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Legend and Legacy: Elway's first comeback


John Elway and the Denver Broncos remind me of that symbol for eternity, the horizontal eight that just keeps moving round and round without end.

Truly, John Elway has been the Denver Broncos, is and always will be.

This week in our Legend and Legacy series, let's look back almost to the very beginning: John's first comeback ever.

Most fans know that he retired with the most fourth-quarter comebacks in history, a category of stats which I created after he had several of them, and the media kept asking which one begat which one, and so I figured I had better categorize them.

I checked every record of every other team to see where the heck he ranked on the all-time lists, and it became pretty clear where he was headed: Top of the class. As Bum Phillips, late father of current defensive coordinator Wade Philips once said, "I don't know if he is in a class by himself, but it sure don't take long to call the roll."

But I digress, as always.

Elway had of course been acquired from Baltimore by trade, and there was acrimony and animosity in Baltimore.

Legend and Legacy series

We had played our second road game of the season at Baltimore—still the most intimidating crowd, verbally, I ever saw in my career. John started the game, played the first half, then Steve DeBerg played the second in a 17-10 Broncos win. Elway and DeBerg more or less shared the starting job throughout John's rookie season, and Elway had what longtime friend Kevin Byrne, then PR director of the Cleveland Browns (and still with the same franchise, in Baltimore) referred to as "Elway's coming out party" against the Browns in a 27-6 win at Mile High Stadium on December 4.

The Browns thought they were going to the playoffs—they did not; we did instead—based largely on that head-to-head win engineered by the arm and leg of our rookie quarterback in that early December game.

And that brought us to our regular season finale, a home date against the Colts on December 11, 1983.

The Colts had a real bad year and though it was not known at the time, they were on the verge of a move to Indianapolis.

It was not expected to be a tough game for Denver, but four Raul Allegre field goals had helped Baltimore build what looked to be an insurmountable 19-0 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

And then, just like that, John Elway's first comeback.

With 4:08 gone in the fourth period, Elway threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Clinton Sampson. It would have been reversed and called incomplete today, because Clinton only had one foot down in the back of the end zone, but no replay existed then, so it was a touchdown for Denver.

Then our great cornerback Louis Wright intercepted a Baltimore pass and returned it 34 yards to the Colts' 43-yard-line, where Elway quickly engineered his second fourth quarter scoring drive of the game.

Elway finished the game 23-of-44 for 345 yards, and he ended this drive with a 26-yard scoring pass-and-run to running back Jesse Myles, "the little butterball" who continually battled weight issues in his NFL career.

Denver took over for what would be the last drive at the Broncos' own 25 with 3:00 minutes exactly on the clock, and John did what John would always do, driving the team down the field, this time into his first playoff berth.

The winning touchdown pass—his third of the fourth quarter—was a 26-yarder to running back Gerald Willhite with just 44 seconds left in the game.

Ironically, one of the key components of that play was that Gerald forgot to make his block in the backfield, instead heading downfield, where the good news is he was a wide open target over the middle.

The bad news, of course, is that no one blocked the Colt pass rusher who was bearing down on Elway.

But it was Elway, right?

He saw what was happening and whipped the ball to Willhite a hair before the defender got to him, and the next thing that happened was Gerald was doing his trademark backflip in the end zone, the fans were euphoric, and the Broncos were in the playoffs as a wild card team.

And John Elway had the first fourth-quarter comeback of his pro career.

As an addendum, it was obvious moving forward that John would be the only guy for the Denver Broncos, and so in the offseason General Manager John Bake engineered a trade to send DeBerg to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Steve was delighted to move on and out of John's prodigious shadow.

The future of the Broncos and Broncos Country was set to include a lot of bottles of champagne being opened, largely due to the play of the magnificent quarterback from Stanford.

Another toast to John. He deserves them all.

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