I look at my career and it's still hard for me to believe the way things turned out and how things happened. I've been so blessed. John Elway
The Denver Broncos are one of the most storied franchises in American Football history – formed as a charter member of the American Football League (AFL) in 1960, the Broncos have found their corral in the Mile High city of Denver ever since.
When the AFL merged with the National Football League (NFL) in 1970 to form the powerhouse of a league we know today, the Broncos remained in Colorado at a time when many teams began capitalising on lucrative franchising opportunities to move to a new city.
The Broncos produced nothing but mediocrity until the early 1970’s – not having a season with a winning record until 1973! It wasn’t until 1977 the people of Denver had a team to be proud of. Despite the devastating ‘Orange Crush Defense’, the tidal wave of ‘Broncomania’ and clinching their first AFC Conference Championship, they couldn’t defeat the mighty Dallas Cowboys and lost their first trip to the Super Bowl.
With little to write home about in the 20 years or so since their inception and performances slipping in the wake of their first Super Bowl appearance, in 1981 the Broncos hierarchy made the bold move to hire Dan Reeves as Head Coach and Vice President.
At 37 years old, Reeves became the youngest ever NFL head coach at the time and whilst he inherited a decent team, he was missing one key piece of the jigsaw. With aging quarterback Craig Morton set to retire at the end of the 1982 season, this would be Reeves’ perfect opportunity to draft a player that could guide the franchise for a decade to come – a true leader that could deliver a Super Bowl championship the city of Denver so yearned for.
Reeves would have his chance in the 1983 NFL Draft and his chosen man was a Stanford University all star by the name of John Elway. Raised in Port Angeles, Washington to an American Football coach father, it seemed like Elway was destined to be a professional athlete.
He had been a prodigious sporting talent through high school and college – blessed with a cannon for a right arm and equally adept at throwing touchdown bombs as he was at slugging home runs out of the ballpark, Elway was actually drafted by the New York Yankees in 1981 as a right fielder. He played for the New York affiliate Oneonta Yankees in the 1982 short season and when the 1983 NFL draft came around, there were many fans and commentators who were unsure of what Elway’s next move would be.
Nicknamed ‘the Quarterback Class of 1983’ the Baltimore Colts held the first pick and made no secret of their intention to pick Elway as No.1 in the first round – Elway had other ideas. With no intention of leaving his beloved West Coast to play for one of the worst teams in the league, Elway declared he “would rather play baseball for the Yankees than football for the Colts.”
When quizzed about why he would play baseball on the East Coast but not football, the young Elway simply replied, “they play baseball in the summer” and would use his draft position with the Yankees as leverage in his trade agreement with Baltimore. Reeves swooped in an he had his man – the best young quarterback in the draft and a man that had the talent to win the Super Bowl.
Elway started the first few games of his rookie season, but Reeves opted to persistently bench the young QB in the fourth quarter, in favour of the more experienced Steve De Berg, who engineered two game winning performances from this position. De Berg would be named the starter for the rest of the season – frustrated and feeling like he’d blown his opportunity, there would be a reprieve for Elway just a month later as a De Berg shoulder injury brought him back off the bench. Elway would not relinquish his starting QB position for the Broncos for the majority of the next 15 years.
Having cemented his position and honed his craft, by the 1986-87 Elway was at the peak of his powers. He led the Broncos to the AFC Championship, their first since 1977 and in doing so, produced a series of plays that would go down in NFL folklore.
Known commonly as “The Drive”, Elway guided the Broncos offence 98 yards down field in a drive that encompassed 15 passes and spanned an incredible five minutes, which saw the Broncos tie the AFC Championship game against the Browns with just 20 seconds left on the clock. The Broncos would go on to win the AFC Championship but despite Elway’s heroics in the previous game, his first Super Bowl proved one step too far as a Lawrence Taylor inspired New York Giants claimed the game’s greatest prize.
