Comeback trip complete

Elway: From young brat to revered icon, the future Hall of Fame quarterback is set to retire today in rare form, leaving as a champion.

May 02, 1999|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

From a distance not always safe, Ernie Accorsi watched John Elway's awkward induction into the NFL, his quixotic rise to power, his devastating Super Bowl losses, his transcendent triumph.

Now, 16 years to the day after Accorsi made Elway the No. 1 pick in the 1983 draft, he will watch the legendary quarterback complete the journey.

From 22-year-old brat who wouldn't play in Baltimore to 38-year-old icon in Denver.

From would-be outfielder in the New York Yankees' farm system to certain Hall of Famer with the Broncos.

From Super Bowl misfit to Super Bowl MVP.

A seeming millennium after he shaped football history in several cities, Elway will formally announce his retirement today at a Denver hotel. History can now construct a full profile of the quarterback who won 148 NFL games, passed for 51,475 yards, absorbed 515 sacks, authored 47 fourth-quarter comebacks and was selected for nine Pro Bowls.

"If you asked 100 football people to name the five greatest quarterbacks of all time," said Accorsi, general manager of the New York Giants, "he'd be on everybody's list."

Said Carl Peterson, president of the Kansas City Chiefs: "He's got to be ranked as one of the very best. I would put him in the top five of all quarterbacks."

Ravens owner Art Modell reduced the class even more.

"He's one of the top three," said Modell, who included John Unitas and Joe Montana among the ultra-elite. "History has proven him to be one of the more outstanding performers of all time."

Those tributes come from three NFL executives who most felt the cutting edge of Elway's immense talents. Accorsi was general manager of the Baltimore Colts' team shunned by Elway in 1983. Teamed with Modell on the Cleveland Browns after that, the two men lost three AFC championship games in four years to Elway. And during his 10-year run in Kansas City, Peterson's Chiefs were victimized for eight of Elway's fourth-quarter comebacks, most against any club.

"He's been a credit to the game," Accorsi said. "I rooted for him in both of the last two Super Bowls. When he beat us [the Browns] the first time, I didn't root for him. I was rooting for George Young and the Giants. The second one in '87, after The Fumble, I couldn't even go to the game. I won't say I was rooting for the Broncos.

"[But] that's changed. Looking back, I had the privilege of having seen him play. I never got the benefit of any team he played on, but I fought a lot of resistance to draft him."

The 1983 draft is considered the greatest quarterback bonanza in league history, and it started with Elway, the rifled-armed kid from Stanford. As Accorsi learned later, Jim Fassel, offensive coordinator at Stanford at the time and now Giants coach, was Elway's confidant and adviser. Together with agent Marvin Demoff, they formulated a plan to avoid playing for then-Colts coach Frank Kush. The plan featured a threat to play baseball for the Yankees rather than football for the Colts.

Armed with a baseball scouting report that said Elway was not major-league timber, Accorsi resisted all trade offers, battled Colts owner Robert Irsay, and ultimately made the Elway pick on April 26.

"He was the best player I ever saw [coming out]," Accorsi said. "It was like drafting Willie Mays. If you think Willie Mays can't play, you better get into hockey."

But on May 2, a panicky Irsay completed one of the worst trades in league annals. He sent Elway to Denver for tackle Chris Hinton, quarterback Mark Herrmann, a future No. 1 pick (that became guard Ron Solt) and two exhibition dates.

What unfolded in Denver was part wizardry, part artistry. Playing on inferior teams with running backs like Sammy Winder, Gene Lang and Gaston Green, Elway became the comeback king. His first taste of fourth-quarter magic came against the Colts on Dec. 11, 1983, when he threw three late touchdowns for a 21-19 victory over Kush.

His most famous comeback was the 98-yard drive to force overtime in the 1986 AFC championship game in Cleveland. The Broncos' win that day was only the beginning of the Browns' torment.

"That one drive catapulted him into the minds of everybody as a super human being," Modell said. "And he started out in mud up to his ankles.

"His ability to bring a team back is outstanding. A great quarterback elicits great belief from his team."

Peterson likened Elway to Montana in that regard.

"I think both of them really looked forward to the opportunity of being the guy at the end to do it," he said. "They also have the ability to put away all the extraneous things going on around them. They seem to see clearer than most of us in pressure situations."

The laws of gravity and physics didn't appear to affect Elway, either.

"His physical abilities were so awesome," Peterson said. "We had a defensive statement that if he breaks out of the pocket, don't let him set his feet. He'd sprint, stop, then throw 80 yards. So one game he breaks out with five guys chasing him and without setting his feet, throws 50 yards on a rope.

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