Memories of Baltimore and the most jeering reception any athlete received in the history of Memorial Stadium are vivid recollections for John Elway. It was his rookie year, starting for the Denver Broncos, and the noise never abated. A cacophony of discontent began with the opening kickoff and was non-stop.
Baltimore, even at this late date, owes Elway an apology. He has come back to visit as a recipient tonight of an Ed Block Courage Award at Martin's West.
The reason Elway wanted to stay away from Baltimore, after the Colts had chosen him as the first player drafted in 1983, wasn't because of high humidity or the price of crab meat.
Why then, John, did you reject Baltimore, forcing a trade with the Broncos for guard Chris Hinton, quarterback Mark Hermann and a first-round pick in 1984? "It was because of the coach [Frank Kush] and the owner [Bob Irsay]," he said. "I didn't want an association with either one of them."
By the next season, the Elway deal was a moot subject for Baltimore because the entire franchise had been carried off under the cover of darkness to Indianapolis. But how did Elway know when he made his stand that Baltimore wasn't the ideal place to hang his helmet?
"I heard too many stories," Elway said. "Kush tried to recruit me out of high school for Arizona State. He wasn't hostile, I just didn't want to go play for him. Too many negatives."
Since your father was a coach at San Jose and Stanford, is it reasonable to assume he told you about the reputation of Kush and the physical part of what made practices at Arizona State seem more demanding than trying out for the French Foreign Legion? "Not really", he said. "My wind was made up. Baltimore had nothing to do with my decision. But the coach and owner made it clear to me that I didn't want to play for them."
It was generally understood that Bert Jones, who had been a previous No. 1 pick of the Colts, and also a quarterback, had met Elway on a casual basis and offered a scouting report on the bizarre conduct of Irsay. Elway smiled and clarified Jones' position. "Yes, but Bert said to keep him out of it."
Had Elway agreed to come to Baltimore it would have given the Colts another extraordinary arm to go with that of Hall of Fame members Y.A. Tittle and John Unitas, plus Jones, who could throw a football through a car wash and not get it wet. But all that is history.
Elway, because the Baltimore public didn't comprehend his reasons for not wanting to sign with the Colts, was targeted for a "welcome" that surpassed all bounds of decency. It was unending booing, accompanied with brutal insults. Denver won the game, 17-10, thanks to the relief pitching of Steve DeBerg.
Coach Dan Reeves of the Broncos measured the verbal assaults as the worst he heard, even surpassing an occasion in Philadelphia when the gathering heaped brutal abuse on the late coach, Joe Kuharich. Maybe what transpired in Baltimore conditioned Elway to the National Football League. Certainly, things couldn't become any more uncomfortable.
"Yes, that was tough but I had tried to tell the people of Baltimore that it wasn't anything personal against the city, only that I didn't want to play for the coach and the owner," he said.
Then Elway contemplated what has occurred to Baltimore and the Colts since then. "I believe what happened is a substantiation of the position I took back then. Baltimore deserves a team. It never should have lost it in the first place. I hope one comes back."
Elway acted the part of a thoroughbred when Baltimore blistered him with a torrential downpour of boos. He never gestured, cursed or ridiculed the source. You knew then that Elway, strong mentally and physically, and with the ability to scramble and pass on-the-run, was destined to achieve because it was proven he was beyond intimidation.
He has accumulated more than 2,500 yards passing and almost as much running in nine years as a Bronco. Elway has the capacity to "play hurt," the mark of a true professional, and is ultimately headed for the highest honor a player can receive, the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It could have been Baltimore and the Colts rather than Denver and the Broncos except for circumstances beyond his control. He couldn't replace the coach and owner that awaited him here. So he merely found a better future elsewhere since a pro football career is too short to tolerate intolerable working conditions if there's a way to bring change.