ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — At halftime of the Broncos' season finale, Matt Russell and John Elway stepped out into a hallway at Empower Field at Mile High.
The previous day, Elway told Russell that he would be relinquishing his day-to-day responsibilities as general manager and move into an overarching role as the team's president of football operations. As part of the change in the Broncos' football operations structure, Elway planned to hire a GM — and he told Russell that he would have the chance to interview for the job after 10 years working alongside each other.
It didn't take Russell long to make a decision, and he told Elway on Sunday that he planned to retire from the Broncos after 12 seasons with the team.
"We just stepped out in the hallway outside of our suite and we had a hug and I told him what I wanted to do," Russell told DenverBroncos.com on Monday. "He's so unbelievably supportive to me and my family and everything. He was great. We hugged and said good luck and I teased him and said, 'You'll still be in the fire next year, and I'll be sitting in your box sending you pictures of the food.'"
Russell said he considered "briefly" whether to interview for the GM role, but after talking with his wife, he decided to focus on his family after a successful career in which he helped the Broncos build five AFC West championship teams and a Super Bowl 50 winner.
"[I] talked to my wife about it, and we just kind of stayed up late and talked about traveling and taking trips and doing stuff together and being around the kids and being at their events and coaching their teams," Russell said. "I look forward to maybe coaching my son's football team or helping out in that regard. The relief outweighed the stress, if you will. … I think it's best for us at this time to just retire and be a Bronco fan and cheer for these guys. We'll be at every game next year. That's where my heart was."
As Russell reflected on his career, he said he'll remember plays that include Demaryius Thomas' overtime winner against the Steelers in 2011, C.J. Anderson's run in the snow vs. New England and, of course, a Super Bowl 50 title. But he said he'll also remember the moments — both the early mornings and late nights — at the Combine, Senior Bowl and day-to-day NFL life. Those days, though, will remain in the past.
Russell said he wasn't "all that shocked" that Elway chose to make the move away from the day-to-day operation of the team, as he has seen up close for a decade the toll that losing takes on the Hall of Famer.
"I'm around John every day and I see the torment in his face when we lose and the stress," Russell said. "There's nobody in this organization that wants to win more than that guy. He puts his heart and soul into it."
Both Elway and Russell devoted hours, days, months and years to building the Broncos into a contender in the early half of the previous decade, and Russell called working alongside Elway "one of the prized moments" of his life.
"I got to work with the all-time greatest Bronco and to be able to work for him, learn from him, learn how he makes decisions, learn how he digests information — he's very methodical in his approach and the decisions that he makes," Russell said. "I could go on forever about the things I've learned from him, but it was an honor to work for him."
It was clear Monday that Elway was equally as appreciative of Russell's work during the last decade.
"He was my right-hand guy," Elway said. "I look at him as a good football man, a good evaluator. [He] had a lot to do with the success that we had while I was here, and his history in this league was tremendous.
"… I'm proud of him. I know he's excited about being able to spend more time with the family. I can't give the man enough accolades in the partner that he was to me."
Russell said he'll assist the organization as needed in its search to find its next GM, and when that process is complete, he'll move on as one of the team's biggest fans.
"The Bronco organization — John, Joe [Ellis], the Bowlens — they've been tremendously supportive to me and my family," Russell said. "I hit a rough patch seven and a half years ago, and they stood by me. They've been very supportive in this decision, and I feel very fortunate and lucky and grateful to have had the opportunity to work for John, work for the Broncos. I feel forever indebted to them. I really do.
"My kids, this is all they know. They're 14 and 12. All they know are the Broncos. We're not going anywhere. We'll be at the games next year. We'll be some of the biggest fans in the stadium. I leave on great terms — great friends with John, great friends with Joe, with Vic [Fangio]."
But while Russell anticipates eagerly cheering the Broncos on, he doesn't anticipate a return to a front office.
"I'm going to enjoy the next few years," Russell said. "I'm not looking to get back into the NFL, really. If that door opens down the road, then I might someday decide that I want to do something small in college and do a little college work and watch some tape for free agency. But in terms of a day-to-day job at a high level, I'm done. I may be done forever. I do have a lot of friends out there, and I'll stay in touch with all those guys. They're my close friends.
"I'll cheer for them, and who knows, you never know when you might get the itch, but I don't anticipate the itch being any time soon."