His story hardly needs retelling. In 16 seasons with the Denver Broncos, John Elway became the NFL’s winningest quarterback and led his team to a record five Super Bowls, including consecutive championships in 1998 and 1999. Off the field, he was the toast of the Mile-High City, easily Denver’s most recognizable and popular figure. The car dealerships he purchased in 1991 became hugely successful, and there was even talk that he might someday run for public office.
Today, all that has changed. Since his retirement from football in 1999, Elway has watched his life unravel. He sold his dealerships (though he remains their highly visible spokesman) and saw several high-profile business ventures fail (most notably an online sporting-goods store; a chain of upscale laundromats; an attempt to bring an NFL franchise to Los Angeles; and a bid to buy the Avalanche, Nuggets, and Pepsi Center). His father died of a heart attack in April 2001; only a few months later his twin sister Jana lost her battle with lung cancer. Earlier this year, Elway and Janet, his wife of 18 years, announced they would divorce. For the first time in his 42 years, John Elway now finds himself alone.
More from our May 2003 Issue
I had met Elway a few times during his Broncos career, but never for more than a simple hello. This was our first real conversation. He wasn’t what I expected.
We met in the nondescript Commerce City offices of the Colorado Crush, the Arena Football League expansion team that recently kicked off its first season with Elway as president, CEO, and co-owner. The Elway I talked to was far more human than you would have expected and less the idol than you would have believed. He is a man enduring tremendous pain with grace, and I came away from our interview liking him immensely.
5280: This has to be a very difficult time for you. The end of a tremendous career. The loss of your dad. The loss of your twin sister. And now going through a divorce.
John Elway: It is. It started, of course, with retiring from football and having that kind of change in life. That’s always a big step. I always thought that I’d hit the ground running when I went into that part of my life. That’s why I got involved in the car business back in 1990, I knew football was going to end at some point in time. But I ended up selling the dealerships, so then the question became what was going to be next, what was going to tickle my fancy.
I knew that at 38 years old, I wasn’t retiring, I was changing direction. The thing that scared me to death was getting bored. So I stayed busy. I got involved with mvp.com, which was during the Internet craze. We were probably six months late on that, but it was a learning experience.
I’m actually busier now than I was when I was playing football. And, in a way, that’s probably worked against me. At times, I was too busy, and I didn’t have the time I needed to spend with the kids.
Football gave life a structure that I had to follow. Adjusting to an unstructured life, and having to structure yourself, has been a little bit difficult.
But while I was searching to find out what I wanted to do, then I find out that my sister has cancer. I guess it was two years ago this month that we found out. And then Dad died the following month, and then the separation with Janet that June, I was trying to work through that, and then we ended up losing Jana this past July.
You know, in my life, my dad was everything to me. We had the greatest relationship that a son and father could ever have. He was the guy that I bounced most of my problems off of, especially in football, but almost everything else, too. So losing him was a shock, it was such a sudden thing. Then trying to support Jana for the year-and-a-half that she battled the cancer, and then to lose her was another shock to the heart. So it’s definitely been very tough.
The way I’m looking at it is that things were really good for me for a long time. I was very fortunate to have what I had, to get to play here in Denver, to be able to walk away from the game with two Super Bowl wins – which is what I played for my whole life.
But the way I look at life is that there are positives and negatives. The more pluses you have, the more negatives there are to go along with it. I think everybody ends up back at ground zero, no matter what you do. The only question is how complicated the ride is going to be.
Sometimes I think that life was almost too good to me. If you have everything, and it’s so perfect, you don’t appreciate it. By having these kinds of traumatic experiences, it’s really opened my eyes. Life isn’t all about accomplishments. It’s about relationships. My kids are getting older, and they aren’t going to be in the house that much longer, so it’s opened my eyes up to them, and made me want to slow down.
5280: How does the Crush fit into that?