A year later, the Broncos would be back at the Super Bowl again – this time they would face an inspired Washington Redskins team. Elway had been selected as the NFL’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) that year, but his Super Bowl performance was less than memorable as his Broncos team were beaten 44-10.
Elway would continue to toil away, breaking passing records and cementing his position as one of the best QB’s in the NFL but it wouldn’t be until 1989, that he would have another chance at Super Bowl glory. The Broncos would come up against the dynasty of the San Francisco 49’ers complete with Joe Montana and Jerry Rice and they had no answer, recording the most lopsided defeat in Super Bowl history. Their 55-10 demolition remains a record to this date and in the wake of such a bruising defeat many doubted that Elway could ever win the Super Bowl.
For much of the 1990’s Elway grinded away with the Broncos and always remained loyal to the team which had fought so hard to draft him. He saw other quarterbacks of his generation like Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Jim McMahon win Super Bowls which left him frustrated but he did not give up.
Elway’s favourite offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan had been fired in 1991 and his relationship with Reeves was stormy at best but in 1995 with Reeves now departed, the Broncos rehired Shanahan as Head Coach, drafted superstar running back Terrell Davis and adopted a run heavy version of the ‘West Coast Offense’ which immediately paid dividends. Had it not been for an inexplicable playoff loss to the highly unfancied Jaguars, the Broncos in 1996 were the best they’d been since 1989 and many tipped them for a Super Bowl challenge in 1997.
With his powers waning, the 37-year-old Elway guided his Broncos back to the Super Bowl to face the reigning champions, Green Bay Packers. Nobody gave the Broncos a hope, but despite Elway throwing no touchdowns and one interception, running back Terrell Davis was red hot, scoring a trio of touchdowns and delivering Elway his first Super Bowl win, 14 years after he had entered the league. The emotion etched on Elway’s face was clear – after all those years striving to win the Super Bowl, he’d finally reached the summit of American Football, delivering Denver their first ever NFL Championship.
Elway though was not ready to give up yet – his thirst for Super Bowl glory not entirely quenched. Perhaps it was the lack of quality of his own performance, perhaps it was the quality of the teammates around him or maybe the feeling of winning the Super Bowl was just too good, but Elway was back in 1998, trying to become one of very few QB’s to achieve back-to-back Super Bowl wins.
With his trademark determination and composure Elway lead his Broncos back to the Super Bowl to face the Atlanta Falcons, coached by former Denver man Dan Reeves. As if Elway needed extra motivation, he threw for 336 yards and scored a touchdown in what would be a Super Bowl MVP winning performance in the last game of his career. Elway would end his illustrious playing time with the Broncos as a double Super Bowl winning champion and would become the first player to have the mandatory five year wait period waived so he could automatically enter the Broncos Ring of Fame, with his number seven jersey being formally retired.
After retirement, Elway would then take a hiatus from the Denver Broncos lasting over a decade. Elway would take on a variety of media commitments, opened several car dealerships in the Denver area and even opened his own range of steakhouses but the savvy business investor could not stay away from his beloved Denver Broncos.
In January 2011, the Broncos most successful player was back – except this time he would be in the boardroom, taking on the role of General Manager and Executive Vice President of Football Operations, with the final say in all football matters.
Under Elway’s tutelage, the Broncos would sign Hall of Fame QB Peyton Manning and would return to the Super Bowl in 2013, eventually losing to the Seattle Seahawks. Two seasons later and after numerous player and coaching changes made by Elway, the Broncos were Super Bowl champions again in 2015.
To this day, John Elway still works for the Denver Broncos, having taken up a new post as a football consultant in 2022. After nearly forty years of dedicated service, three Super Bowl victories and a Hall of Fame career, John Elway single handedly changed the trajectory of the Denver Broncos.
As a player and as a boardroom executive Elway excelled. He left an indelible mark on the city of Denver and for its football team, Elway’s impact will be felt on the Denver Broncos for decades to come.