JERSEY CITY, New Jersey -- John Elway can be a very hard friend to have.
He can beat you at golf, pingpong, pool, H-O-R-S-E and who-can-soak-the-other on Jet Skis. But he also has to beat you at poker, Scrabble and Pictionary. A political argument ends two ways: He wins, or you quit, exhausted. His competitive addiction is incurable.
That's how you knew Elway would be successful at constructing and running an NFL team: because it's a thing with a winner at the end, and Elway always wins things with a winner at the end.
If his Denver Broncos beat the Seattle Seahawks this Sunday in Super Bowl XLVIII, Elway would do something no one else ever has. He would be the first Super Bowl MVP to win a Super Bowl as the executive in charge.
Imagine that. He won two with his arms and legs. And now he could win one with his brain.
"I've always wanted to be good at something other than football," he says. "Even when I was young. I wanted to show that I had a mind, too. I guess that's why I wanted to do well with the car dealerships [one], the restaurants [four], and now this job. It's the challenge."
Sports legends are historically lousy at this. Somehow, when they go from superstar to supervisor, they sag. They become frustrated that the players they sign can't just do it the way they did. Wayne Gretzky never found another Wayne Gretzky. Dan Marino quickly tired of running the Miami Dolphins. And don't even start with Michael Jordan. Ten seasons as an executive with the Charlotte Bobcats, one playoff berth.
"People in Denver kept asking me why I'd want to do this," Elway said. "They kept saying, 'You'll tarnish your legacy. You ended your career perfectly. Why ruin it?' And honestly, I didn't know. It was a risk."
But there he was, the very first morning, at his desk at 7, and nearly every morning since. He is dogged. You call him and he's in Biloxi, Miss., scouting a college player. A man with, what, $50 million in the bank, working as if he's $50 million in the hole. Why?
"It's not like you sit there in your office every day and you go, 'This a blast.' You don't. But when you win and you know you had a hand in it and it's just so satisfying, you're like, 'Wow, I love this.'"
The greatest play of his life might be the way he scored Peyton Manning.
He looked at Manning and thought, "How would I like to be approached in my 14th year?" And he realized he would want to be approached, pitched and then left alone.
"I had to pull back on Foxy [head coach John Fox]. Foxy is a go-getter. He wanted to keep after him, keep pressing. I said, 'No. Leave him alone. Let him decide. If he wants us, he'll pick us.'"
It worked. Manning signed. And two years, and 92 touchdowns later, he has led Elway's Broncos to the Super Bowl.
It's an odd couple. Elway threw rockets. Manning, at least now, throws fuzzy pillows. Elway could go untouched in a wildebeest migration. Manning can't outrun a street sweeper. Elway did all his work after the snap, usually abandoning the play, running for his life and finding one of his midget receivers. Manning does all his work before the snap, moving, setting, moving again, waiting, shifting and then "Omaha"-ing you to death.
"I'm so intrigued watching him," Elway says. "I see all the things he does. The double cadence, the moving people around, and I think, 'Shoot, I wish we'd have had that stuff when I played.'"
And yet together, Sunday, they can lift each other as high as men can go in this game.
Elway's fondest hope is to see Manning become the greatest QB to ever live. "One or two more Super Bowl wins and he's got a really, really strong argument," he says. Wow. Two more Super Bowl wins? And you think you have a demanding boss?
But a Manning win vaults Elway onto the pedestal marked … what? … The NFL's Most Complete Winner? Most Valuable … Person? The Ultimate Trophy Gobbler? To lead five teams to Super Bowls as a player and win two? To go from NFL rookie executive to winning a Super Bowl in your third year? No wonder he's the original Johnny Football.
But there's even more at stake Sunday. If Manning and Elway can do this, they can lift not just each other up but also their owner, 69-year-old Pat Bowlen, whose health is deteriorating. "We all want this for Mr. Bowlen," Elway says. "We need to get this done. And we need to get it done quick. He's in a tough spot. So, it would mean so much to all of us, especially me."
After the AFC title win over New England, Bowlen and Elway approached the victory stage, with Bowlen telling Elway, "I just want to hold the trophy." Translation: "You talk for me." Elway did. If Denver wins Sunday, look for it again.
And maybe Elway would then yell, fittingly: "This … one's … for … Pat!"?
For a game played with an oblong ball, that would be a perfect circle.