Inside John Elway

Seth Wickersham, ESPN The Magazine (

Imagine John Elway dead.

Elway has. He’s envisioned it, wondered about it. He’s in his office on a June day in the midst of a nasty and personal contract dispute with the reigning Super Bowl MVP. He has replaced a future Hall of Fame quarterback with the author of the Butt Fumble and two guys who’ve never played, and he’s thinking repeat. His right knee hurts; getting out of bed is harder than it was even two years ago. He has written himself two storybook endings, both as a quarterback and a general manager, and he could walk away with his legacy secure and spend the rest of his life jetting to golf courses. But the very idea of a comfortable life feels like death. Elway knows he will be a geezer one day, his body surrendering to life the way it surrendered to football, but the biological imperative, the compulsion to win, will still be there, trapped in an irreversible senescence. It’s his fate. And so he leans in over his desk, unveiling that familiar grin, and utters maybe the most Elway thing ever: “I’ve always thought I was going to die … with a shovel; in case I woke up, I could dig my way out.”

His eyes widen. “It’s never over over until it’s over.”


TO HEAR HIM speak of death as a hurdle, a dare, an obstacle to clear like first-and-98, makes me think of John Elway and, well, a waffle maker.

It was January 2011, the first day of Senior Bowl week in Mobile, Alabama. Shortly after 6 a.m. in the restaurant of a downtown Hampton Inn, scouts swarmed around the breakfast buffet before heading out to practice for player weigh-ins — the grunt work, the stuff nobody wants to do. Out of the lobby elevator, barrel-chested, bowlegged and pigeon-toed, came John Elway.

He was less than three weeks into his new job running the Broncos. He wore a leather jacket. Desk clerks stared. Scouts stared. It was like Springsteen had showed up for open mic night. Elway approached the waffle maker, poured the batter and clamped the irons. The red light didn’t come on. He flipped it over. Nothing. He fiddled with it. Still nothing. Then he got that look he gets when he’s imposing his will. Brow furrowed, tongue hugging his upper lip. The look from when he threw the bullet that capped The Drive, the look from when he launched himself into three Packers near the goal line in Super Bowl XXXII. A look of high stakes let loose on a breakfast buffet, raising the question: Why, exactly, was he here?

He earned a fortune in football and a fortune in the car business. He suffered through a divorce and the deaths of his twin sister and his father. He won an Arena League championship running the Colorado Crush. He golfed and traveled. Now he was slumming with the scouts, losing to a waffle maker and getting back into the fray at a time when Joe Montana was growing grapes and Dan Marino was working a cushy studio job. Elway was the only person in Mobile who didn’t have to be there. And yet he did have to be there.

It was the only way he knew.

HE’S STILL GRINDING at his desk on a June morning more than five years later, architect of the defending Super Bowl champions. His phone flashes with texts. He’s in a red polo shirt and white shorts, hair frosted blond and slightly thinning, face lined and worn. He shifts a lot, realigning an old football body, but he’s in excellent shape, the result of a newfound obsession with cycling. Covering one wall is the depth chart, where Elway often loses himself, staring, imagining possibilities, permitting himself a smile when his eyes reach the corner where one of his daughters scribbled, “Hi, Dad, I love you.” On the other side of his office is a deck overlooking football fields. His burgundy desk is in the middle of the room, and the business cards stacked there serve as mementos to visitors, just as the game balls and pictures and trophies lining the back wall do for Elway.

The day before, Elway and most of the Broncos were at the White House being honored by President Obama. A proud Republican, he refused to attend the Super Bowl-champion ceremonies with President Clinton in the late 1990s. Now he was in the Rose Garden, tweeting, laughing at Obama’s jokes, posing for pictures on the South Lawn. When did you become such a f—ing p—y? his friends asked later. Elway had no good answer. He’s 56 years old, and nothing is guaranteed.

At the White House, Von Miller reposted a picture of himself and a few teammates on Instagram — and cropped out Elway, who was standing on the edge. The slight was part of their now-settled contract dispute and part of what seems to be an annual ritual between Elway and a star player. A few of his friends joked that the crop job was something Elway himself might have done back in the day. Miller’s camp suspected the Broncos had been trying to shame the linebacker into settling by leaking details of their contract offer, and at the ring ceremony a few days after the White House, Miller asked Elway why he had allowed their impasse to turn public. “When you sign a long-term deal, you’ll forget about it all,” Elway replied. Agents began to compare negotiating with Elway to negotiating with the notoriously hard-line Patriots, and a few football writers opined that he was scaring away good players from Denver.

