I was sitting in the Denver Broncos dining hall with a couple members of the PR staff Tuesday when John Elway came in and grabbed a tray to get a quick meal.
Most meals are quick in football, especially when you are as busy as John Elway.
“John, congratulations on Wednesday,” I said.
“For what?” John replied.
“Twenty-fifth anniversary of The Drive, John,” I replied.
This is the day, this is the week, and how apropos that the classic one-play overtime drive engineered by Tim Tebow against the Pittsburgh Steelers came just three days before the 25th anniversary of a game voted as one of the 20 greatest in the entire history of professional football.
I am one of three current members of the Broncos honored to have been on the field when each of those drives took place—long-time head athletic trainer Steve Antonopulos and Elway himself are the other two.
Some of the special elements of the win over Pittsburgh is that it happened here, in our stadium, before our fans, and it happened now. Everything is part of history, but this is current, “now” history that everyone can enjoy, be a part of and relate to. It seems less a part of the history books than those events that happened years ago.
And make no mistake, in this era of instantaneous media almost too much to count, Sunday’s game was big. When ESPN is asking fans to respond to a poll to name the drive/play, you know it has captivated the nation.
But we don’t need the media to tell us—they have done a spectacular job of describing it all, but that is just icing on the cake to the personal experience of having witnessed it firsthand, as virtually every Bronco fan did, either in person or by watching the great coverage on CBS.
Fans will always remember where they were, with whom they were watching, and how they saw the great game by the Broncos and the pass from Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas for the winning score.
As the longest-tenured administrator in Broncos history, I know I am qualified to say this was one of the greatest Bronco home games in the entire 52 years of franchise history.
Sunday’s game reminds me of something the late film director Alfred Hitchcock said about the movies—that the movies are like life, with the highlights emphasized. We all watch a lot of games, and the game against Pittsburgh was a “watching” highlight for every Denver Broncos fan—an all-time special moment.
But 25 years ago Wednesday, before Tebow, before Thomas, there was a drive in Cleveland that put the Broncos back into the Super Bowl and added to the growing legend of John Elway.
John’s career, as I told him several times when he was still playing, moved way beyond mere greatness and morphed into legend. And to quote another director, John Ford, “When the legend is bigger than the facts, print the legend.”
That was and is John Elway, and he took a huge step toward carving out his own bronze sculpture in the Hall of Fame in Cleveland on January 11, 1987 when he drove the Broncos past the Browns for a berth in Super Bowl XXI.
The memories from that day are still so vivid for me—watching Ken Bell handle a bouncing kickoff at the one and eventually fall on it at the two-yard line—creating almost literally the greatest amount of real estate a team ever had to chew up in a final drive to win a title. That was when I got up to leave the press box and head for the field, watching a couple of short Sammy Winder running plays just before the elevator doors opened.
When I got to the field I found myself standing next to T.J. Simers, who had covered the team in Denver before heading out to San Diego and eventually Los Angeles. We watched together as John hit Steve Sewell for a nice gain over the middle to put the ball near midfield. You knew you had a chance—anytime a team has a gunslinger like John Elway, who is not afraid to pull the trigger, you have a chance.
The Browns sacked him to create a third-and-18, and I remember watching the Cleveland fans leaping in the air, nobody sitting down, as they felt the certainty of being just two plays from the Super Bowl. But those two plays never came for Cleveland, and they still have not.
After being admonished by head coach Dan Reeves on the sidelines to not try and get it all on one play, Elway the gunslinger pulled the trigger and got it all back on a 20-yard completion to Mark Jackson. Just a bullet. Right then, you could feel the air going out of the crowd’s balloon.
Elway then used his legs to scramble inside the Cleveland 10, and then he threw a low, perfect strike to Jackson for the game-tying touchdown.
People sometimes forget that the game ended in overtime, as the drive itself was so dramatic. But Elway’s drive just tied the game.
But there was no question about which sideline momentum was standing on as the two teams headed to overtime.
Cleveland went three and out on its first possession and there was a sense of impending greatness, legend and doom—depending on one’s point of view—in Cleveland Stadium from that point forward.
As John marched the Broncos downfield for the touchdown, I remember looking behind me—not just to see if I was about to be hit by another dog bone—to see Pete Abitante of the NFL leading a small cadre of game officials and broadcast people dashing from one locker room to the other. One of them was carrying a cumbersome box.
I pointed out to TJ that they were moving the trophy, and the announcers, from what had been felt to be the winning locker room, that of the Browns, to the Broncos locker room for the celebration and trophy presentation (it was still done in the locker room in those days).
History was clear to everyone at that point. John completed a nice pass to Steve Watson to put the Broncos in field goal range and after a couple of carries by Winder to secure position for the field goal, Ohio native Rich Karlis trotted out and put his bare foot to ball.
And nothing was ever the same. The Broncos were on their way to history, and John Elway on his way to legend.
The final chapters of the 2011 season have not yet been written, but the authors are named John Elway, John Fox, Brian Xanders, Tim Tebow and a marvelous blend of veterans and young players who believe that as in any tale, it is the authors who determine the direction of the story.
And they believe. As do the fans.
It all starts with “Do you believe?”
When the answer is yes, anything is possible.
Two drives, 25 years apart, and once again, the past is prologue to the future.