He paces back and forth in the owner's box, nervously passing the time between plays with that familiar hitch in his gait. Then, as the huddle breaks, he settles into his lucky spot--top row, leaning up against a table, with a solid view of both the field and the TV--and surveys the action below. At play's end he is pacing again, more anxious than he ever was when he had the ball in his hands.
All these years later, and John Elway is still on the move.
The Hall of Fame quarterback is a CEO now, of the Arena Football League's Colorado Crush, the team he co-owns with his old boss, Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, and Stan Kroenke, who has a minority stake in the St. Louis Rams. Predictably, Elway, 44, is also a winner, as he was during most of his sublime NFL career: The third-year franchise won the AFL championship in Las Vegas on Sunday, defeating the Georgia Force 51-48 on a last-second field goal in ArenaBowl XIX.
In accepting the Foster ArenaBowl trophy from AFL commissioner David Baker, an exuberant Elway compared the triumph to winning a Super Bowl. While some may roll their eyes at such hyperbole, the 19-year-old league has become increasingly relevant in NFL circles, with four owners--Jerry Jones of the Cowboys, Bud Adams of the Titans, Tom Benson of the Saints and the Falcons' Arthur Blank--joining Bowlen in NFL-AFL double-dips. Most NFL honchos view the Arena league's popularity (attendance has risen 41% since 2001) as simply good for football, and it doesn't hurt when one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time plays a starring role in this off-Broadway production.
Mark this down as another classic Elway comeback. Having made so many hearts stop during his 16 years with the Broncos, he now has a decent understanding of why his often freezes during Crush games. "You feel a lot more helpless when you're outside the lines," Elway says. "It's a totally different kind of nervousness, and actually, there's a lot more anxiety on this end. You have too much time to think as an owner."
Much of Elway's post-NFL life has been fraught with misery. His father, Jack, a longtime college coach, died of a heart attack in 2001, and his twin sister, Jana, succumbed to lung cancer the next year. John and his wife, Janet, divorced in 2003 after 19 years of marriage. His highest-profile business venture--mvp.com, the online sporting-goods store he started with Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky--failed.
Initially, Elway's luck in the AFL wasn't much better. In his first year running the Crush, 2003, the team went 2-14, failing to win a single home game, and Elway winced as the team's list of 10,000 season-ticket holders dwindled by 40%. He spent several restless nights working up the nerve to fire Crush coach Bob Beers, a close family friend who had played and worked for Elway's father.
Elway replaced Beers with an AFL mainstay, Mike Dailey, now the fourth-winningest coach in league history, and things turned around. The team went 11-5 and made it to the semifinals in 2004 and was 10-6 en route to the title game this year. "Everybody goes through hard times, and obviously I've had the highs of the highs and the lows of the lows," he says. "Having success in something like this does get you out of that funk. It's like a reminder: Hey, good things do happen."
Arena insiders will tell you Elway made it happen. In addition to spearheading the Crush's football operations, he sits in on all key business meetings, involving himself in marketing, promotions and sponsorships. "It's a constant business-school course," says Elway, who also serves as cochair of the league's competition committee. ("Believe me, it has a different meaning when John Elway says he doesn't like a rule," says L.A. Avengers owner Casey Wasserman.)
Elway was named the league's Executive of the Year in 2003 and recently won the Founders Award for his contributions to the AFL. Like all rising stars in Arena ball, he can't help but wonder if his success might land him a chance on a bigger stage.
"This guy is a great owner--businesslike, competitive, visionary," AFL commissioner David Baker says. "If someone threw him the keys to an NFL team, he'd know how to drive it."
Maybe this particular Elway comeback is just getting started.
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"The Alabama booster got six months in prison for buying a player." --PAYING THE PRICE, PAGE 20
ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF WONG