Now Elway sits alone in his office. He won’t allow himself to get “emotionally involved” with players and even most staff, lest he end up cutting them one day. Of course, all GMs say that stuff. But the stakes are high with Elway and not just because he threatens his reputation as a player — “greatest locker room quarterback,” in the words of his former coach Mike Shanahan — with every front office move. He says he simply loves “competing and achieving,” but as he stares at the depth chart and explains moves, he goes further. Becoming a grandfather a couple of years ago made him aware of his mortality in a way the end of his playing career had not. “You need the highs and the lows,” he says. “Because if it gets this way” — he draws a flat line in the air — “it kind of feels like you’re not really doing anything.”

HE DOESN’T LOOK like he’s doing anything an hour later as he watches practice. He stands on the field, shifting weight off his bad knee, sometimes on the sideline with the players, other times alone on the other side of the field. He watches to see how the guys get along, how they jell as a team.

Elway is one of the most famous GMs in NFL history, but when he took the Broncos job, he had the walls of his office replaced with glass so staffers would feel comfortable stopping by. He lets employees leave the office early if they have a softball game to coach or an anniversary dinner to plan, and during the holidays last December, he helped arrange for high-end retailers to visit team headquarters to make Christmas shopping easier. He downplays his fame within the organization but isn’t afraid to leverage it externally. An NFL GM who grew up as an Elway fan had a deal with the Broncos scuttled by his team’s executives because they feared Elway was fleecing their guy, suckering him with a hard count. For laughs, the bosses left it to their GM to break the news that the deal was off, and he was so conciliatory in doing so, some of the Broncos’ staffers on the call wondered whether it might end in an autograph request.

Elway gets restless at practice and imagines himself out there, taking snaps, making reads. The hardest thing about being a GM is the stillness of it, sitting around watching film. He never wanted to be a coach because he couldn’t explain his own gifts — the improvisation in the midst of disaster, the routine cross-field throws that sent legions of mimicking high school quarterbacks to the bench. Sometimes he still feels the itch to let one fly, even if his body no longer allows it. “Until a few years ago, I still thought I could play,” he says.

Still, it frustrates Elway when people think of him as a jock in a front office gig. He wants to remind people that he didn’t just play at Stanford, he graduated Stanford with an economics degree. But he also sort of appreciates the fuel it provides; logs on a fire. In 2001, bored after two years in retirement, Elway asked Shanahan for a job with the Broncos. Shanahan said there was no job for him. The next year, hell-bent on proving he was serious about succeeding in his second act, Elway bought an ownership stake in the Colorado Crush, an Arena League franchise. He took on the role of GM and appeared in cheesy commercials with Jon Bon Jovi, owner of the Philadelphia Soul. He wasn’t just lending a famous face to a new league. He was grinding, learning every facet of running a football team. “I looked at it as my MBA,” he says. “People didn’t think it was a big deal. But it was to me.”

When Pat Bowlen asked him to return and run the Broncos in 2011, some in the organization thought Elway might be the second coming of Marino, who notoriously lasted three weeks as a Dolphins executive in 2004. They didn’t know that Jack Elway, a college football coach in the 1970s and ’80s, had raised his son not only to love competition but to use it as a means of self-actualization, beginning in third grade when he’d challenge John to set a world record fetching his slippers. Competition ended for Montana and Marino when their careers did; for Elway, it ends when life does. He has to play night golf to tire himself out and keep the TV on to calm his mind to sleep, and even so, he’ll often wake up in the middle of the night, almost as if he’s biologically compelled to compete. More than the excitement of winning, Elway is hooked on the “excitement of not knowing” what’s possible, what he’s capable of. He was never immune to pressure the way Montana was. When he jogged onto the field late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXXII, with the game tied 24-24 and just over three minutes left, he didn’t look for John Candy in the stands. He looked inside. He thought what every viewer thought: This is his whole career right here.

