Forty years ago, to the day, the Broncos' trajectory forever changed.
On the night of May 2, 1983, the Broncos agreed to a deal with the Baltimore Colts for the rights to quarterback John Elway — and in the process, they guaranteed a prosperous future for the franchise.
What followed was nothing short of remarkable, as the future Hall of Famer led the Broncos to five Super Bowl appearances and two world championships during his 16-year NFL career.
In honor of the 40th anniversary of the greatest trade in Broncos history, we're taking a look back in time at the deal that turned the Denver Broncos into one of the top franchises in the NFL.
[All quotes are via The Denver Post from the time of the trade, except for names noted with an asterisk. The denoted quotes were gathered recently by DenverBroncos.com for this project. All individuals are identified by their titles in 1983.]
Ahead of the 1983 NFL Draft, there was no debate about the top collegiate prospect. Even in a draft that would see six quarterbacks taken in the first round, Elway's talent and potential was clear.
PR director Jim Saccomano*: "The draft was coming up, and everybody knew that John Elway was the guy. He was the most publicized, highly regarded prospect probably since Joe Namath. There's one a decade maybe. It wasn't Tom Brady, who turned out to be great. It was Peyton Manning."
Arizona State head coach Darryl Rogers: "God gave him more instincts than other players. A lot of guys can do things well, but John can do them better."
Oregon State head coach Joe Avezzano: "He is the most dominant, intimidating football player I've ever been on the field with."
Cowboys VP Gil Brandt: "If we already had Danny White, Dan Fouts and Joe Montana and we had the first pick in the draft, I'd still take John Elway."
49ers head coach Bill Walsh: "He certainly ranks among the great rifle-armed passers the game has produced, college or pro. Without a doubt he has a tremendous passing arm. He's accurate, throws the ball with velocity and has a feel for throwing the softer ball when necessary. He has excellent size, movement and athletic ability, is a fine competitor and is still maturing physically."
The Broncos' interest in Elway was long-standing and dated back to at least the previous season.
Saccomano*: "When we played the San Diego Chargers in San Diego in 1982, [then-Broncos owner] Edgar Kaiser calls me to his suite on Sunday morning. … It's game day and he says, 'Will it be worth it to trade for John Elway?' Naturally, I am effusive and say it would be incredible. Season tickets, media, you name it. Every way possible, it changed everything. Then I add, 'But Mr. Kaiser, we can't get Elway. We have the fourth pick in the draft and he'll go No. 1.'
"'Nonsense, Jim. Anything in America can be bought and sold.'"
The Baltimore Colts held the No. 1 pick in the 1983 draft, but Elway — also a serious MLB prospect — publicly announced ahead of the draft he would play baseball rather than play for the Colts. According to reports from the time, Elway was reluctant to play for Colts head coach Frank Kush.
Baltimore Evening Sun reporter Clark Judge*: ["Colts general manager] Ernie Accorsi just was adamant: 'I'm not going to trade him. There's no way.' I had just done one year on the beat and I was relatively new there, so I remember sitting in Ernie's office after he came back from going to see John work out at Stanford. You've got to realize, this is a time before there's any internet or mass communication. He'd gone out to the other [side of the] world. I talked to him privately and he said, 'This guy can make all the throws. He one of the most talented quarterbacks I've ever seen, and I'm not trading away the next Johnny Unitas. I'm not going to go to my grave being known as the guy who traded away the next Johnny Unitas. I'm not doing it.' Pretty clear where he stood."
By the time the draft arrived, Elway's stance was also evident.
Judge*: "He's not going to play for Baltimore, at least that's what he says. Ernie was convinced that that would change with time. If you could draft him, keep him. Where's he going to go? He's going to play somewhere this year. He's not going to sit out the year. Would he play baseball? No, I don't think he would. Is it a gamble? He didn't think it was a gamble. He thought eventually he'd come around and he'd play with Baltimore."
With that belief, Accorsi and the Colts selected Elway with the first-overall pick in the draft.
Judge*: "Ernie was adamant. If you knew Ernie Accorsi, you knew how principled and steadfast he is in his belief. When he believes something, he sticks to it. One of the smartest GMs I've ever been around. One of the most principled guys I've ever been around and a guy who loved the city of Baltimore and loved the Colts and was going to do the right thing for the Baltimore Colts, which is, 'I'm going to take the guy at the top of the board. I don't care whether he says he's not going to play or not, I'm taking the guy at the top of our board and everybody's board.' It's John Elway. It's not even close. It's John Elway."
