John Elway: An Elegy

It’s Super Bowl week for my beloved Denver Broncos. To celebrate, my blog’s doing something different. This is a piece I wrote for a college creative writing class1. It doesn’t have anything to do with evangelicals or cynicism. But it does have an extended analogy of John Elway and Beowulf. Enjoy.

I was born on November 8, 1986, a Saturday. The next day, the Denver Broncos played the San Diego Chargers at Mile High stadium. My parents have a picture from that day of my dad holding me, bundled and wrinkled, in a hospital chair in front of the television. I was watching my first Bronco game.

Most of my childhood was tinted Bronco blue and Bronco orange. I watched their games, collected their trading cards, and wore their t-shirts. The summer I was eight, I even got to see them practice during their pre-season training in Greeley, Colorado. I was so excited the night before that I couldn’t sleep. I rolled to my right side and then to my back and then to my left before rolling to my right again. It was no use. Armies of titans clad in blue helmets and orange jerseys tackled and dodged and blitzed their way past the endzones and goalposts of my mind to the dull roar of a riotous stadium. Sighing, I rubbed my eyes. I tensed my shoulders. I forced myself to sleep.

The next morning, I woke up with a kink in my neck. My head was frozen to my right shoulder. I couldn’t move it at all. It took me ten minutes to maneuver my number seven Bronco jersey over my sideways head, an ember of pain searing every wrong motion. My mom asked me if I wanted to just stay home. I rotated my torso at the hips, because that was the closest I could get to shaking my head “no.” I was not missing the Broncos.

Watching the practice was tricky with a sideways head. The field looked like a big grassy wall that the players scampered across like spider-men. The sun was hot against my petrified neck and the sweat stuck my jersey to my back. Players were in different clusters, tackling and catching and kicking field goals. One player at the far end of the field was throwing footballs down almost to where I was sitting. His jersey had the same number as mine. My mouth dropped to the side. It was him.

John Elway.

Ever since I was forced to read excerpts from the Anglo-Saxon poem “Beowulf” as a high schooler, I’ve found the title character mesmerizing. The sullen outsider come to rescue the hapless Danes. I like to think that the story of Beowulf was invented by some poet-father to calm his worried son. I picture a family of Saxons huddled around their nightly fire, chins pressed to their chests against the wind.

“But Father,” the boy asks, his wide eyes orange in the firelight, “what about the Finns? If the Finns attack, who will save us?”

“Foolish child,” the father laughs, twisting his beard around his index finger, “you worry in vain. Beowulf will save us. Beowulf the strong-armed, the broad-chested. Beowulf the Grendel-slayer. Champion of the Geats, Hero of the Danes. Be still, child.”

That’s the best way that I can describe John Elway. He was the Bronco’s Beowulf. He came from college at Stanford, first pick in the NFL draft, to the hapless Broncos. The rest of our team was awful. Awful defense. Awful blocking. Awful wide receivers. But we had John Elway.

“But Dad,” I would ask, my wide eyes blue in the light of the television, “what about the Oakland Raiders? If they score a touchdown, what’ll we do?”

“Oh, Matt,” my dad would laugh, adjusting his glasses with his index finger, “you’re worrying about nothing. John Elway will score another touchdown.” Elway the golden-armed, the swift-footed. Elway the comeback-maker. Champion of Stanford, Hero of Denver.

During my elementary school years, it was always the same thing. John Elway made our otherwise awful teams pretty good. We weren’t a great team, but we weren’t a bad team either. And it was all because of Elway. John Elway would scramble and dart for an incredible touchdown, and then our awful defense would let the other team score their own touchdown. John Elway would throw a perfect sixty yard pass, and then our awful receiver would drop it. I spent those years arguing with Micah Burak, the only Dallas Cowboy fan in my Sunday School class.

“Troy Aikman is a way better quarterback than John Elway.” He said, lip curled in a sneer.

“He is not” I responded, jaw and fingers clenched.

“Oh yeah? Aikman has won three Super Bowls” his index, middle, and ring finger flashed in front of my face. “Elway hasn’t won any. If he’s so great, then how come he hasn’t won any Super Bowls?”

