Sportsperson of the Year: John Elway

The fine citizens of Colorado, and many more from all over the West, began their search for the “next John Elway” the very same day that the John Elway finally said goodbye to the NFL.

May 2nd is a most significant day in Colorado. In 1983, it was the day that John Elway became a Denver Bronco. And in 1999, it was the day he suddenly was not.

That particular Sunday – the day that Elway announced he’d be walking away from professional football – was the first of 832 consecutive Sundays that he was no longer the Broncos leader. But “The Duke” was much more than the man in charge – he was Denver. The pigeon-toed quarterback was the man who put Denver on the map – for good. When people across the globe envisioned Denver, they no longer pictured a dusty old cow town; first and foremost, they thought of John Elway. But on May 2, 1999, after 16 magnificent NFL seasons, the greatest player in Denver Broncos history was joining the general population.

And so the search began.

Who would fill such large shoes? Since 1876, the year Colorado came to be, no man or woman had represented the city or the state like Elway. During those 16 years, the place and the quarterback became synonymous – “I don’t know if there’s more of a Bronco identity than John Elway,” says John Fox, who now coaches the team that Elway once willed to greatness – so finding the “next” John Elway would be no easy task.

The Colorado Avalanche, Denver’s “then-new” National Hockey League team, had a few legitimate candidates. Athletes like Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy and Peter Forsberg were, like Elway, champions. Two years after Elway retired, each of them hoisted the Stanley Cup for the second time in Denver. Still, they were not Elway. Hockey was not football – not in Denver, anyway – and their success was almost too “instant.” The people hadn’t ridden the same, sometimes trying, but ultimately triumphant, roller coaster that they had with Elway.

For the eight-and-a-half seasons between 2003 and 2010, the Nuggets’ Carmelo Anthony was given the chance to become the next Elway. Not long after Denver was a Broncos town, it became a Nuggets town. Anthony, who was was already nationally known after winning an NCAA championship just before arriving in the Mile High City, was welcomed with open arms.

In his first season, he brought the Nuggets to the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade, but immaturity and inconsistency during the next three seasons had many second-guessing his place among Denver’s sports royalty. Anthony was extremely talented at best, and misunderstood or disliked at worst. Most accurately, he was polarizing. Denver was not ready to appoint him the next anything, nor was he ready to seize the throne.

In the spring of 2009, Anthony’s Nuggets made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals, but the credit was spread thin, as Denver’s own Chauncey Billups led the Nuggets as far as the franchise had ever been. If any Nugget could have been Denver’s next Elway, it was likely Billups.

Because Denver was, is and always will be a football town, though, finding the next Elway on the Denver Broncos seemed to be the most likely scenario. Perhaps running back and Super Bowl XXXII MVP Terrell Davis could have been, but the season after Elway retired, Davis suffered what ultimately became a career-ending knee injury and never regained the status he shared with his quarterback, who took home MVP honors in Super Bowl XXXIII.

A quarterback would most-fittingly have to assume the role anyway. Brian Griese, Elway’s immediate successor, didn’t have enough raw talent and never truly caught on in Mike Shanahan’s offense. When the coach sought a replacement for Griese, Jake Plummer was given the platform to win over Denver. Plummer was good, but a loss in the 2005 AFC Championship Game was the closest he ever got to the Super Bowl. And after that, it wasn’t long before Shanahan opted for an upgrade, so he drafted Jay Cutler who entered the NFL in 2006 with comparisons to Elway.

Broncos fans could identify with Cutler’s cannon of an arm – that reminded them of Elway – but they didn’t relate to his moxie, or lack thereof. Cutler didn’t possess the come-from-behind magic that Elway did; and all too often, he looked mopey and uninspiring. And when Shanahan was fired after Cutler’s third year, new Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels didn’t care to see how Cutler’s career would play out. McDaniels traded Cutler and created a two-year, four-quarterback mess that involved Kyle Orton, Chris Simms, Brady Quinn and Tim Tebow, an unorthodox Heisman Trophy winner that the coach drafted but practically refused to play.

