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Thursday, August 5
Elway seemed to find a way to win
DENVER -- Whether he was tossing the ball underhand, diving for a first down or driving the length of the field in the closing seconds, John Elway was going to find a way to win.
No matter the score, if there was time on the clock and Elway had the ball, the outcome was still in question.
So when it came to getting into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there was no doubt: Elway was a first-ballot entry all the way. The King of Comebacks will be inducted Sunday in Canton, Ohio, along with Barry Sanders, Carl Eller and Bob Brown.
"I think the bottom line is I'd just like to be remembered as someone who was competitive, never gave up, that as long as there was time on the clock you're going to get 100 percent of what he had," Elway said.
"It wasn't always pretty, but we were able to get the job done."
The first pick of the great quarterback draft of 1983 -- Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Todd Blackledge, Ken O'Brien, Tony Eason also went in the opening round that year -- Elway lived up to the hype.
He ranks second to Marino on the NFL's career list in yards passing, attempts, completions and total yards. Elway has the best winning percentage in league history at 148-82-1 and was a nine-time Pro Bowl pick, tied for the most among quarterbacks.
He also was the 1987 league MVP and is the only quarterback to start in five Super Bowls, winning consecutive titles in 1998-99 before calling it a career.
"He is the greatest quarterback ever to play the game," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said.
But there was much more to Elway than just his numbers.
First, there was that right arm. Elway threw passes into places other quarterbacks wouldn't even see, much less consider, and he often had his coaches yelling into their headsets: "No! No! No! ... Uh, great pass!"
Then there was Elway's aura.
With his gimpy gait, Elway strutted onto the field with a you-can't-beat-me attitude. His piercing blue eyes always seemed to be wide as baseballs, especially with the game on the line.
And it didn't seem to matter what teams did to him. Elway always bounced back.
His injuries ranged from a broken rib to rotator-cuff tears to five knee operations to a swollen elbow bursa sac that was the size of a softball when he finally had it removed. Through it all, he rarely missed a game.
But of all the traits that made Elway stand out, it was the ability to pull out victories from the grasp of defeat that made him a true superstar.
In his 16 seasons, Elway led the Broncos to game-winning or game-saving drives 47 times, including six in the postseason. Most famously, he engineered "The Drive" in the 1987 AFC Championship game, taking the Broncos 98 yards in 15 plays in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter for the tying score of a 23-20 overtime victory over the Cleveland Browns.
"We never felt like we were out of game as long as John was there," receiver Rod Smith said.
And that do-whatever-it-takes attitude led to what Elway considers his favorite moment.
Late in the third quarter of a tie game in the 1999 Super Bowl, he dropped back to pass at Green Bay's 12-yard line on a third-and-6. Unable to find a receiver, Elway ran up the middle and dived for the first down.
But as he took off, Elway was met in the air by Packers safety LeRoy Butler, who spun him around like a helicopter. Elway landed with a thud, leading to some anxious moments on Denver's sideline, but he bounced back up. The Broncos had the first down and the momentum they needed to finish off their first Super Bowl title.
"That's probably the one that sticks out the most," Elway said. "I remember after how important it was to get that first down and it was the biggest game, a game we finally got over the hump."
Denver has had plenty of players deserving of Hall of Fame consideration through the years, from Randy Gradishar to Karl Mecklenburg to Gary Zimmerman. None made it, though, almost as if Hall voters were waiting for the perfect time to break the ice.
If that's the case, they couldn't have done much better than Elway, the embodiment of the Broncos and a hero for an entire city.
"There have been a lot of guys in this organization that deserve to be there and it feels like kind of a conspiracy that they waited," Smith said. "But I guess our first one is our best one by far."