His intensity isn’t for everybody. It wasn’t for John Fox, who did many things well after Elway hired him as coach in 2011, including winning 46 games in four years. Elway’s doubts began after Fox turned conservative on offense and his defense blew coverage in a January 2013 playoff collapse against the Ravens. The next year at the Super Bowl, after a week of disorganized practices, Elway had a bad feeling. The morning of the game, he woke up at 3 a.m. in a dull panic in a dark New Jersey hotel room. He knew his team wasn’t good enough. He wasn’t good enough. His friends say the offseason after Denver’s Super Bowl XLVIII loss to Seattle was as miserable as any in Elway’s life. It harkened back to being humiliated as a player who had lost three Super Bowls. Elway gets quiet when he’s in a bad mood, orders another drink, turns inward, blames himself, jokes in a nonjoking way about jumping off a building. “When you get older, you feel like you’re getting smarter,” he says in his office. “You should be better. You should know more.”

A rising lack of discipline under Fox prompted Elway to sometimes yell at the team because Fox wouldn’t. Before a late-season practice in 2014, Fox turned to a few people on the sideline and asked, “Isn’t winning the division enough?” A few weeks later, after the Broncos came out flat in a divisional playoff loss to the Colts, Fox got his answer.

Elway wishes he had spent more time talking with his father about life off the field. “We had so many talks, but usually it was about football, how I can get better playing, rather than philosophical things,” he says.

The inside of Elway’s steakhouse in the Cherry Creek neighborhood of Denver is usually dark and crowded, and the stool gets moved around a lot. But on most nights, at the corner of the bar nearest the grand piano, sits one gold bar stool in a sea of red ones. It’s in memory of Jack Elway. When John sits on the stool with a Dewar’s rocks, it tears him up that his dad isn’t there with a martini, dreaming, plotting, laughing. Jack gave John the first and last scouting reports of his career. On the first day of ninth grade, he dropped him off at school and asked what position he’d play. “Running back,” John said. Jack shook his head and shifted the Impala into park. You’re not as fast as you used to be, Jack told him. “Fifteen minutes later,” Elway says, “I got out of the car a quarterback.”

Decades later, in May 1999, Jack and John sat at the bar in Elway’s house. After 16 years in the league, Elway had all but retired in his mind, sick of the pain and grind. But he needed a final judgment. John had quit a sport only once, when Jack told him it was OK to retire from the wrestling team in eighth grade after a match with an opponent who smelled. Now Jack could see in John’s eyes that the game wasn’t as fun as it used to be. It’s time, he said. John called Bowlen that night to break the news, and father and son stayed up all that night trading old stories, celebrating a career that neither of them could have predicted in the parked Impala.

“It’ll take five years,” Jack always said. Five years to get over the hole left by football. Elway planned for it, even before he retired. He ran his car dealerships. He dove into golf. Friends say he traveled to so many tournaments he was home in retirement less than in his playing days. Still, it felt empty. “I needed a focus,” he says. Shanahan let Elway into the draft room for a few weeks in 2001. He sat alongside his dad, then a Broncos scout, talking ball. On a Friday shortly before the 2001 draft, Jack got away to Palm Springs, California, for the weekend. He died of a heart attack two days later, on Easter morning. Now when Elway thinks about his dad, he wishes they had spent more time talking about life beyond the field. “We had so many talks, but usually it was about football, how I can get better playing, rather than philosophical things.”

His mother, Jan, once said that John grew to be more like his dad as he aged. Elway’s imperative to win at all endeavors intensified with age rather than dissipated. He based his approach to scouting on Jack’s golden rule: “Look for heart first.” When Elway took over the Broncos, many close to him wondered whether he was ruthless enough for the job. Jack was “loyal to a fault,” Elway says, and was fired at Stanford in the 1980s because he refused to fire his assistants. In February 2015, when he asked Peyton Manning to take a pay cut, John Elway thought about his dad and wondered how to weigh the shrewdness required in the job with the hope of living up to the standard set by his old man. “So many times, I say, ‘OK, what would Dad do?'” he says.

Elway always believed in Manning. He believed in him enough to trade Tim Tebow after a playoff win in 2012 and to give Manning a $90 million contract when the future Hall of Famer could barely throw a slant. He loved Manning’s work ethic and alternated between amusement and annoyance at his controlling personality. The two argued about issues as minute as how the Broncos would inform players they were being cut after the team had yanked a few players off the field during practice warm-ups. Then, in their 2015 playoff upset of the Broncos, the Colts hit Manning low and hard on his first pass, square on his torn quad. Manning threw a lot of fade routes the rest of the game, the preferred pass of a quarterback seeing ghosts. In the wake of the loss, Elway asked the 38-year-old Manning to do what Elway himself had done at age 38: take a pay cut, reportedly from $19 million to the $10 million range, most of which could be earned back in bonuses. Elway promised to use the money to strengthen the roster.