Neither Orton nor Simms had the ability or the swagger to be included in the same sentence as Elway, and McDaniels never entrusted Quinn with the position of starting quarterback at all. Those problems, among many other glaring issues, got McDaniels run out of town before his second season in Denver was over. The Broncos finished that 2010 season with a pathetic 4-12 record, the lowest win total since 1982, the year before Elway’s arrival. And for the first time in nearly three decades, the Broncos were a mess.

The next Elway was nowhere in sight.

***

“John Elway is the franchise as far as the public is concerned,” says Craig Andrisen, Elway’s friend of more than 25 years and the owner of Andrisen Morton, a high-end, Denver men’s clothier that opened in 1978.

“I think what hurt him most was seeing this franchise that he helped build not doing well. People were leaving at halftime.”

Pat Bowlen, who purchased the Denver Broncos just prior to John Elway’s second NFL season, saw it too.

While fans of the Broncos had been unsuccessfully longing to find the next Elway, so too was Bowlen. The difference, however, was that Bowlen had the wherewithal to impact the search. As such, he did what any smart businessman would do – he went straight to the source.

The next Elway? Why not just go with the one and only?

Just hours after Bowlen decided to fire McDaniels, at what is now sometimes referred to as the “high-five dinner,” Bowlen and Elway were seen celebrating inside Elway’s Restaurant in Cherry Creek. It was a sign that help was on its way.

“We had discussions with (John) over periods of time,” says Joe Ellis, the president, chairman and CEO of the Denver Broncos, “and then a little bit more intense as 2010 progressed, to come back to the organization.”

Less than 30 days after that auspicious dinner, Bowlen introduced Elway as the Broncos new executive vice president of football operations. Elway didn’t necessarily know the job, although being a co-owner of the Arena Football League’s Colorado Crush provided him with experience as an executive in professional sports, but he did know what a winning culture looked, felt and smelled like.

“The first thing we had to change was the mentality,” Elway says, now four years removed. “We called it ‘football rehab.’ We had to rehab the football. It’s a tough enough game anyway; if you really despise what you’re doing, it makes it that much tougher of a game.”

In his new role with the Broncos, Elway immediately began hunting for a new head coach. That pursuit led him to John Fox, a noted “player’s coach” who Elway calls a “positive guy” that brings excitement “day in and day out.”

“I don’t think you have to be miserable to be successful. I like guys pulling into the parking lot excited to come to work – versus a pit in their stomach,” says Fox. “It’s a culture that Pat Bowlen had; John Elway experienced it – five Super Bowls. He has a great feel for what that culture should be in the building.”

But losing was not an easy trend to buck, not even with Elway at the helm.

To begin the 2011 season, the Broncos started Orton at quarterback and promptly went 1-4. In the fifth game, Orton was yanked in favor of Tebow, who nearly overcame a 16-point, fourth-quarter deficit before narrowly losing to the Chargers 26-24. Following a Week 6 bye, Fox – and presumably Elway – made the decision to go with Tebow as the starter in Week 7. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Tebow-led Broncos won seven of their next eight and wiggled into the postseason with an 8-8 record, just good enough to claim the AFC West. Even a home playoff game against the heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers seemed like a tall task, but when the Broncos found themselves tied at the end of regulation, Elway’s magic seemed to surface.

Prior to the game, Denver Post columnist Woody Paige asked Elway what words of wisdom he might have for Tebow. After all, the lefty quarterback’s confidence had potentially been rocked; the Broncos entered the postseason with three straight losses, two of which took place at home and one that came at the hands of the hapless Buffalo Bills. Through the losing stretch, Tebow was awful, completing just 40 percent of his passes, tossing a single touchdown and four interceptions. But Elway’s words of wisdom – “Just pull the trigger!” – proved to be prophetic.

Against the Steelers in bitter cold conditions, Tebow rushed for 50 yards and a touchdown, but threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns – including a bullet on the first play of overtime that turned into an 80-yard touchdown scamper by Demaryius Thomas – the game winner.

Tebow had pulled the trigger indeed, and Elway and Co. had fully restored Bronco Mania in less than 12 months.

***

“Let’s start with this misperception that he was going to come in here as a figurehead,” says Ellis. “I mean, John Elway would never do that. That would tarnish his legacy.

