It's time to join the crowd, cheer for old enemy Elway

January 11, 1998|By John Eisenberg

John Elway is the official sentimental favorite of the Super Bowl tournament, with most of the football nation rooting for him to win a big one before it's too late.

That leaves Baltimore fans in a tough position as Elway leads the Denver Broncos against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game today.

Elway has been a public enemy around here for years, since he said he wouldn't play for the Colts after they made him the No. 1 pick in the 1983 draft -- a stand that led to his trade to Denver and probably hastened the Colts' departure a year later.

Thus, the dilemma: Should loyal, hard-core Baltimore fans cling to the past and boo Elway instead of cheer him? Or should they lay down that history and root for one of the game's greats to earn the Super Bowl ring he deserves?

Take the high road, it says here.

You'll have company.

"I'm rooting for him," says Ernie Accorsi, who was the Colts' general manager during Elway's stand. "And I think I have more reasons than anyone not to [root for him]."

Elway not only snubbed Accorsi in Baltimore, but he also denied Accorsi two trips to the Super Bowl in the '80s, when Accorsi was the GM in Cleveland and Elway's Broncos beat the Browns in two straight AFC title games.

"If you care about football, you have to want to see Elway get [a ring]," said Accorsi, who was hired as the Giants' GM last week. "He has been so terrific for so long, such a credit to the game, that it's only right."

Besides, it wasn't as if Elway was opposed to Baltimore itself years ago.

It wasn't as if he said he hated crabcakes, or thought the people here talked funny, or didn't think Brooks deserved to make the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

It wasn't personal, even if it seemed so.

Elway was just afraid of associating himself with Robert Irsay.

Can you blame him?

And remember, it was Irsay who hauled off and traded Elway shortly after the draft, without consulting Accorsi and without even trying to sign him.

Elway and his agent had made threats about signing with baseball's New York Yankees unless Elway was traded to an NFL team on the West Coast, where the weather was better.

It all sounded anti-Baltimore, but, Accorsi said, "It was just part of the poker game that's part of every contract negotiation. Irsay got scared. But we were just getting started. And I still believe [Elway] would have played in Baltimore had we held firm and not traded him. His love for the game is so great that he would have come around and played."

After being traded, Elway told reporters in Colorado that the threats about the Yankees and the West Coast team were a "cover story," that he didn't want to play for the Colts because Bert Jones had told his agent "the organization was like a circus," and he had heard from a friend that Colts coach Frank Kush was "like a slave master."

Less than a year later, the Colts also left town.

"It's just my opinion, but I believe the Colts would have stayed if we had gotten Elway," Accorsi said. "He would have changed everything. Players of that caliber change the course of a franchise."

He did come to Baltimore that September as a rookie starter for the Broncos, and he endured a brutal afternoon of boos at Memorial Stadium. But he won, fittingly. And later that season, he beat the Colts again on a day the Broncos clinched a playoff spot.

The rest of his career is the stuff of legend. With a strong arm, peerless leadership and sheer derring-do, he made a habit of thrilling comebacks and carried three average Broncos teams to the Super Bowl in the '80s.

They lost because they lacked a defense and running game -- not because they had Elway.

"I feel good about the fact that we made the right call when we drafted him originally," Accorsi said.

"We didn't sell the Colts franchise short. The franchise of Johnny Unitas deserved to be the franchise of John Elway."

Now, at 37, Elway is back in the final four for what could be the last time.

It's John Wayne's Last Ride, NFL style.

No, the world won't end if he doesn't win -- he is happily married with four children, and recently sold his Denver-area car dealerships for $82 million.

He isn't going to suffer too much.

"But as the best player at his position for all these years, he deserves to have the best things happen to him from a football standpoint," Accorsi said.

So try taking the high road today.

The business between Elway and the Colts is old history, and all Elway ever wanted was to avoid Irsay, which, if anything, proves he went to class at Stanford.

To keep rooting against him for that is ridiculous, even hypocritical, considering the local take on Irsay.

Enough already. The Colts are gone. The Ravens are here. A new stadium is sprouting. Accorsi works for the Giants. Irsay died. Everyone is in a different place now -- except Elway.

It's our loss, no doubt.

"But my circle of friends there [in Baltimore] are rooting for him now," Accorsi said.

Go ahead. Give it a try.

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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