I'm getting sick of this. Each week, I read the daily newspapers, scan the internet and watch countless late-night reruns of Sportscenter in hopes of finding a story explosive enough to be included in my Outside Oberlin column. Foolish though I may be, I always imagine that some wonderful piece of news will be there waiting for me, something so uplifting and exciting that I cannot help but run to my laptop to commit my thoughts and feelings to its hard drive. Flipping through the Plain Dealer each weekday afternoon, I can just envision the fantasy headlines: JORDAN RETURNS TO THE NBA; RED SOX WIN GAME; and my personal favorite, ROGER CLEMENS RETIRES AFTER CAREER-ENDING ALTERCATION WITH RABID GORILLA.
More often than not, however, I am faced only with tales of sorrow, stories about wayward athletes (Darryl Strawberry, Eugene Robinson, Latrell Sprewell) who have lost their way, jeopardized their careers and embarrassed their peers. But that's not all. Lately, the sports pages have been overflowing with talk of retirement, the final frontier that all professional athletes must inevitably face when age has robbed them of their talent or their desire to compete.
First it was Michael Jordan. Then Wayne Gretzky. And now, John Elway, the future Hall of Fame quarterback for the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, has decided to call it quits after 16 glorious seasons.
As the saying goes, they always come in threes.
When His Airness announced his retirement back in January, fans and sportswriters across the country wondered how the strife-ridden NBA would survive without its preeminent star, the man whose legendary heroics made basketball one of the most popular sports not simply in the United States, but throughout the world. When the Great One left the NHL just two weeks ago, hockey fans mourned the departure of the man who revolutionized the sport, guiding it from virtual obscurity into the living rooms of families throughout North America with his prolific scoring, expert stickhandling and charisma.
Elway was different. He never carried the weight of an entire league on his shoulders the way Gretzky did, nor did he popularize his sport the way Jordan did. For that matter, he doesn't even hold many NFL records. No, Captain Comeback merely did his job and did it well - better, perhaps, than any other quarterback in the long, distinguished history of the game.
For that reason, he will exit the game as a hero whose legacy will never be forgotten. During his storied career, Elway completed 4123 passes for 51475 yards and 300 touchdowns. When he could not find any open receivers, he rushed for 3407 yards and 33 more touchdowns. And though he guided his team to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances between 1986 and 1989 without capturing that elusive ring, he proved himself to be a winner during the past two seasons, leading the Broncos to consecutive championship victories over the vaunted Green Bay Packers and the underrated Atlanta Falcons.
There was never any question that Elway was a winner, of course. He was always the undisputed leader of the Broncos, one of the most successful franchises in football during the past two decades. And he was always ready to lead his team to the improbable last-second victory, as he proved during two gut-wrenching AFC championship games against the Cleveland Browns. But, until recently, the Captain was missing the jewel in his crown, the same jewel that future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Jim Kelly and Dan Marino can only dream about - a Super Bowl ring.
That all changed in 1997, when Elway passed for just 122 yards to lead the Broncos to a 31-24 upset victory over the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. Certainly, it was not the finest performance of his career, but it was enough for the Captain to capture the elusive title that he had sought for 15 long years.
Elway could easily have called it a career at that point, but he didn't. Instead, he stuck around, helping the Broncos to amass an impressive 14-2 regular season record with his deadly passing and intelligent playcalling. Then, in Super Bowl XXXIII, he completed 18 of 29 passes for 336 yards, leading his team to a 34-19 victory over the upstart Falcons and a second consecutive championship. Once again, the day belonged to the Captain.
That Elway has chosen to leave now is a testament to his character. Sure, he could come back one last time in an attempt to do what no other quarterback has ever done - win a third consecutive championship. Instead, he will gracefully resist that urge and leave at the top of his game, content to follow in the grand footsteps of Jordan, who left the Chicago Bulls after winning his sixth NBA title during the 1997-1998 season.
Perhaps it is fitting that John Elway will retire just before the season that will witness the rebirth of the Cleveland Browns, the team that he terrorized on so many different occasions during his storied career. Perhaps the Captain will have to leave before a new chapter in NFL history can be written. Or perhaps now it will finally be possible for the New England Patriots or the New York Jets to win a Super Bowl of their own.
Whatever the case, the legend of Captain Comeback will live on in the memories of football fans as long as the game is played.
Copyright © 1999, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 22, April 30, 1999
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