Saccomano*: "There's all kinds of talk about who's going to get him, because he's said he doesn't want to play for the Colts. … The Colts took him, and I can still remember Charlie Lee, at that time my boss, leaning over the railing and saying, 'I can't believe they took him. I can't believe they took him.' … That same day, everybody, including the Broncos, are making plans to try to trade for Elway."
An April 30 story in The Baltimore Sun suggested the Colts "have no second thoughts about their decision to draft John Elway." The writer, Vito Stellino, reported the Raiders offered three first-round picks and quarterback Marc Wilson, while the Chargers offered a package that included the 20th- and 22nd-overall picks. The Raiders reportedly made a "furious last minute attempt to land Elway" by trying to acquire another top-10 pick, Stellino wrote. The Raiders were unable to close the deal, and Stellino reported the Colts wanted a top-eight pick to land Chris Hinton, Jimbo Covert or Bruce Matthews. New England and Washington also made late pushes for Elway. Stellino's article on the trade offers ended with the lone mention of Elway's eventual team: "The Denver Broncos never really came up with a good offer."
The tide, though, shifted following the draft. Colts owner Robert Irsay instructed Accorsi to trade Elway, citing the prospect's unwillingness to play in Baltimore. Accorsi held his ground, but the Colts' owner took command of the situation.
Judge*: "I'll never forget, Ernie said [when] the owner walked out, 'I knew there was probably a pretty good chance we were going to lose him, because he was going to take charge.' That's what happened within a week."
Kaiser and the Broncos, who weren't previously considered contenders for Elway, saw an opening to make a deal.
Saccomano*: "Every team in football is calling the Colts. They're calling Ernie Accorsi, the general manager, or they're calling Frank Kush, the head coach. Nobody's calling Bob Irsay. They're calling the wrong guy. Edgar Kaiser is maintaining contact with Bob Irsay.
"Edgar Kaiser calls and he says 'Hey, Bob, what a great move you made. Oh, boy. Elway. Undoubtedly he'll play for you. When he meets you and knows the kind of man you are and the kind of ownership you've got and the kind of team you have in Baltimore, he's going to play for you.' Then 20 minutes into it, 'By the way, just saying. If some how, some way, you decide to trade him, for some reason, the Broncos are also interested.'
"He stands up, he walks toward me and says, 'We are halfway toward Elway. We have halfway to go.'"
Across the organization, the Broncos worked to prepare for a possible deal. Tight ends coach Fran Polsfoot called his former roommate at Washington State, Jack Elway, to tell the quarterback's father about Denver and head coach Dan Reeves. Saccomano, meanwhile, saved a four-page bio for Elway and prepared a press release in case the team acquired Elway.
Relive John Elway's playing career with photos from his top moments, from the trade in 1983 to his many fourth-quarter comebacks, to his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004 and more.
Over the course of a week — from April 26 until May 2 — the Broncos continued to work to trade for the elite prospect. The trade talks remained quiet, which helped the Broncos iron out a deal with Baltimore. "The deal that brought Stanford quarterback John Elway from Baltimore to the Denver Broncos was staggering in its swiftness and its simplicity," the Denver Post's Rick Reilly wrote. The final deal was considered a steal for the Broncos, as Denver sent fourth-overall pick Chris Hinton, a 1984 first-round pick and reserve quarterback Mark Herrmann to the Colts.
Kaiser: "We made the first call the morning of the draft, and they expressed their interest in Hinton right at the beginning. What we hoped was that we could just go ahead [with the draft] and continue to have nice quiet negotiations."
Marvin Demoff, Elway's agent: "Hinton was the key. If Denver had taken Eric Dickerson or anyone else, nothing would have ever happened."
The Colts reached out to the Broncos about Hinton in the moments before selecting Elway, and Kaiser began his first communication with Irsay. They spoke about six times that day, according to Reilly, but the conversations remained somewhat vague.
Kaiser: "I was certain not to put Irsay in a position where he could take our offer and bounce it off someone else."
Three days later, on April 29, Kaiser and Irsay spoke more than a dozen times, according to Reilly.
Kaiser: "Friday is the day I think I knew I had a deal."
