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Friday, August 6
Elway and Denver grew up together
By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com

DENVER -- John Elway came to Denver when the metropolitan area still was in the early stages of transformation from minor-league outpost to major-league market. Those are sports terms, assuredly, yet there was much more to it than regional identification with, and passionate interest in, teams and franchises.

John Elway
John Elway celebrates on the field during Super Bowl XXXIII against the Atlanta Falcons.
In 1983, Denver still was an overgrown small town, often insecure and searching for an identity. The ongoing cultural collision was between justifiably resentful natives and immigrants who too often waxed poetic about the mountain backdrop, yet acted as if regional history only began the second they unloaded the moving vans. (Both groups, though, realized that the burdens of Colorado residency are having to explain to acquaintances around the country that Denver is at the base of the Rockies, not in them; that snow sticking for more than a few hours is a rarity, meaning Denver residents do NOT have to ski or sled to work; and that John Denver, as nice as he was, was a Texan who lived in isolated Aspen, which has about as much to do with the state's capital city as Mars does with Earth.)

The Broncos had been around since 1960, albeit first as an American Football League soft touch in hideous vertically striped socks, and later as a rabidly supported, sold-out NFL franchise that reached the Super Bowl in January 1978. But even that first Super Bowl appearance -- a loss to the Dallas Cowboys in New Orleans -- involved an atmosphere more akin to Mayberry getting a stoplight than a major market stepping back into the national spotlight.

In the spring of 1983, when the Broncos pried Elway away from the Baltimore Colts -- he had nothing against Baltimore, but both he and his father, Jack, didn't respect Colts coach Frank Kush -- Denver was about to lose a National Hockey League franchise, the Colorado Rockies, to New Jersey. As news of the imminent trade began to leak, Broncos coach Dan Reeves was at courtside, watching a Denver Nuggets' playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs. The Nuggets were popular, but they weren't a Rocky Mountain obsession. Despite constant speculation, Colorado still didn't have a major-league baseball franchise, and -- in fact -- the National League Rockies were a decade away from their inaugural season.

The Broncos already were the kings of Colorado sports, but Elway helped take that to another level of passion.

As the Denver metro area continued its expansion and sprawl, Elway became the figure most inexorably linked with the city -- by locals and far-off observers alike. Adding to the furor, his arrival and early seasons also coincided with the most fierce days of a newspaper war, and coverage of the much-touted, newly arrived quarterback was a major element of the battle. Everything from his wedding to his training-camp haircuts drew, well, gavel-to-gavel coverage.

We'll toss in this story, if we all agree the statute of limitations of embarrassment has expired. Fair enough?

In Elway's rookie training camp, a Denver newspaper ran a daily "Elway Watch." Early in camp, the two writers covering camp one day at Colorado State University on Fort Collins filed their stories and, believing they were off duty, they had opened a beer (or two) when the phone rang in the dormitory room. They were scolded that they had forgotten to file the "Elway Watch." Well, one writer said, this was the first boringly routine day, and Elway had done nothing that hadn't been previously noted. No, the writers were lectured, the "Elway Watch" was a must. So one of the writers crafted what obviously was a tongue-in-cheek satire of the over-coverage, filed it and waited for the call from the office, saying, OK, the point was made.

That "Elway Watch" ran verbatim.

As ridiculous as it was, nobody got the joke.

The funny thing was, John Elway proved to be worth all the fuss.

He was the quarterback who came to be admired and even revered, both by second- and third-generation Coloradans; and those who moved in, still mispronounced names of suburbs and didn't have a clue that long-time Supreme Court Justice Byron White once played a little college football in Boulder.

Whether Elway knew it or not, as he grew up, so did Denver.

He progressed from floppy-haired wunderkind displaying amazing natural talent, becoming the electric, if sometimes eccentric leader. During that maturation, Colorado was changing as well. At times, it hasn't always been for the better, because old-time Denver had considerable charm and a small-city naiveté that wasn't all bad. But Elway was a great fit, immersing himself in the market. He lived near Cherry Hills Country Club and made business contacts that got him involved in a string of automobile dealerships that bear his name -- and still use him in commercials. And, yes, there was the football. As a member of the Draft Class of '83, he had select company, most notably Dan Marino. For years, the asterisk in his career was that while he had led the Broncos to three Super Bowls, he hadn't won. Many athletes have shown how stupid that "didn't-win-the-ring" asterisk is in the assessment of a career, but Elway might be the primary example of the standard's folly.

Those were good Bronco teams that lost in the Super Bowls to the New York Giants, the Redskins and 49ers. But Elway lifted the Broncos far beyond what they by most measurable standards should have been capable of accomplishing. There never has been a quarterback in the game more capable of deflating the opposition, of keeping a play alive as a defense did everything perfectly short of corralling him, and then finding someone open and hitting him with a laser, even if it went across the field, across about 12 white lines and damn near across a time zone. He was Fran Tarkenton with a bazooka, more toughness and more talent. To this day, his feats of carrying decent teams to something more have remained under-appreciated. And by the time he didn't have to have an "S" on his chest for his team to win the Super Bowl, he still was good enough to be the catalyst, both spiritually and physically. That dive and the helicopter whirl as he got a crucial first down in the breakthrough win over the Packers not only made for great video, it was as much a summary of his career as any of how'd-he-get-the-ball-there passes downfield.

So when Elway on Sunday becomes the first player primarily identified with the Broncos to make the Hall of Fame -- defensive back Willie Brown, the long-time Raider, and Tony Dorsett both briefly played with Denver -- an entire market will feel part of the ceremony.

Terry Frei, of The Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," and of the upcoming "Third Down and a War to Go" due out in September.