He wanted Manning to practice less and rest more, to pass less and hand off more. Most of all, he wanted Manning to face reality. “All the great athletes, they don’t want to admit anything,” Elway says. He was more blunt than strategic with Manning, as he often is, and the negotiations became tense. Manning told staffers he didn’t think his boss understood how much year-round work he put in to help his body. Elway told people in the building he was prepared to move on to Brock Osweiler.

The negotiation became a test of Manning’s will to win, and of Elway’s ability to close. In 2012, he had sold Manning on the Broncos by promising to help him become “the best quarterback of all time.” Now he tried speaking to Manning as Jack would, to be “a man of his word” who “had the ability to ask the right questions to get the right answers.” Elway could see the ghosts Manning couldn’t. He knew Peyton would be adrift after walking away. He knew the wiring that helped him achieve heights in football would conspire against him after he retired. They both knew Super Bowls are the only thing people remember.

“Do you want to be considered better than Brady?” Elway asked. “Championships will be the tiebreaker.”

They settled at $14 million. Elway used the money to bolster the offensive line, signing guard Evan Mathis. He was quietly building a special team by trying to live up to his father’s legacy. And his own.

Elway loved Manning’s work ethic and alternated between amusement and annoyance with his controlling personality.

Kubiak tells this story in the Broncos’ cafeteria, a couple of feet from Elway. Few people have a clearer glimpse into Elway — and the hidden tolls of greatness — than Kubiak, his backup-turned-coach-turned-employee. How does he describe Elway’s competitiveness? It’s best told in random moments, brief glimpses, such as when Elway dresses up in complete biking gear and pounds through the hills of Denver, his heart rate reaching 160, much higher than his doctors advise for a man his age. Or when he meets a few scouts at 6 a.m. during the season for workouts and ends up on the training table, too sore to move. Or the other day, when Kubiak glanced at a TV and saw that Elway had the second-best amateur finish in the Colorado Senior Open. “I don’t know that I can explain it,” Kubiak says.

Elway thinks about his dad and twin sister, Jana, when he works out. If he lost his hero when Jack died, he lost a partner when Jana did, in 2002. He speaks of her as if their bond is telepathic and still enduring. As a kid crawling on the floor, he’d always turn to see if she was near. Coming up, she knew how his entire self-worth was tied to football, and so she was deeply invested too. As adults, their marriages all but ended within weeks of each other. Shortly after Jack died, Jana was diagnosed with lung cancer. Elway got her into clinical trials at Stanford and bought her a new home near him in Palo Alto and told her to take cancer head-on. He was filming an Arena League commercial when word arrived that she didn’t have much time. As she was wheeled into a CT scan, she approached death the way Elway hopes he can someday. She kept trying to wrestle off her oxygen mask as Elway yelled at her to keep it on. Finally, she said “I’ll be back,” put on the mask and slid her fingers up as if to run them through her hair. Then she stopped, with her middle finger pressed against her forehead. John was the last person to see her alive; she died during that scan, on July 23. He told friends it took him 10 years to visit her grave. “We were womb mates,” he says. “She was always kind of there.”

The losses of Jana and Jack are not only something Elway lives with, they’re something he uses to keep living. As he slowly rebuilt his support system, it came to resemble the one from his playing days, down to the playbook. His second wife, Paige Green, grew up a block away from his high school in Granada Hills. On their first date, he took her to Roy’s, a Hawaiian joint in the Valley. He kept his house in Denver so his kids would visit, and bring their kids. He rejoined the Broncos. And he hired Kubiak, whose system so much resembles the one Elway ran at the end of his career that he recognizes specific plays. Elway has always had a healthy relationship with nostalgia, neither pining for the old days nor running from them. When I ask him to tell the story behind the helicopter play in Super Bowl XXXII, he does so with vigor and comedy and earnestness but with a certain detachment, as if he doesn’t define himself by it and doesn’t want the world to either. He remembers the play as a “confidence builder, to know that on that stage I could play that way.” It’s surprising to hear, as if even in that moment he saw himself as a work in progress. And still does.