Says Elway himself: “You’re either all in or you’re all out – at least at this age.”

“John had a fabulous Hall of Fame career, but now he wants to add to that with a suit on instead of with a jersey on,” says George Solich, Elway’s friend and golfing buddy and an oil industry tycoon. “I think he’s got a damn good chance of doing it.”

Adds Ellis: “He was either going to come in ‘all in’ or he wasn’t going to come in. He wasn’t going to just dip his toe in the water and try it out, be a consultant, be an advisor. That wasn’t what he wanted to do. He wanted to roll up his sleeves and learn the business on the fly. He’s very smart, very capable and he brought all the other instincts with him.”

It was those instincts, amidst all the craze of Bronco Mania – and Tebow Mania – that told Elway adjustments still needed to take place. Elway was no stranger to change, even if it wasn’t going to be easy.

Eight years prior to rejoining the Broncos in an executive capacity, Elway had to fire the first-year head coach of the Colorado Crush, Bob Beers. Following a 2-14 season, logic said Beers wasn’t the right man for the job. But Beers was a longtime friend of the Elway family, making that call no pleasant task.

“I knew it was the right move at the time, but he was also my dad’s best friend,” Elway reflects a decade later. “It was just a situation where I knew it wasn’t the right fit, so we had to make that change. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But I also made sure that Bob was taken care of on the backside.”

Tebow probably wasn’t the right fit, either. A great competitor he was. A great quarterback he was not. Elway privately knew this, but how would he – how could he – rid the franchise of the very man that helped restore Bronco Mania and simultaneously come out on the other side with the backing of the fans?

No one could fathom the miracle that Elway was about to perform. Finding the next Elway had proven to be nearly impossible. But when Elway himself was charged with that mission, he came as close as humanly possibly. It took Elway to find the person who could legitimately make a run at being the next Elway.

No. 7 landed No. 18.

“Let’s be honest, Peyton Manning would not be a Denver Bronco if it were not for John Elway. I think that says it all,” Solich says.

Elway had sold cars – a lot of them – but he’d never closed a deal like this one. Bringing in a quarterback who many considered to be the greatest of all-time was a haul that made even the most-ardent Tebow backers tip their caps.

“I think the other guys were all giving Peyton Manning a sales job,” says Andrisen. “John just put it out there and said, ‘Peyton, you have to make the decision.’”

***

“Did you know when he was in college John wanted to be an accountant?”

The question is posed by Andrisen, who’s clothed Elway long before “The Drive,” the MVP trophies, the Crush or any “desk job” the quarterback ever had. Andrisen, an accomplished businessman in his own right, knows Elway outside of the game. He understands what makes Elway tick when it comes to the business of football.

“On golf trips, he keeps the money sheet. He goes over the numbers with everyone on the way home,” he explains.

Numbers have always been of interest to Elway. The numbers that determine the most superior golfer amongst friends. The record-breaking numbers that landed him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The number of cars on the lot at the beginning of the month and then again at the end. The number of steaks that represent a breakeven shift. And now, the numbers with all those zeroes at the end that make up the daunting NFL salary cap.

When his playing days were over, Elway had to have envisioned the day when Pat Bowlen invited him to take part without pads. Meticulously, he groomed himself for the role. His co-ownership of the Crush prepared him, at least in a sense, for the business side of sports.

“That gave me confidence in the fact that I could be able to, on the management side, put together a championship team,” says Elway, thinking back on a six-year run that saw the Crush win Arena Bowl XIX.

He admits, though, that the NFL is a different animal. He still trusts his gut when it comes to football – the management and identification of talent, the communication with coaches and players, and the intuition that comes along with being a former player – but the numbers of the NFL are different, in some ways more complex, than the car or restaurant business.

“My biggest apprehension coming in was the administrative side, and how all that stuff was reported to the league,” he says of his first days on the job. “I had to learn the administrative side. I’ve got great support there; they help me through it.”

Elway credits the likes of Brian Xanders, the then-general manager who was ultimately a dead man walking as soon as the new executive V.P. was hired on. Still, Elway kept Xanders on board; he could teach Elway some of the complexities of the NFL that fans and players rarely see.

