Throwback Thursday: Each week we crack open the content vault at Mile High Sports to bring you a story from yesteryear.
Coming off a disappointing playoff loss – an improbable loss, at that – to the Baltimore Ravens, the eventual Super Bowl champions, esteemed columnist Woody Paige caught up with Denver’s most-famous sports figure, John Elway, before the 2013 season began. Little did Broncos fans know, Elway and the Broncos were about to embark on the greatest offensive season in NFL history and a run toward Super Bowl XLVIII. It’s always interesting to see what was said before such a campaign. While it doesn’t look like the Broncos current offense will challenge Peyton Manning’s 2013 production, perhaps the Broncos can once again turn last year’s disappointing finish into a Super Bowl run. We shall see. Regardless, it’s always fun to catch up with the Duke, now or then.
The Mile High Interview – John Elway
The Duke: Denver’s most-beloved sports figure still reigns
Interview by Woody Paige
Foreword by Doug Ottewill
Originally published Sept. 2013
When Woody Paige stated his case for John Elway’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he didn’t give the typically lengthy, statistically driven, personally biased speech to the selection committee; those campaigns, in fact, are the norm.
Instead, Paige kept things appropriately short and sweet.
“Gentlemen, I give you John Elway.”
That’s all he said. As legend tells it, that speech earned Paige a standing ovation from the committee members. The group appreciated, and applauded, the brevity. And why wouldn’t they? There’s no sense in wasting time “selling” Elway to anyone who knows the game of football.
So, as I offer prelude to an incredibly fascinating conversation between two of Denver’s most-iconic sports figures, I’ll take Paige’s lead and waste neither time nor words.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you John Elway and Woody Paige.
Woody Paige: Would it be fair to say that one of your best achievements is the fact that you have only one draft choice who is not among the 85 guys who entered this year’s camp? You go back through the years, and there are always some flubs. We’re talking about three drafts and approximately 25 guys. Is that one of your best achievements?
John Elway: We’ve done a good job in the draft. We’ve added some quality college free agents that have really come in and help us, which is big. And then, the mix that we’ve had with the veterans, we’ve been able to put it together, mesh it all together. It’s been good. On the personnel side we’ve all worked together, and it’s been a good combination of ideas, and we’ve gotten it to where it’s gotten. I guess I don’t feel, even though I feel good about where we are, that we’ve really done anything yet. Even though we were 13-3 last year, and that was fine, I still don’t feel like we’ve done anything yet. So, therefore I don’t count it as an accomplishment, even though it looks good on paper. Now, I’d like to see it go work on the field. Sure, you look at it on paper and it looks pretty good. But you don’t win games on paper.
Sure. But you know – from when you came here as player…
I would look at this, as a player coming in here, that I’d be excited and really feel like I had a chance to win a championship with the team we have, if we go out and play like we’re capable of playing. And really, as a player, that’s all you want – that opportunity to compete for a championship.
When did you first feel that as a player?
When I started knowing about it? I think when you’re young, you feel like you can come in and you’re going to be able to win every year. Especially the way we did it. When Mike [Shanahan] got here, and then those teams – ’96, ’97 and ’98 – those teams were capable of [it].
You were fearful, around ’94 or ’95, that…
…I was going to run out of time? Yea. That it was never ever going to get to the right spot. But, fortunately, it did.
I’ve asked Peyton Manning about it. He keeps telling me that there’s a constant sense of urgency. I assume that extends over to you, not that you’re going to give this up in a couple of years.
Well, a lot of people say, “You’re about winning now.” And I say, “No, we’re not about winning now; we’re about winning ‘now on.’”
I like that.
Right? So, it is “now on.” But we do want to win now. But we’re also preparing – we’re not selling out, we’re not selling the future of the organization out for one, two, three or four years. We’re going to build through that draft and continue to get good through the draft, and then try to plug in quality veterans as we see fit. But, you know, it’s one year at a time, and this is the year that’s right in front of us.
Who’s the model for that? Would you say that the Pittsburgh Steelers of the ’70s and ’80s? They’ve continued on. The Cowboys, even though they’ve had a bad run? The Broncos from the ’80s and ’90s? Is there a model? The Steelers and Packers have done it by building through the draft and tacking on players.
It’s also important who’s pulling that trigger for you, too. You build around that trigger.
Don’t say “trigger” again. The last time you said that, you said, “Pull the trigger, Tim.”
Oh yea. But, you know, the Steelers have done a great job. They’ve stuck to their philosophy and their name comes up every single year in the fact they’re going to be competitive. And the Packers with Brett Favre. They had Favre for so long, and now [Aaron] Rodgers. Tom Brady in New England. So, that’s what I look at – you look at those teams that have been consistently good over a period of time, you can look at that quarterback position. That’s what they’ve had.
