He’s the best quarterback I’ve ever seen,” says Jack Elway, the San Jose State University football coach whose thoughtful talent appraisals have earned the ungrudging respect of his peers. That Jack makes this judgment on his own son, John, the whiz-bang Stanford signal caller, could tarnish that glittery assessment in the minds of some. It shouldn’t.
Somebody has to be best, and 6’3″, 205-pound John Elway—he of the quick feet, keen mind and arm like a recoilless rifle—may eventually stake as legitimate a claim to the title as anybody, including Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas. The 22-year-old senior already holds nearly a dozen records for passing and offense at a school that has produced a windfall of slick quarterbacks, including 1970 Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett.
John Elway is such a blue-chip blue chip that football cognoscenti are filling the air with superlatives. “It’s the way he scrambles,” University of Southern California coach John Robinson has said. “I compare him to Roger Staubach.” No, it’s his grace under pressure, says Sid Gillman, a Philadelphia Eagle assistant coach and one of the game’s most respected students of passing. “God, he’s got poise.” No, Arizona State coach Darryl Rogers believes that it is much more than that: “There’s probably never been anyone who’s had a greater impact on the game of college football.”
Elway, the boy next door who has Clint Eastwood’s gift for gab, blushes. “All of this is flattering to hear,” he says. “You read it and see your name next to it and, well, you just have to sit back for a while.” And gear up for the next barrage from another quarter. For John Elway is not only tops in football, he’s a pretty fair hand at baseball as well. Indeed, the Yankees dealt him a bonus of about $150,000 to spend last summer in Oneonta, N.Y., shagging flies for their Class A club (where he hit .318). “George Steinbrenner has this dream,” Yankee scout Gary Hughes once said. “He wants an outfield with Dave Winfield, Jerry Mumphrey and a Heisman Trophy winner.”
Elway insists he’s made no decision about the shape of the ball in his professional future. “It’s a seasonal thing,” he says with a grin. “I enjoy football in football season and baseball in baseball season.” Needless to say, football is uppermost in his mind just now—and almost certainly will be in seasons to come. Though the Stanford Cardinals, struggling to win more games than they lose, have been guilty of serious nonsupport, Elway’s heroics—including a last-minute game-winning touchdown pass against favored Ohio State—have rarely fallen short of Olympian.
Elway was born in Port Angeles, on Washington’s rugged Olympic Peninsula. His home of the moment depended upon the ascent of his father, Jack, now 51, up the coaching ladder. In 1976 Jack landed a job as head coach at Cal State, Northridge and carefully chose a house for his family that would enable John to attend Granada Hills High School. It wasn’t just football they played at Granada Hills; the name of the game there was throwing the ball. As a junior, John threw for 3,039 yards and 25 touchdowns. In baseball, he hit .551 and took his team to the L.A. city championship. The seeds of the Elway legend were sown.
When John was a high school senior, entertaining entreaties from 60 colleges, Jack took over as head coach at San Jose State. He could have taken John along, but he didn’t. “If I’d said, ‘John, I want you to come,’ there isn’t a doubt in my mind he would have,” says his father. “But that wouldn’t have been fair.” Instead John chose academically demanding Stanford, perhaps the most prestigious quarterback mill in the nation.
The decision has led to an annual trauma—the yearly San Jose State-Stanford game (twice won by Dad, twice by John)—that leaves the Elway clan, including John’s mother, Jan, 45, and his twin sister, Jana, and sister Lee Ann, 23, with its loyalties split down the middle. Last year against his father’s team, John suffered the worst day of his career, completing only six of 24 passes for 72 yards. “The epitome of humiliation,” John recalls gloomily. This year he played well, but not well enough; Stanford lost again, 35-31. Says Jan Elway, “We are just relieved the whole thing is over and we don’t have to do it again.”