“Brian Xanders was a big help because he’d had that experience,” Elway says. “I watched him and learned from him and tried to understand how everything worked. He was a big help with that.”

As a player, Elway was busiest from July to February, and from Wednesday to Sunday. As an executive, the heavy lifting occurs during the offseason, and from Sunday night to Tuesday, when he and Fox busily juggle the active roster as the weekly injuries dictate.

“He’s a great strategist,” says Solich, who’s built and sold and built and sold multiple businesses. “He’s a smart guy. He listens a lot – he’s a great listener. He soaks up things. He’s a quick study. He’s a bright guy and he’s got a passion for what he’s doing. When you have that combination, it’s going to be a pretty fast ride.

“He’s in a great spot, thinking about having to juggle a salary cap and find all the right players and make sure you have everyone on the team to take you to the next level.”

Ellis, whose office is just down the hallway from Elway’s, has seen the former quarterback blossom into one of the NFL’s brightest executives.

“As a player, he was a gunslinger from time to time, right? He ran around and chucked the ball and pulled games out in dramatic fashion,” says Ellis. “As an executive, I think he’s extremely disciplined. He’s very thoughtful and very deliberate in decisions that he makes regarding this football team. And he looks at the decisions that he makes, not only with respect to this year, but next year, three years, five years out. And it’s putting us in a good position to have sustained success for years to come.”

Elway’s attention to detail is legendary, from the work he put in as a player to the thought process that goes into player personnel decisions and everything in between.

“If there’s a stripe in his suit that’s a certain shade of purple, he wants a tie that has that same shade of purple,” says Andrisen, who’s familiar with Elway’s selectivity in wardrobe. “Even if it’s the smallest, subtle stripe, if the color in the tie doesn’t match exactly, he won’t wear it.

“He puts thought into everything – how he looks, how he’s perceived, his own image. He’s an expert in branding and building his own brand and the brand of the Denver Broncos.”

Yet, he’s not a control freak.

“He’s a consensus builder,” Ellis says. “He’s paying attention to every detail. He’s thinking it through. He’s very deliberate and very thorough in his analysis of what’s at hand. If (a decision) has to be made quickly, he’ll take as much time as he’s allowed. It’s a very grown-up way of going about (his) business.

“He was calm under pressure as a quarterback and he’s calm under pressure as an executive.”

“He’s good at everything – cards, golf, football, he’s a great dad,” says Andrisen. “I always kid him: ‘Hey John, it must be tough having to overcome all these bad breaks.’ Here’s a guy living the Life of Riley, and what does he do? He chooses to go back to work. He gets there before 7:00 a.m. and doesn’t leave until after six at night.

“You know what John says about his business partners? He says, ‘I love partners who are bad golfers and who are frugal. They’re not out playing golf; they’re busy watching the money.’

“John watches Pat Bowlen’s money like it was his own.”

John Elway the executive thrives. But it’s not as if Elway the competitor is dead.

“He’s tough to (beat) on the golf course because he’s scrappy,” says Solich.

“I don’t like to lose,” Elway says. “I like to learn from when you do lose, but I want to prevent that from happening. The competitive side of me is makes me who I am.

“I don’t like to lose,” he repeats emphatically.

At age 54, Elway still burns to win – perhaps now more than ever. Oddly, it was a loss – one of the worst he’d ever been a part of – that made him appreciate his role as the Broncos executive vice president of football operations even more.

Nearly a year removed from a 43-8 drubbing in Super Bowl XLVIII, the most famous Bronco now clearly identifies the difference between losing on the field and losing from the luxury suite at MetLife Stadium in New York: “I think it’s easier to get over that loss as an executive.”

***

“Well, I think we haven’t got to (our free agent priorities) yet,” Elway told the media who had gathered at Dove Valley for the solemn, post-mortem press conference that followed Super Bowl XLVIII. “We’re going to get away from this year a little bit and we’ll start digging into that. Because free agency is right around the corner.”

What the press didn’t realize at the time, however, was that Elway was lying through his teeth. The truth was that he hadn’t stopped thinking about those priorities, not for a second, not since the final gun in the Meadowlands had sounded.