Someone asked me, “What does John really think about what happened in the playoff game?” And I said, “He probably feels the same way as when the Broncos lost to Jacksonville.” It was kind of fluky when it happened. In the Jacksonville game, a guy wouldn’t get his big fat ass off the field.
You know, the thing is, it was fluky, but the bottom line is you look at the way we played – and we didn’t play well at all. It was a bad game – by far the worse game we played all year. So, I know everyone wants to point at one play, but we played terrible the whole game. We had plenty of opportunities to put the dagger in them – put the dagger in them and bury them – but couldn’t ever do it.
As you talked about not accomplishing something, is that the most important aspect of this – the bigger the game, the better you’ve got to play?
Yes. The bottom line is that I wouldn’t have been nearly as disappointed in that game if we would have played like we were capable of playing. To me, I look at it, and if we play like we’re capable of playing and a fluke beats us, sure, I’d be disappointed, but it is what it is. The other team played better than you did. But the way we played, and we played so poorly, is what I don’t like. That’s what upsets me. We’ve got to learn from that and how we played that game. We have to play better in playoff situations.
It’s like the PGA Championship. Jim Furyk played great, but Jason Dufner just played better.
Right. [Furyk] has nothing to be ashamed of. When that happens, you’ve done everything you can.
Going back to what we were talking about, do you feel like you’ve given John Fox the materials to work with?
With the staff, [it’s] working with them – that’s why it’s a great working relationship. But I think that John is happy with what he’s been provided. Obviously, it’s never going to be perfect, and they’re [not] going to have everything they want, but for the most part, if you look at where we are, and if you look at it on paper, [the staff] has got to be as happy as any team in the league. You know, as far as looking at it on a piece paper and saying, “We’ve got a chance to go out and compete,” especially with the guy you’ve got pulling the trigger.
There’s that pulling the trigger again.
I said to Peyton, “You’ve been characterized now as the best regular-season quarterback of all-time.” And he said, “Well, I don’t think that’s a compliment.” I then said, “I don’t think it was a compliment when John Elway was judged that way when he was 35 or so. He had more regular-season victories than anybody.” He said that’s not the legacy he wants. He has heard you talk about the way you “finish.” You were talking about “pulling the trigger” – he said “finishing.” Finishing the game. Finishing the season. Finishing his career. He wants to do that the way you did it. To me, that’s an incredible compliment. Is there any point where you can continue to talk to him about what you went through at this age? At this age, you won. Is there a way he can accomplish all of that?
The reason why I won at that age was because it was the best team I’d ever had around me. So with Peyton at [this] age, my job is to try to put the best football team around him, to give him that opportunity. And the right staff. It’s to give him the right opportunity and put the best people around him that I can. I’m proud of what we’ve put around him. I think we’ve done a good job with what’s around him – what’s up front, the weapons that are around him; defensively, we’re playing good defense, too. So, I want to be able to give him that opportunity to finish like I did. And that’s to have that team around him that I had around me. I think we’re pretty darn close.
How meaningful is it that Stanford is now going to retire your number?
Obviously, I’m pretty thrilled. The older you get, when these things happen, the more special they become. It’s a great honor because they haven’t done a lot of that; there are only two other numbers retired – two great players (Ernie Nevers and Jim Plunkett). With the school being what it is, plus what the football program and what it’s become, plus the experience that I had there, it’s really an honor to say the least.
At this year’s Mizel Awards Dinner, the four Broncos Hall of Famers – you, Floyd Little, Shannon Sharpe and Gary Zimmerman – were all standing up on stage with Pat Bowlen. That was a great evening for me, to look at that and see the five of you all up there. The five of you really created something. Did you feel that way?
I know what you mean. To me, it’s kind of the nostalgic side of it. You get a chance to really look back. You know, life moves so fast; you don’t always take time to look back.
I hadn’t really seen all of you together.
I think that was the first time we’d all been together like that. It brings back so many great memories. Obviously, I didn’t play with Floyd, but still, so many great things have happened over the years. I just reflect. I don’t think we take enough time to reflect sometimes.
Earlier in this conversation, you differentiated between “now” and “now on.” I’m not trying to pressure you on any timeframe, but how are you doing? Are you in the moment?
Yes. I really am. Things are pretty good in my life. I enjoy doing this. I don’t keep looking into the future; I enjoy doing what I’m doing. So, I don’t want to put a timeframe on how long I’m going to do it. I enjoy it. I want to keep doing it.
So you could see yourself being 75 still doing this?
Not 75. No.
I could see myself being 60 and still doing it.
Isn’t there a “next step,” though?