Irsay flew to Denver on Sunday, May 1 — and the deal inches closer. By Monday morning, the Colts and Broncos have agreed to a trade, and Demoff calls Elway to inform him of the deal. Kaiser calls head coach Dan Reeves to fill him in on the blockbuster transaction.
Saccomano*: "Edgar Kaiser tells him [the compensation] and Dan Reeves says, 'What else?' Edgar Kaiser says, 'That's it, Dan. That's all.' Dan says, 'Well, that'd be a good deal then.'"
In the final stages of the deal, Elway met Kaiser in Seattle and flew to Denver to negotiate a contract with the Broncos. After the plane lands, Elway, Kaiser, Demoff, Reeves, General Manager Hein Poulus and then-personnel director John Beake sat aboard Kaiser's private plane with high stakes. If a contract was agreed upon, Elway would step off the plane and head to an introductory press conference. If the deal fell apart, he'd leave Denver that night.
Saccomano*: "The deal was they're landing, and our guys get on the plane. Either everybody gets off and goes to a press conference or [the Broncos] get off, the plane takes off again for wherever and there's no deal.
"They all get off the plane."
Around this time, the local media has begun to sniff around. Barry Warner, a Texas radio host known as "The Mouth of the South," has reported the trade on the radio. Ring of Fame kicker Jim Turner, who joined the media after his playing career, has also raised word of a possible deal. T.J. Simers, a writer for the Rocky Mountain News, has also put the pieces together and heads to the Broncos' facility.
Judge*: "[Simers] goes to a Nuggets game, and he sees Reeves there. He sees Reeves and runs it by him and now begins to realize, this thing's going to happen. This thing's going to happen. And sure enough, it happened that night."
Around 8 p.m. that night, the Broncos schedule a press conference for 10:30 p.m. The next day, the Nuggets' PR staffer, Harv Kirkpatrick, called Saccomano. "It was like there was a bomb threat on press row," Kirkpatrick said of the rapid exit of media covering that night's playoff game.
Saccomano*: "It was widely known when that was stated that it could only be one thing."
Judge*: "That was as hectic a night as I've ever been involved with, because our lead columnist Kevin Cowherd and I stayed up all night. We worked at least 24 straight hours if not more like 30. I'll never forget going home that afternoon, and I probably slept for 12 hours."
As the clock charged toward midnight on May 2, Kaiser stepped to the lectern and spoke words that would change the franchise's trajectory.
Kaiser: "I'm not here to say we have a deal in the works for John Elway. We have made a deal with Baltimore and we have signed John Elway."
The Broncos' head coach and quarterback followed Kaiser at the podium.
Broncos head coach Dan Reeves: "Of course I'm thrilled to death to have him. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance you get to take an athlete like John Elway. You hate to lose Mark Herrmann, but that's part of this business. John has greatness in him."
John Elway: "I'm definitely thrilled to be here. It was something I wasn't expecting to happen. I'm just glad to be playing in the NFL and glad to be playing for the Broncos."
The praise for the trade — and for the possibilities it unlocked — quickly came from media, former players and coaches across the league.
Denver Post columnist Woody Paige: "The shock waves may never subside, and the fallout already is being felt throughout the National Football League. … In an instant, the Broncos have been transformed from a beast to a beauty, ugly duckling to swan. What had seemed so gross and dark before suddenly seems attractive and bright."
Former Broncos quarterback Craig Morton: "He seems to me to be as good as everybody says. A great young quarterback. He does have a strong arm. I'm really excited for the Broncos, and I wish him great success. Statistics are to be broken, and I hope he has a chance to break all mine."
Sam Rutigliano, Cleveland Browns head coach and former Broncos assistant: "The Broncos can finally look down the barrel and say they have a quarterback for 10 or 15 years. … This is the most dramatic thing to happen in Denver since they signed Floyd Little."
Indeed, the trade paid massive dividends. Over the next 16 years, Elway elevated the Broncos on the NFL and world stage and helped the team capture a pair of elusive world championships. Even 40 years later, the trade stands alone as the best in franchise history — and as one of the best the league has ever seen. The first-ballot Hall of Famer carved out a legendary career with the Broncos, and then returned to help Denver win a third Super Bowl as the team's general manager. The Broncos' storied past has its roots four decades ago on a very eventful May 2.
[Editor's note: Ben Swanson contributed to the reporting for this project.]