“I can remember sitting on the bus the next morning waiting to come home, delayed because of the snow,” says Elway nearly a year later, “and the wheels were turning at that point in time: How are we going to get better?”

Elway recalls the moment as if it were yesterday, as vividly as the moments that followed losses in Super Bowls XXI, XXII and XXIV. But there was something different about that particular instant, staring out the frosted window of a bus sluggishly navigating its way across gloomy Manhattan.

It wasn’t that getting over the loss would be easy; it wouldn’t be – ever. But the process of trying to get over it – the process of fixing things – was expedited. As a player, he had to wait to get better, wait for mini-camp, wait for training camp, wait until fall for the start of that next pursuit of the Lombardi Trophy. Worse yet, as a player, he was dependent on the suits above him to improve the team.

As a suit himself, he could start the healing process immediately.

“Obviously, it hit him hard. But he didn’t brood very long,” Solich says.

“Go back and look at the press conference that he did right after the season was over,” says Ellis. “He took charge of the situation right there. He was very emotional and honest about the opinions he had about the disappointment of the Super Bowl, but (he wasn’t about to forget) everything else we’d accomplished.

“He was sending the fans a message: ‘We’re all disappointed with what happened at the Super Bowl. But don’t fear here. We’ve got work to do and we’re going to do it. And we’re going to get better.’ It was a promise without making a promise. It was a strong message. It was an emotional message. It clearly made a connection with all of our great fans.”

While Denver moped, Elway worked. Instead of convincing himself that it was simply one bad day, he examined every strength and weakness of the Broncos. He rethought everything.

“He set the tone right away,” Ellis says. “It was time to turn the page and move forward and get ready for this year – immediately.”

Elway worked feverishly for more than a month, and what was taking place behind closed doors came to light on March 11, the first day of NFL free agency.

And Broncos Country perked up.

Just one hour into free agency, Elway sent out a tweet: “Excited to announce we’ve agreed to terms with strong safety T.J. Ward. He’ll bring energy and toughness to our secondary.”

Before the night was over, Elway once again bolstered the Broncos defensive backfield. With a six-year, $57 million contract in tow, Aqib Talib, widely considered a top-three cornerback on the market, would be boarding the next plane to Colorado.

Twelve hours later, the Broncos suddenly had what many considered to be the best pass-rushing duo in franchise history; Elway had lured future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware out of Dallas and into Denver. Bookending the defensive line for the Broncos would be Ware and a healthy Von Miller, a situation that surely made opposing quarterbacks swallow hard.

In just two days, the Broncos defense was markedly improved. Fans only trepidation was the loss of wide receiver Eric Decker, who’d departed for the Jets. But Elway soon addressed that too, bringing in Pittsburgh’s Emmanuel Sanders. By doing so, not only did Elway improve the already dynamic receiving corps, he also left Kansas City – a division rival who’d been courting Sanders – high and dry.

The hangover of Super Bowl XLVIII had finally subsided. Elway had swooped in like a handful of aspirin, easing the pain by making the biggest splash of any team during the NFL’s free agency period. Spirits were lifted and the Broncos, who had been embarrassed in New York, were now the odds-on favorites to win Super Bowl XLIX.

“You don’t have time to sit back and feel sorry for yourself,” says Ellis of Elway’s swift reaction to a potentially devastating loss. “Nobody’s feeling sorry for you. You have to go out and show your fans and this community that you’re going get better and challenge for a Super Bowl next year and hopefully win it.”

That’s precisely what Elway did. Miraculously, just six weeks after one of the most disheartening losses in franchise history, the swagger that existed in Denver before the Super Bowl was back.

***

When Quinn Davidson wakes up in his Stapleton home on fall Sunday mornings, his routine is simple. He goes downstairs, eats his breakfast and then confirms that today is a day that Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos will be playing football.

Once it has been confirmed, Quinn marches back upstairs – quietly as to not wake up his twin brother, Jack, who tends to sleep in just a bit longer – and slips on his bright orange No. 18 Denver Broncos jersey. It is game day, and this what Quinn wears – no exceptions.

