When the winningest quarterback in NFL history retired, in 1999,
he took all that cool, all that glory and all that cash, and he
galloped into the sunset.
But somebody ran off with John Elway's happily ever after.
Since he quit playing, lucky number 7 has hit the worst losing
streak of his life. Elway's father died, most of his business
ventures flopped, his wife left him and, three weeks ago, his
twin sister passed away. Boy, where's the parade when you need
"When you're a quarterback, you're in control," says Elway, 42.
"The football's in your hand, and it's fourth-and-12, and if the
wideout doesn't take the right route, I'm going to run around and
make things happen. But now, things go wrong and I don't have the
It seemed that everything he made a pass at fell incomplete.
MVP.com, his online sporting goods venture with Michael Jordan
and Wayne Gretzky, flopped. His chain of upscale Laundromats,
with lounges and big-screen TVs, washed out. His try at getting
Los Angeles an NFL franchise busted. His bid to buy the Denver
Nuggets, the Colorado Avalanche and the Pepsi Center was low.
Then, in the winter of 2001, Elway's twin, Jana Elway-Sever, the
person he shared every birthday with, had double-dated with, had
that weird twin telepathy with, was told she had lung cancer.
Elway figured he could save the day. Hadn't he always? He made
sure she had the best doctors, medicine and hospitals. But she
only got worse.
Two months later, in April 2001, John's best friend, his father,
Jack, died of a heart attack. "My dad took the news about Jana
terribly," says John. "He kept flying [to Jana's home in San
Jose], worried sick. I think it was just too much for him. He
would've never been able to handle losing Jana."
This year, in early June, Elway's wife of 18 years, Janet, moved
out and took their four kids with her. "It's like we were lonely
inside our own marriage," she says. "It was time for drastic
measures." All of sudden it looked as if Elway could hold his
Hall of Fame induction ceremony in a phone booth.
"My whole life I had a carrot to chase," he says. "For 16 years
winning the Super Bowl was my carrot. Everything revolved around
that. All of a sudden there's no carrot anymore, and you start
wondering what you're going to do with your life. You play golf
or you try business stuff, but it's not even close. You end up
spinning yourself like a tornado. And here was Janet, who
sacrificed all those years, thinking she was finally going to get
me to herself."
Then, in mid-July, Jana's health took a turn toward heartache. In
the middle of shooting a commercial for his new Arena Football
League team, Elway got word and flew immediately to Jana's
bedside. She motioned him over with a crook of her finger, put
her lips near his ear and whispered, "I don't want to die."
Within hours she was gone.
Fourth-and-12, QB. What are you going to do? "At some point it
hits you," Elway says, "that this fairy-tale life you've been
leading is not real."
But nobody does comebacks like Elway. He started to change. He'd
go to Janet's rented house and pull weeds in her garden when she
wasn't home. He went to the mall with her. "John hadn't been to a
mall in 16 years!" she says. He sent her roses every week, opened
car doors, started hanging out with his kids.
Sometimes you think you have to be a god when all you really need
to be is human. Within a month the family was back together under
one roof. "Them leaving kind of woke me up," John says. "It was
like a two-by-four to the heart."
You'd hardly recognize Elway now. He talks Zen-like about just
being. He's adding a yoga room to his house. He says things like,
"I'm trying to do things now that make me content, things that
aren't necessarily about achieving." This from a guy who once
sold his pool table because he'd finally lost a game on it.
Jocks spit out the I'm-gonna-drive-the-car-pool-now pap, but
Elway is actually doing it. "I want to put my family first from
now on," he says. That's not easy when the world has put you
first your whole life.
"I was driving by [Six Flags] the other day, and it hit me: I've
never taken my family to the amusement park! So we're going, even
if I have to rent it for a day. Or even if I have to tell people,
'Sorry, I can't sign autographs today. I'm with my family.' And I
remembered something--I happen to love roller coasters."
Sounds as if you just got off one.
COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA
"When you're a quarterback, you're in control," says Elway. "But
now, things go wrong and I don't have the football anymore."