My face burned and my words stammered. He didn’t understand. It wasn’t Elway’s fault. If he could just have the right teammates…

When I was in fifth grade, it finally happened. The rest of our team turned good. Our offense got Terrell Davis, a tailback whose running style was as smooth and slick as his bald head. And our defense got Neil Smith, a man whose barrel chest and yeti arms gave opposing quarterbacks cold sweats. These changes couldn’t come soon enough for Elway. He was thirty-seven years old, and newspapers were hinting that he was close to retirement. Going into that season, I could sense, even as a fifth grader, how important everything was. How epic. This was Elway’s last shot at a Super Bowl. If the dragon writhed away from his aging sword hand, there was no second chance at slaying it.

As it turned out, Elway would get his chance. That year, the Broncos made it to the Super Bowl.

The NFL takes two weeks between the conference championship game and the Super Bowl. They claim that it’s to give the two teams more time to game plan, but I think it’s just to give the fans more time to worry. We were playing the Green Bay Packers. They were last year’s champions, and the overwhelming favorite. The week leading up to the Super Bowl, I had trouble sleeping. I had a recurring nightmare about running around the Super Bowl stadium, watching the Broncos lose by twenty points before realizing that I was in my underwear.

I’ve been nervous plenty of times in my life. There was the time I took the SAT’s, the first time I asked a girl on a date, and the time I almost got arrested in a Paris subway. But I’ve never been as nervous as I was that Super Bowl Sunday. I sat on the couch, legs folded beneath me, arms crossed over my stomach. I had a plate of my mom’s special Super Bowl gumbo in front of me, but I was too nervous to eat it. My parents must have invited thirty people to our house, but I didn’t notice them. I just sat there, cowering like a Dane in an empty mead hall.

Super Bowl XXXII would go down in football lore as one of the greatest games ever played. It was evenly matched and fast-paced. We would score a touchdown, then they would score a touchdown. We would recover a fumble, then they would get an interception. The outcome of the game was always in question. Nothing was certain. I felt adrift in the North Sea, unable to find anything secure to hold on to. Then with one minute and six seconds left in the third quarter, the Broncos had the ball on Green Bay’s twelve yard line. It was third down and six. Elway dropped back to pass, but the Green Bay rush forced him out of the pocket. He had to run.

I’ve been a sports fan my entire life, and have seen tens of thousands of highlights. Highlights of football and baseball and hockey and soccer and everything in between. Most of the highlights were mundane. Some were impressive. A few were so amazing that I could only throw my hand on my forehead and gape. But of all of those highlights, John Elway’s run on that third and six play stands out. It’s my favorite moment in the history of sports. Three Packers were waiting for him at the first down line. Elway’s eyes got big and his tongue stuck out right before he jumped. His thirty-seven year old body sailed through the sky, colliding with the three Packers, and spun in the air like a human helicopter, legs whipping in front of his torso, before landing for a first down. He stood up, spiking the football like it was the ripped arm of Grendel. Our room cheered. I was now confident.

A short time later, the Broncos were up by a touchdown. Time was running out. The Packers had one last chance to tie the game. Every muscle in my body tensed the way my neck did during training camp. Our room was a spear poised above a dragon. The Packers’ quarterback ran to his right. He threw his last pass through the air. It fell incomplete. We had won.

The room was one loud exploding cheer. I pumped my fists in the air, and jumped into my dad’s arms.

“Elway did it, Dad.”

“Yep. I told you he would.”

John Elway retired the next year. I watched the retirement press conference with my eyes toward the floor, so my mom wouldn’t see my tears. And what happened to the Broncos after he left? The same thing that probably happened to the Danes after Beowulf. They went back to their lives, monsters slain, darkness driven back. They drank their mead and tilled their crops and fought their wars. In other words, they lived normal lives. That’s what happened to the Broncos. Ever since Elway left, we’ve been mediocre. Bronco fans don’t have much to cheer for now. No playoff victories. No all-star quarterbacks. No Super Bowls. All we have is the memory of a hero. Of Elway the rocket-armed, the helicopter-legged. Elway the Slayer of Green Bay, winner of Super Bowls.

We drink our mead to you, John Elway.

________________________

1  That means this was written in….2009? Really? That seems like way too long ago…

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