In the end, John Elway opted for the storybook ending over a shot at history, for an early tee time over an impending pass rush.
There will be no attempt at a three-peat, no more playing through debilitating injuries, no more fourth-quarter comebacks.
His place in Canton, Ohio, secure, Elway reportedly will turn the page on a 16-year, Hall of Fame career with a formal announcement tomorrow of his retirement as quarterback of the Denver Broncos.
Elway, 38, playing in a golf tournament in Pebble Beach, Calif., all but announced his intention during an interview yesterday with Denver TV station KCNC.
"For so many years everything in my family has revolved around me. It's time for that to change," Elway said. "I really accomplished everything I wanted to. There's no real upside to coming back."
So ends the three-month crucible in which he weighed the hazards of returning for a 17th season against the merits of going out on top. Perhaps taking a cue from Michael Jordan, Elway decided to leave with consecutive Super Bowl victories, including an MVP trophy after the second, and a victory lap around Mile High Stadium after his final home game.
He leaves with a legacy as the winning est quarterback in NFL history, whose tall shadow raised questions of what might have been in both Baltimore and Cleveland.
The Baltimore Colts took Elway with the first pick in the 1983 draft, then traded him to the Broncos for a backup quarterback, an offensive tackle and future exhibition dates. Less than a year later, the Colts were in Indianapolis.
The Cleveland Browns lost three times in the AFC championship game to Elway in the 1980s. Two of those confrontations resulted in some of the most memorable playoff games in NFL history -- Elway's dramatic 98-yard drive that led to an overtime victory in January 1987, and Earnest Byner's fumble at the Denver 3 in the closing minute a year later.
The Browns, of course, wound up in Baltimore in 1996.
That history notwithstanding, former Cleveland tight end Ozzie Elway Newsome, now an executive with the Ravens, said he was pulling for Elway to collect his first Super Bowl win two years ago after three blowout losses.
"We got beat by one of the best guys who played the game," said Newsome, due to be inducted into the Hall of Fame himself this summer. "He single-handedly had a lot to do with why I never had a chance to play in the Super Bowl.
"[But] I was rooting for him to beat Green Bay two years ago."
Elway threw for 51,475 yards in his career, second only to the Miami Dolphins' Dan Marino, and won 148 games. If his receivers were covered, Elway was more than nimble enough to run for critical yardage. That combination of skills was what impressed Newsome.
"He was a very gifted athlete," Newsome said. "You talk about quarterbacks today -- [Donovan] McNabb, [Steve] McNair -- and their mobility. He had that. He also had the arm of Terry Bradshaw.
"You would watch him do things during a game and say, `He shouldn't be able to do that.' He'd be rolling toward one sideline and throw a rocket clear across field, and get it there with such velocity."
The only hole in Elway's resume was the series of three disastrous Super Bowl losses in the '80s. But he spirited the Broncos to an upset of the defending champion Packers two years ago -- who can forget his pinwheel dive into two defenders for a big first down -- and then beat the Atlanta Falcons last January with his crowning performance. He completed 18 of 29 throws for 336 yards and a touchdown to earn MVP hardware.
But age -- he'll turn 39 in June -- and injuries took their toll on Elway in 1998. He missed all or parts of six games with hamstring, rib and back injuries.
Asked during the buildup to the Super Bowl about his rumored retirement, Elway offered this insight into his personal debate: "Sometimes you run out of physical ability before you run out of mental desire," he said. "If you run out of mental desire before you run out of physical attributes, then it makes it a little bit easier [to decide], so it just depends on what you want to do. I don't want to leave too early, and I don't want to leave too late, either."
Tomorrow, apparently, is the right time.