JE: That’s why I’m excited about the Crush coming along. For my whole life Saturday and Sunday in the fall meant football. It was that way growing up, when my dad was a coach. It was that way through school and it was that way as a pro for 16 years. Now, with the Crush, those Saturday and Sundays are in the spring instead of the fall, but it gets me back to what I like, which is that test, week in and week out. I like the highs and lows. I love the exhilaration of winning a football game or the terrible disappointment of losing games. After all the traumatic things that have happened, I feel very comfortable getting into that again. In some ways, it’s something that I’m appreciating more this time around.
5280: Has what you’ve been through changed you spiritually?
JE: I’ve always been pretty spiritual. I’m not a consistent churchgoer. But from my father I got the belief that, even though as a family we weren’t real spiritual, that you treat people the way that you wish to be treated, you believe in God. Those were the core beliefs of our family. So, have I changed? No. Has it gotten stronger? No. But that’s because I feel that I’ve always had a strong base. It’s not something that I’ve ever shown to anybody else. I’ve always looked at it as a personal relationship. Sure, there have been times that I questioned it, but I’ve never lost it.
I know that sometimes people go the other way and lose it when bad things happen. But I’ve never questioned my faith because I believe things happen for a reason. Instead of saying, “why me?” I try to look at the positives. Take the relationship I had with my dad. I would never be where I am today if I didn’t have the 69 years he was here. And then losing my twin sister, who was just a great gal, it was just so unfortunate. I know how bad she wanted to win, and to live. Anytime I think I have problems, I just look back at her and what she went through, the battle she went through, how bad she wanted to live. For me to think that I have problems, well, that just puts it into perspective.
5280: When the newspaper stories came out about your separation from Janet that had to hurt your kids. We talked about it on the radio show (630 KHOW), how it would have to be very hard to be your kids and go to school that day.
JE: That’s been one of the toughest things for me. In this town, it’s very hard to be my kids, to live up to the expectations that are put on them. But one of the things that we’ve been able to do as a family is to say my persona is out there, but in the family I’m still Dad. That’s how they look at me. So I think they’ve done a great job handling it. I don’t know how much they hear about it at school, they don’t talk about it. But I know that they’re really good kids, and they’ve got a lot of good friends that are there for them. They don’t seem to be embarrassed about it. The key thing is to talk to them, to make sure they know what’s going on, so that when they do hear things, there’s no confusion.
5280: Were you upset that it became a newspaper story?
JE: No. I knew it would. Early in my career, I tried to battle against that kind of thing, but as I matured, I realized that no matter what I said, that’s the way it’s going to be.
I was a little bit angered that Janet talked about it. But that was up to her. But my choice was that this isn’t something I’m going to talk about in public.
5280: I’ve always thought it was interesting that, despite being a Denver icon, you’ve always been a pretty private guy. There were other guys who played their lives out on the stage, but you never did.
JE: The football field was my stage.
I look at myself, and I realize that God gave me a great gift to play football. I enjoyed it and loved it and played it as hard as I could. But I always realized that being a good quarterback wasn’t any different than being a good attorney, or a good reporter, or whatever. That was the gift that God gave me. My job was to do the best that I could with that gift. Other people have their gifts. The only difference between me and a great accountant was that my job was on TV. I never looked at myself as being better than anyone else. I just tried to do my job the best I could.
So if that’s how I see life, why would I expect my relationships off the field to be treated any differently than anyone else? Off the field, my relationships with people weren’t as a Denver Bronco, they were me as an individual.
5280: And yet, you did have an influence off the field. For instance, people have often said that if you had retired a year earlier, Invesco Field might not have been built.
JE: I’ve heard that, too. But honestly, that had nothing to do with my decision to play one more year.
I did think about retiring after that first Super Bowl win. I talked to my Dad and I told him, “You have to be the one who’s telling me if I’m slipping, or if I can’t play this game anymore. You’re going to be the guy I’m going to come to because you know football as well as anybody and you know me as well as anybody.”
We sat down one night and he said, “You know, John, you can still play this game. It’s just a matter of whether you’re willing to go through physically what you’ll have to do to get ready to play.”
