Elway Alone

May 2003

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.

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.