week. "He's not like Superman."

It's true. He's not. It would be a better story if he were, and maybe it's the one we secretly yearn for, but he's just a guy.

Good player, though.

" The Denver Broncos . . . were looking at 1st-and-98. They could've laid down. They could've rolled over. They could've quit. But not this team. Not this quarterback. "John Elway--the 26-year-old phenomenon just four years out of Stanford University--and the Broncos reached down into that secret place only champions know and found themselves . . . found the strength and determination to begin. . . . "

--Sports Action Comics

Denver, Colo.

$2.50, $3.50 in Canada

It isn't true that this has replaced "Dick and Jane" in the Denver elementary school system, but . . .

Teach your children well. First you need to know where John Elway actually ranks.

On top, it appears.

"Oh, well, what can I say about him?" said Dick Steinberg, personnel director of the New England Patriots.

"I think he's got the strongest arm in the league, and we see Marino twice a year. And that's not taking anything away from Marino. The advantage Marino has is that great release, but I think Elway's got the strongest arm from the standpoint of getting it down the field distance-wise and from the standpoint of velocity.

"Of the many things Elway does well, probably the best is improvise, scramble out of the pocket--to start off with, feel pressure from the back side, I don't know how he does it--scramble and still on the run, find the open guy. And if he finds 'em, don't worry about him getting the ball there, because he's got the gun to do it.

"I think he's the best thing going. He's the one guy who can beat you if nothing else is working for them. Marino is great but Marino can't scramble around and beat you. Marino is not going to run 35 yards up the field to beat you.

"We've had pretty good luck against Marino because we've got guys who match up pretty well with their receivers," Steinberg continued.

"If you cover Elway's receivers, you're not going to be getting pressure on him because you're dropping a lot of guys off. Now there's going to be running lanes, and he's going to beat you. Marino can't do that.

"The thing about it is, we've shut Elway down for a half. We've had games where he hasn't really done that well, and yet . . .

"Like the playoffs last year. He didn't do a thing the whole game, and then he hits (Mark) Jackson on that bomb when (Don) Blackmon goes offside and everybody relaxes.

"We've had games where, for a half, he's been awful. I remember one game where it wasn't our defense. He was just off. And then he comes back in the second half and he's a totally opposite-type guy.

"Now, a lot of quarterbacks won't change in the time frame of a game like he will. But he's got the disposition, it doesn't bother him. He can throw seven straight incompletions and maybe two straight interceptions and he shakes it off."

"It's nice to know that people don't think I'm a total bust anymore."

--Elway, at the 1987 Pro Bowl

Actually, the most amazing thing about Elway may not be his myriad physical attributes but his lack of pretense.

Said Steinberg: "He's a jock. He's an old-fashioned jock. I think he's the same now as when he was a 14-year-old, playing in the schoolyard."

Dr. Arnold Mandel, a psychiatrist at UC San Diego who once worked with the Chargers, noted the differences in behavior by position among players. Because quarterbacks were made to feel most responsible for the team's success, he argued, they tended to lay off the pressure with two classic personality organizations:

--A devoutly religious life style, in which one can ally himself with, and find strength in, a higher power.

--The opposite stance, the party-all-night, show-up-bleary-eyed-and-pass-'em-dizzy image made famous by Bobby Layne, Joe Namath and Jim McMahon.

Elway, though, does not fit neatly into either camp. Nor does he employ the tricks of withdrawal that other quarterbacks trot out. This suggests that if he feels pressure, he has it so well in hand that he hasn't had to develop artful defenses against it.

Elway doesn't seem to regard strangers as threats. If he is bland and squirms through interviews, he is also friendly, playful and genuine. He doesn't retreat into Dan Fouts' who-are-you arrogance, or Bernie Kosar's I-can't-be-bothered aloofness, or Dan Marino's nice-guy-but-the-occupant-isn't-in-just-now amiability.

How did Elway turn out this way?

His father, Jack, is a football coach, now at Stanford. Jack was helpful--he had John switch from halfback to quarterback as a ninth grader and he bought a home in the Granada Hills High School district just so John could play in Jack Neumeier's passing offense--and seems to have been supportive. John says he didn't feel as if he was being groomed for anything.

"Like Marinovich?" says Elway, a reference to the already celebrated Todd Marinovich, quarterback at Mission Viejo's Capistrano Valley High who follows a rigorous program devised by his father, Marv.

"No, no, no, not at all," he says. "I wasn't forced to play anything. If I wanted to play it, I could play it."

It's a weekday in Denver before the Broncos leave for California. Elway is standing under the practice bubble at the team facility, circled by 30 or so writers and broadcasters. It's the smallest gathering of press he'll see for a while. When he gets to San Diego, it will be ballroom city.

He wears a plaid shirt, jeans, no socks and moccasins. He grins embarrassed grins, and actually scuffs the artificial turf with his toe now and then.

About all the compliments he's received lately:

"Makes up for my first three years here," he says, laughing.

"Sure it's nice, it's flattering."

How about embarrassing?

"To a point. But I think you take the accolades like you take the negative press--that's in one ear and right out the other, and realize that you're only remembered on your last game.

"So, you know, I'm still the same guy I was when I walked in here. And I'll still be the same guy when I walk out."

The thing about these coronations, they have one a year and somebody becomes a little legend for a while. The months pass and someone else's team gets hot and up in the pantheon, they move the old legend over to make room for the newcomer.

Of course, Elway stands alone. He arrived with extra promise and added expectations. From him, more is asked, and more will be delivered.

His last game of the season is a few days off. After that, it'll either be St. Elway or St. Elsewhere.

What the heck, it's a living.

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