When he said that, that was what made my mind up to come back. And I’m glad I did it. I was able to go through that season knowing that it was my last year. I was able to step back and enjoy everything, knowing that it would be my last time around. So by the time that season ended, and we did win it, I knew that it was time to walk away.
5280: The other political thing that came up was that after that second Super Bowl win, you didn’t go with the rest of the team to meet President Clinton. The rap was that it was because you’re a Republican. Any truth to that?
JE: No, none. It had nothing to do with Clinton, or anything like that. I was scheduled to have an MRI that morning, and that was where I needed to be. There was no disrespect intended toward President Clinton.
5280: But isn’t it interesting that that much attention is paid to you?
JE: I guess that’s why everyone loves me. I give them something to talk about. (laughs) Seriously, though, I’d been to the White House before, and the last time I went to the White House I got food poisoning, so I wasn’t all that excited about going back.
5280: Another one of the rumors was that you were going to get into politics.
JE: I don’t know where that started. I enjoy supporting the Republican Party, but I’ve never wanted to get into the front line of politics. It was flattering to hear people say, “you could be a senator,” or “you could be a congressman,” but it was never something that I seriously considered. Someone very smart once said to me, “Why would you want to do that when 90 percent of the people love you now? The moment you get into politics, half of them will stop liking you.”
5280: In the early days, there were some newspaper columnists who certainly didn’t like you. They went after you, and went after you hard. Did that hurt?
JE: Honestly? Yes. But, over time, as you mature, you become so callous to it that it doesn’t hurt anymore. If anything, the problem goes the other way. In some of my relationships, people will try to criticize me or degrade me or whatever, and it bounces off. I feel strongly enough about myself that I don’t hear those criticisms.
I know that people are going to have their opinions, but all I can do is do the best I can with the abilities that God has given me.
5280: But there was a time in this town, where it was clearly known, if you make Elway mad, he won’t talk to you.
JE: There was a guy I did that with, a guy from a radio station here in town, where the guy was on me from day one. Viciously. And whether it was something he really meant, or whether it was something that he was doing for ratings, I don’t know. But at some point you just say, you’re going to stop using me. That’s where I lose respect, and don’t want to deal with someone.
5280: Now that football is over, do you find yourself pulling back from people in public?
JE: No, if anything, I’ve always tried to be very cordial to people when they come up and talk to me. Sure, there are times when I’m with my family or whatever, and it’s a little more difficult, but I’ve always tried to take the time and just say hello.
And you know, I honestly think it takes less time to be nice than it does to be a jerk. When you’re a jerk, you usually have to explain to them why you’re being a jerk. Sure, there are times, you’re getting gas, you just want to veg, but it really is easier just to be nice.
5280: When it’s all said and done, what would you like people to know about you?
JE: I’ve just tried to be who John Elway is. In the things I read about myself…
5280: You read the things about you?
JE: Not as much as I used to, but I have to say it’s easier now. When you retire, everything they say is great. They forget about all the interceptions and the losses; all anyone wants to remember is the good throws and the good games, which is nice.
But, if anything, it blows up the legend even more. And I’m not as great as people think I am. I’m a human being. I make mistakes. I wear my emotions on my sleeve, which is something that I think people liked about me as a player because they could see that I cared about the game. But it gets me in trouble, too. I know that was a problem in my marriage a lot of times. She could read everything on my face.
But I guess the perception is pretty close to the reality. I think I’m perceived as a pretty normal guy. I never tried to put myself on a pedestal.
You can have all the success, all the material things, but – and I know I’ve said this a couple of times already – it all comes down to the relationships. When I do die, I want to peek out of my coffin at the funeral and say, “That was my friend, and that was my friend, and him and him.” I want there to be people there that I truly cared about and who truly cared about me.
5280: Any regrets?
JE: I regret what I’m going through with my family. This is something I never imagined would happen. So that’s probably what I regret most, that we couldn’t get things worked out.