During John Elway's 16-year playing career and his decade leading the Broncos' front office, he was able to rely on Director of Sports Medicine Steve "Greek" Antonopulos for a lot. He depended on him for help recovering from injuries, advice on health concerns when evaluating players and, often, simply the friendship that they cultivated over more than three decades. With Antonopulos retiring after 45 years, DenverBroncos.com's Phil Milani sat down with Elway to hear his perspective on Antonopulos' career and how they forged such a strong bond.
Phil Milani: Are you surprised this is finally happening?
John Elway: "Steve Antonopulos is what the Denver Broncos are all about. In 45 years and the amount of players that he's helped and cured and got healthy and counseled, including me in all those instances. For 45 years, he has been the Broncos. So we were very, very lucky as the Broncos to be able to have a guy like Steve Antonopulos. He cared about the Broncos and it was such a priority for him. The only guy to be involved in all eight of the Super Bowls. He's a guy that has been a mainstay for the Broncos and not only a great trainer when I played, but it was great working with him when I was the GM and is also a great friend. We are all blessed in Broncos Country to be able to say Steve Antonopulos was our trainer for 45 years."
PM: When you first got to Denver, what was your relationship like?
JE: "It was good. I always had a great relationship with him, and that's the kind of guy he is. He had a great relationship with all the players. Where Steve was so good was he would put the pressure on you to get healthy. Part of being a trainer is also being a psychologist, too, and he had the ability to push players and push the buttons and the right buttons, and that's a very difficult thing to do, and he was able to do that, give players confidence that, if they were injured, that they were ready to play and able to play, that everything was going to be OK. So he had that influence all great trainers have, and he's the best I've ever been around, no question. He had the ability to do both, and that's what made him great."
PM: He's always at the facility, too. I mean, you just show up and he's here.
JE: "He was the first one here every morning. I think he got here at 3:30 or 4 o'clock every morning, and usually was one of the last ones to leave, especially out of that training room, because it was so important and it was so important to him. He sacrificed a lot for the Denver Broncos over 45 years and because [that was how] much it meant to him and how much the Broncos meant to him and how much [late Broncos Owner] Mr. [Pat] Bowlen meant to him, too. You couldn't ask for a better guy and what he did for the Broncos and the amount of players he helped in their careers."
PM: Do you think your relationship with him is unique?
JE: "I feel like I'm very lucky to have had that relationship with him, because I think he creates that relationship with most the players, and I was here obviously for 16 years as a player, so I was able to have a great relationship with him. I will say one thing: I trusted Steve Antonopulos and I think all our players trusted Steve Antonopulos, and all my teammates. And that's the thing. That's one of the great qualities of a great trainer is the trust that he created and also was great at what he did. What he gave us [was he] got us healthy and got us back on the football field, which was the most important thing. I'm blessed to be able to call him a friend because of the type of person he is and the type of work ethic that he has and how important the Denver Broncos were to him."
PM: I remember a couple of years ago, you went up to Greeley on a Friday night because he was getting honored for something there. He means a lot to you, doesn't he?
JE: "He does. He's one of my best friends. I think that even though we didn't get the chance to spend a lot of time outside the building, he was somebody that I got to see every day. I know he's going to be in and out now, as well as I was, so I'll miss him a lot, but we're going to stay in touch. I think where we are in our lives right now, I can call him a great friend, even though he was my trainer and our trainer and as he slowly steps away from the Broncos, we'll always be here. He will always be missed, but it's also a good time for him and where he is in his life."
PM: I heard you were giving him a hard time like, 'Hey, you can't retire!'
JE: "No, I didn't want him to retire. I kept pulling him back. And he was great for doing that. It's always hard, after 45 years, to step away. But he's still going to be around and still advising, which is great, because we need him to be around. But as I said, there is not a better person, a more caring person, than Steve Antonopulos."
PM: He was a mentor to a lot of people in that profession, too. It seems like everyone around the league admires Greek.
JE: "I think that comes with the greatness that he had as an athletic trainer. He was special at what he did, with the ability and the knowledge that he had in the healing processes and the rehabilitation processes, and he continued to better himself all the time. And I think with the experience he had, that's why he became a mentor to so many different trainers. And you know what, that's again speaking of Steve of how generous he was with his time, to be able to help them out. And then you look at his tree and the amount of trainers that worked underneath him and are now head trainers all over the country, whether it be in NFL or college football and everywhere. You look at his tree, and it shows the influence that he had."