With 12 minutes left in the Kansas City Chief-Denver Bronco game at Mile High Stadium on Sunday, sportswriter Reggie Rivers burst through the left side of the Chiefs' line and blocked Bryan Barker's punt. The play set up Bronco quarterback John Elway's 25th career fourth-quarter game-winning drive and took participatory journalism into a new realm.
Rivers the scribe (his weekly sports column appears in a dozen newspapers) doubles as a third-year special teams player and reserve running back for the Broncos, and this was clearly the most important career move of his life. Not only did his block give the ball to Denver at the Chiefs' 11-yard line—three plays later Elway would throw a short touchdown pass to tight end Shannon Sharpe, giving the Broncos a 24-21 lead en route to a 27-21 victory—but it also provided Rivers with fodder for this weekend's column.
"I blocked that ball with my hands," the writer said in the locker room afterward. "I think the man across from me, Bennie Thompson, thought I was trying to hold him up, so he released wide. He probably thought he beat me." The ball rocketed backward off Rivers's hand, then Barker inexplicably swatted it toward his own end zone before the Chiefs' Todd McNair grabbed it and was tackled at his 11-yard line for a 47-yard loss. The play resulted in a net gain of some 80 yards in field position for the Broncos, as well as a mighty swing in momentum, and the thoughtful Rivers considered this after his shower. "I should get that as rushing yards, don't you think?" he said politely to the assembled fellow writers.
Absolutely, we all agreed. But then Elway should get a Purple Heart for the 10 years he spent directing the conservative attack of former Bronco coach Dan Reeves, taking a whupping while all of Denver waited for the last two minutes and the patented Elway Drive to Victory. The brief game-winning drive against the AFC West-leading Chiefs was the first for Elway in the year 1 A.D. (after Dan), and it was sweet for two reasons. One, it showed that Elway could work his come-from-behind magic under easygoing first-year coach Wade Phillips; and two, it "silenced the critics who said I couldn't do this, couldn't do that," said Elway.
Just what "this" and "that" are is unclear, though the answer undoubtedly has something to do with the fact that Elway has gone to the Super Bowl three times without winning, and that even his "touch" passes sometimes leave sinkholes in his receivers' chests. It is Elway's desire to be appreciated for being the great tactical quarterback that he is, not just as an "athlete" running around in a dither and hurling last-second, cross-field missiles for improbable and ultimately irrelevant wins. Indeed, the 33-year-old Elway is thriving as never before, in Phillips's West Coast offense, an attack that allows the quarterback to mix runs and passes in a creative fashion, much as Elway did in the offense he steered at Stanford in 1982 under guru Jim Fassel, who is now Denver's offensive coordinator. Elway's 22 touchdown passes are the most in the AFC this year, and they equal his previous high for a season. But above all he is overjoyed to be free of Reeves's heavy yoke. "We're going to open it up from Play One," he crowed at spring minicamp.
All this is courtesy of Phillips, Denver's former defensive coordinator and a man with a resemblance to the young Captain Kangaroo. "When I took over," Phillips says, "I said that Elway was on a par with guys like Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, and they were throwing 25 touchdowns a year while he was throwing 10."
Sunday's outing was a good test of Elway's mettle, for the game was a critical one. A loss would leave the Broncos' record at 7-6, three games behind the Chiefs, and would probably knock them out of the playoffs. A win would keep them in line for a wild-card berth. The Chiefs, 9-3 going into the game—tied for the best in the NFL—had been looking tough, with a 5-0 mark against AFC West opponents. Moreover, this was the game in which the aging and fragile Joe Montana would be making his debut as a Chief at Mile High.
A major concern in the Kansas City camp was that Montana, who had already missed 25 quarters this season with wrist and leg injuries, would not hold up in the face of the Broncos' blitzing defense. What's the difference between Montana and a dollar bill? went the local gag. A dollar will give you four quarters. When 37-year-old Kansas City kicker Nick Lowery bumped a speedy Seattle Seahawk returner out-of-bounds on Dec. 5, Montana, also 37, had jokingly accused Lowery of "overtraining."
"Yes," answered Lowery. "But I didn't pull a hamstring."
Touchè More troubling, however, was the bundle of oh-fers the Chiefs carried with them to Denver. Not only was Kansas City winless at Mile High Stadium over the last decade, but coach Marty Schottenheimer was also oh for six there if you took his 4½ years with the Cleveland Browns into account. Furthermore, Montana, the three-time Super Bowl MVP as a San Francisco 49er, was oh for two in Denver. Was there a jinx? "I don't believe in jinxes," said Schottenheimer.
