Ernie Accorsi wanted encouragement. It was January 1988, and the Cleveland Browns general manager was preparing his team to face the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship game for the second straight season. Just a year had passed since “The Drive,” when John Elway led his Broncos 98 yards for a game-tying touchdown in the final minute of regulation, and the Browns ached for revenge.
Before the game, longtime sportswriter Art Spander, who had covered Elway since the quarterback’s high school days, struck up a conversation with Accorsi. The subject naturally turned to Elway, and Spander offered his wisdom on the player he’d followed for more than a decade. “There’s no sense in being nervous, Ernie,” he told Accorsi. “You can’t beat him.”
The Browns lost that day—and again the next year—to Elway and company, a fact that stung just a bit sharper for Accorsi. As Baltimore’s GM, he was the man who’d drafted Elway in 1983 despite the quarterback’s assurances he would never play for the Colts. Elway kept his word, forced a trade to Denver, and he and Accorsi parted ways after meeting just once, with a brief handshake at the East-West Shrine Game.
In 2009, 20 years after that final Denver-Cleveland AFC championship matchup, two men met at the Yale Club in midtown Manhattan. One was Accorsi, the other Broncos president Joe Ellis, who was seeking counsel after firing Mike Shanahan. Ellis valued the advice he got that day, so much so that two years later he suggested his new vice president of football operations call Accorsi for similar counsel.
That vice president was, of course, Elway, who laughed at the suggestion. Ellis didn’t know the history, and Elway wondered if Accorsi would even take his call.
Ellis reached out to gauge Accorsi’s interest in mentoring the man he calls the “greatest prospect I’d ever seen,” and who later ruined his draft in Baltimore and ended his Cleveland team’s postseason run three times. Accorsi had to laugh. He’d be happy to talk to Elway, he said. On that first phone call, the two hit it off. They discussed everything from the minutiae of the job to the big picture, building teams and winning championships.
“We were speaking the same language,” Accorsi says. “I am not in any way surprised by his success. Not a bit.”
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Shortly before that first conversation with Accorsi, on Jan. 5, 2011, Elway stood behind a podium at Dove Valley, the Broncos’ facility in Englewood, Colo. Press conference flirted with pep rally as Ellis introduced the team’s newest hire. Elway’s words came quickly, so fast that a sentence was an exercise in slowing and repeating, unjumbling the jumbled. For Elway to smile so wide and speak concurrently was a feat of verbal gymnastics. Denver’s golden boy had swooped in to the rescue, boisterous, greener than green, talking, talking, talking.
When the Broncos announced the hire after a 4-12 season in 2010, their decision was met with mixed reactions. Was Denver hoping to resuscitate fan support after a disastrous season by using Elway as a figurehead? What qualifications had the quarterback garnered since retiring in 1999 after his second Super Bowl win? Looking back three and a half years later, the worries seem outlandish, the questions frivolous, but they existed, and Elway has answered them, one by one.
In that introductory press conference, the words that rang truest were perhaps the simplest Elway uttered all day: “I know what I don’t know.” He didn’t know the NFL of 2011, and he didn’t know what it would be like to make decisions of the magnitude he was about to make. What he did know was football, and how to build, albeit on a smaller scale.
From 2003 to 2009, Elway had been a co-owner of the Arena Football League’s Colorado Crush. He had also served as the team’s chief executive officer, building it from its inception and making its personnel decisions. His role with the Crush resembled that of an old-school NFL general manager, Accorsi says, in that “when you run an Arena League team, you don’t have a staff like General Eisenhower in England.”
“I … got my hands in everything, whether it be on the business side, sponsorship side, as well as the player side,” Elway says. “I learned probably more about the business side of sports than I did on the football side. … I hired everybody in the organization, putting together a coaching staff as well the business staff.”
That experience caught Ellis’s eye as he sought to jolt the Broncos back to relevance in 2011, and it remains the foundation of Elway’s approach five years after the AFL folded. Even as the Broncos played up Elway’s career and ties to Denver in the days after they hired him, they knew he would deliver, for reasons beyond his status in the Mile High City.
“He’s very competitive,” says Mike Dailey, who coached the Crush under Elway. “It’s a little bit like an aura for him. I think part of it is that everyone knows of him. [Players and coaches] could probably go into relationships with [him] knowing, Hey, here’s a guy who’s been successful at the highest level. But he has that aura about him. He wants to win. He wants to be the best.”
The first season after Elway took over the Broncos went 8-8 and won the AFC West, capping the season with a playoff win. It was more success than most expected, and by then Elway’s talking had moved behind the scenes, from press conference to plotting. In public, he paced. Watching the first step in his team’s turnaround was no easy task, especially on Sundays. There was twitching, and there was head-shaking. There were attempts to suppress emotions that sometimes failed. “I think John Elway would still be playing football if he could physically,” Peyton Manning says, and those early games were a testament to that truth. Every play, every mistake, every success—each made Elway want to suit up, except that he was a decade retired. He was in charge but never quite in control.
Three years later, in 2014, with three seasons, three playoff berths and a Super Bowl loss behind him, Elway presides. He stands on the practice field during the Broncos’ organized team activities, dressed as if he’s just rolled in from his tee time—because sometimes he has. He’s learned to watch games without his blood pressure spiking. He reclines in his office chair, surrounded by framed copies of Sports Illustrated bearing his much-younger image and photos of him with his family and Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. His is the comfort of a man who knows his job inside and out, who’s drafted four classes and paraded through free agency as many times.
Now, it seems like there is nothing Elway doesn’t know. These are his Broncos, and he is their king. He knows every step to take, every detail of what he’s done—except, of course, the one detail that got him to where he is today, at the top of the football world.
Elway got the call on March 19, 2012. On the line was Manning, informing him that he would sign with the Broncos, catapulting the team back into Super Bowl contention, with the chance of another golden era. Elway wined and dined Manning earlier that winter, presenting him with a city whose passion for football looms larger than the Rocky Mountains. He hammered home his belief that quarterbacks can win late in their careers, and then he waited. When the call came, Elway was thrilled, surprised, honored.
And he never asked why.
“I’m not sure he would answer it if I did,” Elway says after a long sigh. “Having played here and lived here for so long, to be able to present the Broncos the way that we presented them, to say, Hey, this is it, I thought we had a lot to offer.”
Elway doesn’t need to know why Manning chose his team. Never has, never will. His was the faith of a quarterback who’s thrown the perfect pass. It will land true. And if it doesn’t? Well, it wasn’t for lack of precision.