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Examining Elway then and now

QBs make for Super contrast

Checking the checkered past

  Saturday, Jan. 30 11:42pm ET
Even in college, Elway showed signs of greatness
By Rod Gilmore, special to ESPN.com

I was a redshirt freshman at Stanford when John Elway enrolled in 1979. We had all read about Elway. We knew what he had done in high school, but none of us gave him a snowball's chance of contributing right away.

  John Elway
 John Elway's rocket arm hasn't lost much since his days at Stanford.

Turk Schonert was our quarterback, and like Steve Dils, he had waited his turn -- in this case four years -- to be the starter. We figured John would be the latest in the line of Stanford quarterbacks who waited three years to play.

The first time John let the ball go, we all just looked at each other, thinking "OK. He's for real. The guy has a cannon attached to his shoulder."

On the first day of official practice as a freshman, John threw the ball so hard he broke the fingers of two of our wide receivers. Our coaches were joking that we might not have enough guys to get through the practice, let alone the season.

And the stories about the "Elway cross" are true, and the legend started at Stanford. Given the choice of catching John's passes with their fingers or their chest, receivers opted for their chest. The ball was thrown so hard the seams on the point of the ball would leave a cross imprinted on a receiver's chest. It became known as an Elway cross.

After the first session of two-a-day practices as a freshman, the backup quarterbacks who were sitting at No. 2 and No. 3 on the depth chart transferred. The No. 2 quarterback who transferred was Babe Laufenberg, and he went to Indiana and on to play in the NFL. Laufenberg was a pretty good quarterback and when Bill Walsh recruited him in my class, he thought Laufenberg would be his Rose Bowl quarterback. But John showed up and changed those plans.

And John wasn't a jerk. You kind of expect the high school guys who come in with all the credentials to act like they own everything. But from the very first moment, John was one of the guys.

One of the stories I like to tell people about John is that as a freshman, he let everyone borrow his car. It was like the whole team had a key to his old Datsun D-210, which was pretty beat up. Here's John Elway, the big hot shot on campus, and he handed over the keys at any time. I'm sure there were times John came out of the locker room or out of his dorm room, and he didn't know where his car was, who had it or when it was coming back.

By the time of his first game in college, we all thought of him as a tremendous player who was destined for stardom. Elway didn't start that game, which was at Tulane, but he came in for the second quarter. He had an awful game, but he responded to that game with a sense of humility.

He responded just like a typical freshman who was dealing with the jitters. He was just one of the guys, and like so many other players on the team he bounced back just like the other guys who struggled in their first game.

  The most memorable play in my days with John Elway at Stanford occurred when we were playing USC at home, and the Trojans had Ronnie Lott and Dennis Smith in their secondary.

John dropped back to pass on his own 45-yard line. He was blitzed out of the pocket. He peeled back to his right and then back to his left. He was moving toward the right sideline and he looked down the field and saw Kenny Margerum -- who would later play for the Bears -- standing halfway back in the end zone. Lott was standing at the 10-yard line or so, trying to bait John into throwing the ball.

John was at about his own 40-yard line, moving toward the line of scrimmage. Without hesitating, he uncorked a bullet that probably didn't get much higher than 10 feet. Margerum was standing in the end zone, backpedaling as the ball came in. It hit him in the chest, and in that space of time Lott did not have time to turn and get back into the end zone, which was a distance of no more than 14 yards.

As we ran on the field, congratulating John we came across the USC defenders, who were moving off the field. We told them, "We know how you feel. It happens to us every day in practice."

I saw Lott a few years later when he was playing for the 49ers and reminded him of that play. He said he was amazed that he couldn't get back there.

At one time or another, we all have tried to bait John into throwing a ball -- much to our chagrin.

John and I used to sit around and play backgammon, and he was such a competitor that if I won a game he would just line it up and play again. We couldn't end the backgammon game after I had beaten him. I was pretty competitive myself so these backgammon games would go on for a while.

John was -- and still is -- super-competitive and had as strong a will to win as anyone I've come across. You never got the sense that he was cocky, but he felt pretty confident that he was the best athlete out there whether he was playing basketball, baseball ... or backgammon. The first time I saw him play basketball, I dismissed any notion I may have had that he was strictly a football player.

It's hard to elaborate on just how mesmerizing he can be. When you watch him on television, you don't get the same appreciation for his presence as you do down on the sidelines. Defensive players -- myself included -- didn't want to sit down to catch a quick rest after coming off the field. You wanted to watch John, and part of the reason was seeing the look in John's eye as he took the field. When you looked him in the eye, he had a stare and a little smile, and you knew something good was going to happen. It made you want to watch.

He always knew the game, and that was likely the product of growing up in the football household of Jack Elway. He had a command of the game.

One of the things that certainly shocked Kenny Easley and the UCLA secondary when John was a freshman was the use of the no-huddle offense. It was John's first Pac-10 game, and the offense was turned over to him.

He ran a no-huddle offense, moving the ball up and down the field and calling the plays at the line of scrimmage. You just don't do that as a freshman quarterback.

Practicing against Elway every day, I learned I didn't stand a chance. I had to find an edge, and by the time we were in our last year at Stanford, I had found a way to cheat on John.

As I watched him over the years, Elway seemed incapable of throwing the ball before he patted it. It's sort of like an outfielder who pats his glove before catching the fly ball. Whenever our secondary was in zone coverage, I would drive on the ball the moment he patted the football.

If you waited for him to throw the ball, it was too late, the ball was going to get there. If you watched him and saw him pump fake, you knew the pump fake didn't mean anything. Even to the end of his NFL career, he still patted the football before he threw it.

I've seen him not pat the football only once or twice, and it was when he was being sacked and needed to get rid of the ball and he didn't have time to get his left hand to the ball. It doesn't provide an advantage in man-to-man coverage, but while playing zone, you knew it was time to break when he patted the ball.

Unfortunately, we kind of relied on John too much. We always felt he could pull us out, which is similar to how the Denver Broncos played during his early years. That's the tendency when one player is head and shoulders better than the rest of the team because people come to expect the star will always save the day.

Had we focused a little more on what we were doing, we could have made things easier on John. Our Stanford team was really depressed that he did not win a Heisman Trophy. We felt that was our fault. John had done his part. He had put up his numbers and been a great teammate and a great friend.

But last year's Super Bowl eased the conscience of many of his former teammates. Maybe now we don't feel as bad that we didn't help him win the Heisman or get to a bowl game because he got the big one.

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