Last Tuesday afternoon, KOA Radio’s Dave Logan closed an interview with the words, “and that was Peyton Manning, quarterback of the Denver Broncos.”
And, with that hard-to-fathom joyous melody floating in my head on a glorious first day of spring, I fell into a lapse of nostalgia, thinking of then-and-now days of wine and roses for the once and future Bronco Nation.
That’s when it dawned on me how Denver managed to land its Second Once-in-a-Lifetime Franchise Quarterback. Simply put, just like the “old days,” # 7 dropped back, didn’t like what he saw downfield in the Broncos’ future, and used his patented magic touch to pull out a victory.
Yes, that’s right — Denver’s Original Once-in-a-Lifetime Franchise Quarterback again miraculously delivered a gift to his Denver family. I half expected to see John Elway hoist Peyton Manning in the air and yell, “THIS ONE’S FOR PAT (BOWLEN)! AND FOR ALL THE REST OF YOU WHO’VE STUCK WITH ME AND THE BRONCOS THROUGH THE YEARS!”
Elway’s former miracles as our quarterback were, in large part, based on very unique God-given athletic prowess, including a Golden Arm, a world-class football coach as his Dad and best friend, and a superior football savvy and intellect. But his latest miracle was based on having “been there and done that,” while courting a new guy with a very unique God-given athletic prowess, including a Golden Arm, a world-class football player as his father and best friend, and a superior football savvy and intellect.
Clearly, without John Elway’s own pioneering baptism by the fiery and harsh spotlight of NFL super-stardom, the Broncos would not have landed Peyton Manning, who is probably the most recognizable superstar the NFL has yet to produce (well, not counting OJ, anyway).
It was most insightful to hear Elway referring to his goal of making Manning “the greatest quarterback of all time,” because in that one statement # 7 said several things:
— I’m unselfish and will do whatever it takes to get you back to the Super Bowl, (and by the way, for all the critics, that what I would have been trying to do for Tim Tebow as well);
— You might have more yards, touchdowns, etc. than I do, but you need a few more victories and at least one more Lombardi Trophy; this is about Championships not individual records;
— The Broncos are your home now, and your job is far from done.
That Elway went on to note that he was a year older than Manning is now when he finally won his first Super Bowl and that he planned to do for Manning everything Mike Shanahan had done for him, was wonderful perspective about his commitment to both Broncos Tradition and Excellence.
In May 1983, a shaggy-haired blonde surfer looking dude who played quarterback for Stanford was the number 1 pick of the NFL draft. Thanks primarily to his wise and football savvy father, John Elway used his marketability as a professional baseball player to insist that the Baltimore Colts trade him — thankfully, he would never wear a Colts uniform, opting instead for 16 seasons as the quarterback of the Denver Broncos.
For most Broncos fans whose loyalty to the Broncos predated the team’s first visit to the Super Bowl after the 1978 season, this was finally going to be the real deal. Our affection and expectations for John Elway were exuberant, boundless, and exciting for us, and simultaneously daunting to the eventual point of near “suffocation” for Number 7.
We had the “Elway watch” of training camp (in Greeley in those days), and over the years we went from simply wanting to know where he got his hair cut to stalking him and his family and trying to find out what kind of candy they passed out on Halloween and how much he tipped at restaurants, and on and on.
And we had a head-coach named Dan Reeves, who although well intentioned enough, was nonetheless “old school” and iron willed to the point of nearly driving our Franchise Quarterback out of town with his insistence on a domineering and unimaginative offensive scheme.
Week after week, Coach Reeves’ game plan unfolded more or less as follows: First down-Sammy Winder up the middle; Second down-Sammy Winder up the middle; Third down (and 8 to 9 yards to go), John Elway go figure out how to get a first down by throwing to one of your average sized, average speed receivers or scrambling yourself.
Yet through all of the adversity and underinvestment in top NFL talent, we somehow knew that John Elway would be on the field every week and that Denver therefore had a good chance to win every game. If you are too young or too new to Denver to remember the Broncos’ seasons between 1983 and 1995, I encourage you to find another “old time” Bronco fan to confirm this point. Simply put, the Broncos were a one-man offense with a mediocre to slightly better than average defense for most of Elway’s career. Our few bona fide superstars, Randy Gradishar, Louis Wright, Billy Thompson, and Tom Jackson were merely finishing up their careers when Number 7 got to town. To anyone who was critical of Denver’s three Super Bowl losses during that period, more knowledgeable NFL fans throughout the country were well aware that, but for Elway, we had no business getting to those lofty playoff heights in the first place.
The absolute low point of modern Broncos history began in 1992, when Dan Reeves’ incompetence in the draft and his unwillingness to build a championship-caliber team around our once-in-a-lifetime thoroughbred quarterback reached a point of professional malpractice and spitefulness:
He drafted TOMMY MADDOX as Denver’s quarterback of the future with his first round pick! I still get annoyed remembering that boneheaded and mean-spirited gaffe!
But back to the point, which is Elway’s continued commitment to Pat Bowlen, the Broncos, and Colorado.
General William Tecumseh Sherman made the immortal tongue-in-cheek comment about the close personal friendship and bond of trust between him and his commander, Ulysses S. Grant: “He stuck by me when I was insane, and I stuck by him when he was drunk.” With similar irreverent humor and fondness, I suggest that Denver stuck with Elway when he wasn’t good enough to win Super Bowls, and he stuck with us when we were just a bunch of overbearing Cow Town hicks.
And along the way, in 1987, 1988, 1990, 1998, and 1999, he took our hopes and dreams to the Super Bowl with him. His record was 2 wins and 3 losses in the big game, and while I remember in painstaking detail every moment of the three losses, I just don’t care because he won the last two, and more significantly, over a 16 year
career he conditioned us to demand excellence and expect greatness every single year.
We’ve suffered through a strange and overly long interregnum of mediocre quarterbacks with names like Brister, Greise, Miller, Jackson, Plummer, Simms, Kanell, Beuerlein, Frerotte, Orton, and yes, TEBOW, while we tried to find our way back to the Promised Land of Hope in the fall and Lombardi in the winter. Thanks to the inexplicable obstinance of Mike Shanahan in his desire to prove he could win Superbowls without a star quarterback, and Josh McDaniels’ determination to drive away the one potential star quarterback Shanahan was finally able to attract (Jay Cutler), our greatness ended when # 7, aka The Duke, rode off into the sunset of retirement with a final victory for a second consecutive World Championship and the Super Bowl MVP Award (XXXII) in 1999.
But now the surfer kid with the Golden Arm is back, and while he looks a couple of years older, he’s still accomplishing miracles for Denver. Thanks John, thanks Pat, and thanks Peyton. And double thanks to the Irsay family.
A final note: As I’m filing this column, it’s just been announced that Tim Tebow will join the New York Jets. Well that should work out great, what with no media intensity or cynicism, and no Manning to be compared to — oops, never mind.
Patrick Teegarden is an award-winning contributing columnist for The Colorado Statesman, usually writing about the Civil War. But this week, he returned to his roots as a former sports columnist for our newspaper on the occasion of the Denver Bronco’s acquisition of Peyton Manning. Teegarden was recently honored with a second place award for column writing in the Colorado Press Association Better Newspaper Contest. He currently works as a legislative liaison in state government.