Elway Retires, and Sports Is Running Out of Heroes

The horizon is full now, a sleek number 23 and a quick number 99 joined by a stocky No. 7.

Jordan, Gretzky and Elway.

Into the shadows they step, together, too soon, a loss too high to calculate, a sight almost too much to bear.

A sports era of character and virtue appropriately ended in weeping and gratitude Sunday when football's John Elway officially retired less than four months after the retirements of basketball's Michael Jordan and hockey's Wayne Gretzky.

"It's time for me to move on, I can't do it physically anymore . . . and that's hard to say," said a tearful Elway, 38, during a Denver press conference featuring several emotional pauses while the legendary tough guy composed himself.

Hard to say, even harder to hear, particularly now, as the three retirements have combined to strip today's slicked and tattooed pro sports world of some of its last threads of dignity.

In Jordan, we lost grace.

In Gretzky, we lost humility.

In Elway, as everyone was so vividly reminded Sunday, we have lost heart.

Perhaps no athlete has ever done more, with less, and for longer, than the Granada Hills kid who became the 16-year quarterback for the Denver Broncos.

Elway won two Super Bowls, but only after he lost three.

His 148 wins are the most for any quarterback in NFL history, but he needed fourth-quarter comebacks in nearly a third of them.

In Jordan, we remember soaring.

In Gretzky, we remember speed.

In Elway, we will remember swagger, a hobbling and mud-stained quarterback bravely leading his team into driving snow and overwhelming odds.

While Jordan and Gretzky are arguably the greatest athletes in their respective sports' history, Elway might not even be football's best quarterback. Joe Montana won two more Super Bowls, Dan Marino has thrown for more yards.

But with scrambling, slinging passes underneath the last ticks of giant clocks, Elway took us to places we had never been, showing us a grace under pressure that has rarely been seen.

So who will take us there now?

The retirement of the three legends is only the latest plague upon a once-rich sports landscape.

A wondrous 1998--perhaps the best sports year in history with record-setting accomplishments of baseball's Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Cal Ripken Jr., the New York Yankees and basketball's Chicago Bulls--has been replaced by a dreary 1999.

The Super Bowl was stained when Eugene Robinson of the Atlanta Falcons was arrested the night before the game for allegedly soliciting sex, just hours after he had been given the National Football League's highest award for moral character.

The national college basketball championship--won in an upset by Connecticut--was given a sad footnote when Connecticut's star guard Khalid El-Amin was arrested 15 days later on marijuana possession charges.

The NBA labor problems have led to a shortened, hurried season filled with poor play and locker room turmoil.

The Olympics absorbed a black eye with a series of bribery scandals.

Boxing, with both eyes permanently blackened, absorbed a belly punch when Lennox Lewis clearly upset heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, yet the fight was ruled a draw, leading to an investigation of judge tampering.

Joe DiMaggio died. Mike Tyson went back to jail. Dennis Rodman stayed in the game (for a while, anyway).

And it's only May.

So where do we look now?

The only thing bigger than the impression left by Jordan, Gretzky and Elway is the vacuum created by their absence.

Where, indeed, will we find another basketball player who can stir our imagination while reassuring our faith like Mike? Certainly not with some of the stars of today who curse their coaches and show up to practice without their shoes.

Where can we find another hockey player good enough to be called The Great One, yet completely embarrassed by the name? Quick, can anybody even name another hockey player?

And when will there be another Elway? He told a story Sunday that illustrated why there might never be.

During a final downtown dinner with teammates Saturday night, Elway's car was towed from a no-parking zone.

Although he is the most popular man in the history of Colorado,

Elway nonetheless shrugged and walked three miles through an industrial area to the tow lot.

He said he was so embarrassed when cars full of prom-night teenagers passed by, that he hid his face.

Once at the lot, he shrugged again when he was forced to show his proper identification before being given the keys.

This story would never happen to many of today's younger superstars.

First, few of them drive, preferring instead to hire a limousine or a bodyguard to do it for them.

Second, they would never walk to a tow lot when they could pull out a cell phone, call their agent, and badger him into dropping off his car and walking to the tow lot for them.

Finally, if they were passed by carloads of kids, they might wave them down, ask for a ride, and charge for autographs along the way.

"I never want to stop competing, but I just can't compete on this level anymore," Elway said Sunday.

In many ways, for many reasons, the "level" formed by Jordan, Gretzky and Elway no longer exists.

It's obviously about a big change in the money. But it's also about a big change in us.

Look first at today's record salaries, caused by record TV and advertising dollars, caused by record fan interest.

Today's top young professionals are paid so much, so soon, they are set for life by the time they throw their first pass or shoot their first hoop.

With these three, it was never that way. When they began their careers in the early 1980s, you still had to cash in on the field before you could cash in anywhere else.

With that abundance of money comes a complete lack of team loyalty. It is not a coincidence that two of the three great ones played their entire careers in the same towns, and Gretzky mostly only moved when he was traded. This led to a sense of responsibility that they carried into their lives off the field.

Today, the players who stay in the same place are often as branded as the meek and underpaid ones. Everybody moves, everybody is always new. Athletes don't worry about embarrassing themselves in front of the neighbors because none of them know their neighbors.

But the biggest change has perhaps occurred in us. We used to expect more from our athletes. Right or wrong, it wasn't just enough to be great players, they needed to be good people.

We held them to a higher standard than we even held ourselves. And the great ones rose to the challenge.

Elway became Denver's leading citizen because Denver would settle for nothing less. Gretzky was careful to never do anything that would raise eyebrows among his fellow Canadians. Jordan understood that he was performing not just for a Chicago gymnasium, but the world.

Today, the standards have been lowered, and the rules have been simplified.

If you win, you will be forgiven.

Jordan, Gretzky and Elway have all played in Los Angeles in the last five years, when they had long since become legends. Yet none were afforded the sort of loud fan appreciation that Laker fans consistently offered Rodman, who made more news off the court than on.

"I don't know why I'm crying," Elway said during his press conference. "I'm not going anywhere."

Oh, but he is, he's already long gone, he and Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky, what they were and what they represented and how they made us feel. And right about now, crying makes as much sense as anything.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address:

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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* PROMISE FULFILLED

John Elway came into the NFL 16 years ago wondering if he could live up to the hype. D1

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Marks of Greatness

Comparing the careers of three legendary athletes who have retired in 1999: Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and John Elway, who announced his retirement Sunday.

Jordan NBA

Teams: 1

Seasons: 13

Seasons in playoffs: 13

Championships: 6

All-Star / Pro Bowl: 11

MVP awards: 5

MVP of playoffs: 6

Age at retirement: 35

Gretzky NHL

Teams: 4

Seasons: 20

Seasons in playoffs: 17

Championships: 4

All-Star / Pro Bowl: 18

MVP awards: 9

MVP of playoffs: 2

Age at retirement: 38

Elway NFL

Teams: 1

Seasons: 16

Seasons in playoffs: 10

Championships: 2

All-Star / Pro Bowl: 9

MVP awards: 0

MVP of playoffs: 1

Age at retirement: 38

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