When Jack eventually wakes up, he too heads downstairs for breakfast. He notices that Quinn is already dressed in his Sunday best, and accordingly, he follows suit. The boys will be five years old by the time next season rolls around, and at the rate they’re growing, they’ll need their third Broncos jersey – particularly Jack, whose belt isn’t hidden by the orange fabric when he stands straight up anymore. Tebow was first. Manning is currently the shirt of choice. And Quinn has already expressed interest in a No. 88 “Dee-mare-dee-us” Thomas jersey for next year.

In Westminster, Brody Ringenberg – also four – has a very similar routine. He too has an orange No. 18 jersey that he must wear on game day. During the games, Brody buzzes in and out of the basement room where his dad’s flat screen is mounted. But whenever the Broncos score, he is summoned, as his special touchdown dance is to be performed for these occasions.

Just up the road, in the Home Farm neighborhood, sisters Tatum (9) and Camdyn (6) Stock might not be as attentive on Sundays (“They are girls,” Jack and Quinn are quick to point out), but whenever their school has “team day,” they’ve got a myriad of choices – all of which are orange and blue, a collection “pretty cute” (per Camdyn) long-sleeved Broncos tops.

And on the other side of 120th Avenue, a 10 minute bike ride from Tatum and Camdyn’s house, their friends, the Merilatt boys – Ben (8), Matthew (6) and Ryan (2) – are perhaps the most die-hard Broncos fans for their age. It makes sense, as they’re born into the tradition; they are “fourth-generation” Broncos fans. Great grandfathers Keith and Johnnie both became season ticket holders in 1970.

Ryan is the recipient of jerseys worn by Ben and Matthew. He hasn’t been talking long, but he understands a game called “Alzado” – a challenge to see how long it takes the boys to bring dad to the ground from his Indian-style seated position.

Matthew is speedy and likes to pretend he’s Wes Welker during games of catch in the yard. He knows more about the Broncos than he does about the President of the United States, who he calls “Bronco Bama.” That makes more sense to him than “Barack Obama;” he’s been saying “Bronco” since he could talk.

And Ben wears “something Broncos” seemingly every day. He’s at the age where he watches games closely and has a firm grasp of the roster and even the playoff picture when December rolls around. The kitchen table at the Merilatt’s house has a faint Broncos logo permanently stained into the wood; Ben has spent the past year perfecting the replication of the horse head that appears on his favorite helmet, and one day the Sharpie he cautiously etched across the white piece of typing paper bled all the way through to the table. He got in a little trouble, but not much.

All of them – Jack and Quinn, Brody, Tatum and Camdyn, Ben, Matthew and Ryan – know the Broncos. They’ve got varying degrees of comprehension, but each of them only knows the team as a winner. They live where the Broncos play; that is understood.

“The Broncos are engrained in this culture. They’re part of the Rocky Mountain Region,” says Elway. “A lot of that credit goes to Pat. He was the guy who set the standards; he wants to compete for world championships.

“That’s why it’s important for us to be able to try to put the best product on the field, so that Monday mornings at the water cooler, everyone’s talking about it and feels good.

“The organization belongs to the community.”

With Bowlen relinquishing control of the Broncos this past July, Elway assumes the role of steward. Along with Ellis, it is his duty – one he’s gladly accepted – to carry out “Mr. B’s” vision for the annually stated goal: To win the Super Bowl.

“The goal has not changed and it will not change,” Elway reminded the world less than 48 hours removed from the Super Bowl.

“I can’t tell you how many times he’s told me, ‘We want to go win a world championship,’” Solich says. “That’s what he’s singularly focused on.”

“John is not doing this for the money,” says Andrisen. “That’s what defines him. As a player, and now as an executive, it’s never been about the money. It’s always about winning.

Elway boldly faced the darkest February in recent memory with the brightest of outlooks (“I’ve never met a more positive guy in my life,” Andrisen says), and the Broncos again enter January 2015 with more than a puncher’s chance at winning a third Super Bowl. He still leads the people who follow the Broncos; he just wears a suit instead of pads and a helmet.

In 2014, the next John Elway was the only John Elway that ever was or ever will be.

As his friend George Solich so aptly points out, “He’s one of a kind.”

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