The day after beating the Patriots in the AFC championship, Elway was back in Mobile, slumming with the scouts at the Senior Bowl. In the hours following the Super Bowl win over the Panthers in February, he sat in his suite in the Santa Clara Marriott, celebrating with a small group of friends. Around 4 a.m., the children of Broncos president Joe Ellis egged on Elway to wake up their dad, who had fallen asleep in a nearby suite. Elway pounced into bed. “He flew into me,” Ellis says.

“This is great,” Ellis said.

“We can get better!” Elway said. “I’m telling you — we can get better next year!”

ELWAY ISN’T OLD, of course, but he’s nearing an age at which people he knows are dying. The other day, someone he knew who wasn’t much older suddenly died of a heart attack. “You never know,” he says, shaking his head. In July, he went to France. Most of his vacation was spent working, tapping away on his phone, dealing with Miller’s contract, digging in before finally compromising. One night in Nice, he detached. He walked down a promenade near the Mediterranean — the exact stretch where a terrorist driving a truck would strike three nights later. “Scary to say the least,” he says.

Elway returned to work a few weeks later, where the familiar urges kicked in, driven to repeat as if something greater than a Super Bowl were on the line. Considering his generally low draft spots, the mess he inherited, the unpredictability of player performance and the stakes of his own celebrity, it’s remarkable how rarely he has whiffed. But from Miller to Osweiler to Manning and others, there’s always a shadow with Elway, a lingering rancor and drama that not only seems unnecessary but also deeply personal. He tries to rationalize the conflicts with salary cap jargon and clinical analysis but then utters a confession of sorts. “There’s always an easy way out, and I just can’t do it. That’s how you get fired.”

John Elway might have more job security than anyone in the NFL. But he knows this will likely be the last meaningful job of his life, and he knows the iron rule of football is that it always ends on its terms, not yours. A few nights earlier, Mike Shanahan walked with me down a long hallway toward the trophy room in his home. “I never come in here anymore,” he said, turning on the lights. Two Lombardi trophies sat in a showcase on the wall, glistening but somehow cold. Nobody could touch Shanahan when he won those Super Bowls as head coach of the Broncos in 1998 and 1999. But he’s since been fired twice and recently lost out on the 49ers job when San Francisco opted for Chip Kelly, the younger guy. “It’s OK,” Shanahan said. But when the business of winning and losing is the essence of your life, a part of you feels like you’re dying when it’s taken away. “The line in the NFL is this thin,” Shanahan said, holding together two fingers.

Now Elway looks at his favorite memento in the office — a picture of his toddler grandson wearing an orange No. 7 jersey — and says he feels “officially older” in a young man’s game. Ask him how long he’ll remain in this job and he says, “I don’t know. … Once I get to be 65, 70 years old. How am I going to fulfill that urge to compete?”

He twists in his chair. His voice lowers.

“I think about it all the time.”

ON A FRIDAY morning in June, the Broncos’ facility in Englewood is dark and quiet. Most of the staff is off, given a three-day weekend. At the end of a windowless hallway in the main building, there’s a white glow.

It’s Elway’s office.

He’s been here for hours. His eyes are pink and worn. He looks sallow. He yawns. There’s a quiet desperation to life in the NFL. What’s often romanticized is actually mundane. Long hours staring at video of yesterday’s practice. On another TV in the office is live coverage of Muhammad Ali’s memorial service. Elway watches practice, zipping through plays from different angles. He’s distracted by the service. He didn’t grow up an Ali fan. In 1979, Jack told John to get his ass down and register for the draft and he did. But he seems drawn to Ali now in death, as a cultural touchstone, as people debate his impact. It seems to briefly make Elway reflective. How will he be remembered? How does he want to be remembered?

A staffer peeks his head in, reminding Elway of a coming tee time. Elway glances at the clock high above the door. “Thanks,” he says. He doesn’t get up. He shifts his aching knee and fixes his eyes back on the practice film. A rookie fullback snares a high pass. Elway rewinds. Replays. He seems pleased, energized. He moves to the next play.

The tee time comes and goes. The Ali coverage ends. All that’s left is John Elway, alone and looking alive.

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