Yes. But we’ll see what happens. That’s why I don’t look too far into the future, because you never know what it’s going to hold.
At this point in your life, can you ever see leaving Denver? Are you here permanently?
I like it here. Again, I don’t [see that]. But then again, you don’t know what’s going to happen. I never say never. You know what I mean? I guess I’ve never really thought of it.
How are your kids?
They’re all really good. Jessie is in Oakland. She got a promotion. She’s coaching. She was in the classroom for four years and now she’s teaching teachers for a charter school system in California. Jordan got married this summer. She’s a nurse for DPS. Jack is selling cars; he’s learning the car business out in Ontario. Juliana just graduated from Arizona and she’s in Scottsdale teaching preschool.
I have a daughter. Do you now feel like you’ve “got them all out of there,” [so to speak]?
Yes and no. I’ll tell you what; when I walked Jordan down the aisle, it got me. It was really – I’d never had that feeling before. Where, all of a sudden, it was like these kids are really growing up. I mean, even though they get older, and even when she said she was engaged, it really didn’t get me – until I walked her down that aisle. That really got me. Really got me. This whole deal is changing; my kids are really grown up.
How will you be able to gauge this team at the beginning of the year? Is this team going to be hot out of the gate or is this a developing situation during the course of the season?
I think we’re further along this year than we were last year at this point in time. Peyton is more familiar with the offense. The offensive line is more familiar with it. There’s familiarity on both sides – last year we were putting in a new defense.
You’ve got the continuity of having John Fox. You’ve got Jack Del Rio.
And Adam Gase moved up; he was here, so it’s the same offense. There are some different flairs, but continuity-wise, this is the first time we’ve had this in this in a long time – way before I was here. We should be there. That should lead to the fact that we can get off to a quick start.
Adam seems like he’s headed toward one day being a head coach in this league. He’s got that mindset that Mike [Shanahan] brought in.
Yep. Bright. Smart. Works his ass off. Yes, he’s got that potential.
You and I were together when you turned 50. You wanted to do this – that’s what you told me then. But, could you believe that it really worked as it did? Some crappy things had to happen with Josh McDaniels, but you really wanted to do this whether it was here or with an expansion team.
Yes. That’s why I got into the Arena Football League. Obviously, my preference was to do it here, but yeah, this is what I really wanted to do. I wanted to be in football. I didn’t want to coach, because I watched my dad coach, and I didn’t want to spend that time – the amount of time that has to be spent to be a coach. But I did want to be in football and be on the management side. So, this is exactly what I wanted to do. It is ironic, kind of tough, in that all the Broncos had to go through for this to all come to fruition. But the way it came about is what it is.
There’s one thing that’s undone for you, and that’s winning it all on this level.
Yes. And that’s what the goal is. I love having that goal, and being able to chase that goal. That’s the most important thing. And the good thing is that we’ve got an owner that has the same mindset, so it allows us to get it done.
It won’t be acceptable if it doesn’t happen this year. That’s a statement; it’s not a question. But, will it be acceptable if it doesn’t happen?
Sure. I guess I want us to make strides. The bottom line is that there are so many things that are out of your control. Because I know how hard it is to win it. You do have to get a little bit lucky. You’ve got to have things go your way. So, there are a lot of factors that go into being able to win a world championship. But I want to see us make strides over last year, and if we do that, get in and get into the playoffs – to be able to make strides over what we did last year is the key to this year’s success.
Now that you’ve gone through it, are there surprises about this job? What are the things you couldn’t comprehend going into it? You’ve been a CEO. You’ve been around football forever.
The hardest thing is having a personal relationship and also the money – dealing with money and personalities and trying to blend those. The last thing I want to do is be phony about it. So, it’s a difficult blend for me; you’re dealing with money, you’re dealing with players, you’re dealing with lives. But you’re also trying to put a football team together. You realize that, in my position, everyone is not going to agree with what you’re doing. It’s a difficult thing to do. But you’re also trying to get everybody under this roof going in the same direction and feeling good about it. But that’s also the challenging part of it, which I enjoy.
At the end of the day, it’s still fun.
Yea. It’s different. It’s not like [being] a winning quarterback. It’s the business part. I enjoy winning on the business side, and I enjoy winning on the football side. I enjoy being good at both. My job is to take care of Mr. Bowlen on the business side, and be smart with his money, but also give him the best football team I can on the football field. That to me is a great challenge, and I enjoy it. I enjoy that challenge because it’s hard.
But you’ve been doing that since you quit football. You’ve been taking on that challenge on several different levels.
The only thing that’s really different is the fact that you’re dealing with humans rather than cars or steaks. How the human reacts to a certain situation, the car doesn’t react the same way.
And the steak just lays there.