At midweek the Chief locker room at Arrowhead Stadium was festive with Christmas spirit, much of the cheer emanating-from defensive end Neil Smith's cubicle, which was decorated with wreaths, ornaments, pictures of Santa Claus and blinking, multihued lights, much like a display at your local Walgreens. The sackmeister himself (Smith's two sacks of Elway would give him an AFC-leading 13) seemed unbowed by the jinx. He hummed along with the Christmas carols wafting from the tape machine under his stacked football shoes. "I'm celebrating the holidays," said Smith, "and maybe a division championship."
But Chief cornerback Dale Carter was apprehensive. "First of all, we hate it," he said of Denver's high-altitude home field, "because we can't breathe up there."
"I don't know if it's perception or reality," added fellow corner Albert Lewis. "But perception is reality." Lewis smiled crookedly, then said to himself, "Now, what does he mean by that?"
Before the game, though, the perception was that this was the year the jinx might be snapped, and the reality, at least through the first quarter, was that the Montana-led Chiefs couldn't be stopped. On the game's opening series Old Joe led his team on an effortless drive that culminated in an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jonathan Hayes. Phillips stood on the sideline, hatless and headset-free, speaking to no one, reverentially watching Montana's performance like some entertainment-starved trapper fresh out of the Rockies. "I like to see good players play," he had said before the game. "I'm a fan. That's why I liked being the defensive coordinator here, because I could watch John in the two-minute drives."
The Chiefs were on a roll, and it seemed as if there would be no opportunity for Denver drives of any kind. Marcus Allen, the Chiefs' other ageless off-season acquisition, scored his AFC-leading 14th touchdown on a four-yard run midway through the second quarter, and except for a first-quarter interception by Denver cornerback Ronnie Bradford ("Not many people in America have intercepted a pass from a legend!" said the excited young man later), Montana appeared infallible. Still, Elway's nine-yard touchdown pass to Sharpe at the end of the first half made the score 14-10, Chiefs, and hinted at the possibilities ahead.
In the third quarter the two quarterbacks matched each other thrust for thrust. Elway hit Sharpe on another scoring pass, and Montana countered six minutes later with a 29-yard beauty to wide-out Willie Davis, putting Kansas City back in the lead 21-17. Then, with just over three minutes gone in the final period, came the blocked punt by Rivers, and suddenly Elway was looking at the go-ahead score. The 6'2", 230-pound Sharpe, sculpted like a park statue but agile as a tumbler, promptly beat safety Doug Terry on an out pattern into the right side of the end zone. "I saw man coverage, and I knew John saw it and was coming to me," said Sharpe, who caught 10 passes for 65 yards and three touchdowns. "I'm not the fastest man, but I can heal am safety."
The Broncos made it 27-21 eight minutes later when Jason Elam drilled a 53-yard field goal, a kick that had serious velocity to it. "In practice I've kicked a 73-yarder," Elam noted of the blast. "I hit this one that well."
There was, of course, one last chance for the Chiefs' delicate genius to work his craft. With 2:26 left to play and no timeouts, Montana took over at his own 20. But the jinx was as secure as the Broncos' seven-man secondary, and Montana's final fourth-down pass fell incomplete.
"It was too much to ask of Montana," Phillips said with a shrug in the jubilant Denver locker room. "It would have been hard even for John Elway to do it." But not impossible.
"I'd much rather have him in that situation," Elway said of Montana. "Especially with us up by six." Then he grinned. "But if it were just a field goal you needed, I'd rather be in there. You never think anything's out of reach."
Certainly not a punt. Journalist Rivers, the punt blocker, continued his discourse on his intertwined careers, saying that it was his viewing of Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in All the President's Men when he was a freshman in high school that made him want to become a newspaper guy. "The thing that really hooked me was when they ran out of paper and started writing on napkins," he said, still moved. "The tenacity about them. I just thought, Yeah, this is great!"
And now he can investigate his own role in the continuing saga of John Elway. It's a good story, and the title's a no-brainer.
Writer's Block, of course.
PETER READ MILLER
In outdueling Montana, Elway (left) threw three TD passes to Sharpe, including the game-winner and this third-quarter grab.
PETER READ MILLER
Although he lasted four quarters, Montana (19) couldn't overcome the Mile High jinx.
Allen added to his TD total but was otherwise pretty much bottled up by Bronco defenders.