Standing in line at the local convenience store while waiting to buy an energy drink to help out my tireless radio producer, I saw a small sign sitting atop the cluttered gas station counter. The sign was simple enough; white in color with bold-black Arial font, but it was what the sign read that had me aghast: “You must have been born on this date in the year 2000 to purchase tobacco products.”

As I made my commute, scarfing down the less-than-healthy treats I had purchased for myself on way to the Mile High Sports studios, I pondered the passage of time. The year 2000? That can’t be right!

I couldn’t get over it. I crunched the numbers and tried my best at the math, finding each time that it added up correctly. A kid born on today’s date in 2000 is now 18 years old — and can now buy tobacco. I’ve never felt so old. A simple black-and-white sign, one only a few inches tall, and yet it made me feel so old, so out of touch. Where did all the time go?

On May 1st, 1999, I graduated from high school. More importantly, on that very same day, John Elway made his final decision to retire from professional football. On May 2nd, Elway stood in front of the media with tears in his eyes, and said, “I can’t do it physically anymore, and that’s really hard for me to say.”

It was, without question, the most vulnerable and humble Bronco fans had ever seen John Elway in his career. He looked fragile, he looked tired… he looked mortal. John Elway finally looked like one of us. Many wiped away the same tears watching him in that moment, intuitively feeling that an extraordinary era had come to an end, and an uncertain future was upon them.

On January 2nd, 2018, Elway once again stood in front of the media — but this time, thousands of Broncos fans also watched online — speaking in humbled tones at times, and again admitting to his faults and limitations. Elway looked human once more. “I am always trying to get better and I don’t have all the answers,” Elway said on Tuesday, faced with the undeniable truth that more than a few of his decisions in his role as general manager turned out to be the wrong ones. “I want to search and find all the answers, because I want this team to be as good as it can possibly be. I am fortunate of the fact that I have played for a long time, and I have been in this job for seven years. Therefore, I am always trying to get better. As soon as I think I have it down, I will retire.”

For so many of us who grew up with John Elway as ‘our’ quarterback, we felt sympathy, we felt his frustration and disappointment — and we still have faith in what No. 7 can do for this Broncos football team. The sons and daughters of the Elway era remain united, always and forever.

But to the ever-growing legion of younger Broncos fans coming up; those now able to vote, buy lottery tickets and put their name on the list for season tickets of their own, John Elway is just another President of Football Operations. To younger Broncos fans, Elway has no suit of armor or a cape. They’d heard of his legend, of course, but like Michael Jordan or even Babe Ruth, he’s only a part of documentary footage. Elway, to them, is nothing particularly special. He’s another tie-wearing executive who hires and fires people at will, nothing more and nothing less.

For those of us who still think of Elway as ‘The Duke of Denver’, he gets a pass, for this year, for last year — for probably any other year that the Broncos don’t reach our expectations. Elway’s sterling history as a player can’t be tarnished by Bronco fans who watched him in person; he can do no wrong and we assume that he simply knows what’s best for the Broncos. No matter what he does behind a desk, all we can see is the young buck, covered in Cleveland mud, that could bring the Broncos back with less than two minutes left on the clock. Or as the third-down gunslinger who, with little or no help, could will his way past the first-down marker, with either his feet or his rocket arm. Those of us who were around to watch John Elway — the player — we can think of no one better to fix the Denver Broncos, and lead them to dizzying heights once again.

The sons of daughters of that generation are themselves graduating from high schools across Colorado and Rocky Mountain region in just a few short months. This new generation of Broncos fans knows of Elway the player in the same way that their parents knew of Willie Mays and Jim Brown — legends passed along from Mom and Dad that couldn’t ever connect in the same way to them.

These fans know only Elway the general manager. A general manager, who has struggled without Peyton Manning taking the snaps, going 14-18 while missing on the ‘quarterback of the future’ — twice. A general manager who has fired more head coaches than lifted AFC Championship trophies.

Younger Broncos fans who have never saw John Elway pass don’t give him one in return — and maybe that’s fair.

In Roger Kahn’s seminal 1972 book, “The Boys of Summer”, he posited that athletes die twice. “A ball player must confront two deaths. First, between the ages of thirty and forty, he perishes as an athlete.” But that, too, was written for another generation.

Let’s take this, then, from the 2008 film “The Dark Knight”, where actor Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent tells Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, in the truest Nietzschean fashion, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Elway is no villain, of course, but the unflinching and unavoidable truth is this: while an older generation remains concerned that the Broncos’ struggles are hurting Elway’s legacy, the younger one wonders if it’s really Elway’s legacy that’s hurting the Broncos.