All week America made a wish and slid it under John Elway's hotel door. Lucky shoelaces, Western Unioned hopes, FedExed prayers—more than 200 packages and messages, too many to open, not that he didn't already know what was in them. Elway had become this chin-strapped Ernie Banks. So many people wanted a Super Bowl win for the one man in history the Super Bowl had slapped around the worst.
But now, as the game dripped into the San Diego dusk, it all started turning toward agony again. So Elway prayed for himself. Lord, give me another chance. Don't let us lose because of me.
What Elway had just done was take his happily-ever-after and feed it to Godzilla. One minute before, it had all been in his grasp—a 24-17 lead over the Green Bay Packers and the ball suddenly coughed up to his Denver Broncos at the Cheese-head 22. Thanks, I'll sign for that. Whereupon, Elway, a 15-year vet, did his best impression of a rookie in August. He went for the touchdown on the first play and threw a watermelon you could read from Escondido. Packer Eugene Robinson plucked it out of the air. Three minutes later the game was tied. What you had here was a Buckner in the making. On the sideline Elway looked as if he had eaten a bad fish taco.
Oh, God, not this again. Not another Super Bowl night when the Elways don't make it to the team party. Not another Super Bowl night when John and his dad, Jack, go back to the room and talk until dawn, afraid to sleep. "Those [talks] just got worse and worse," John says. "He'd try to take some of the hurt away. He'd tell me, 'Hey, it's not the end of the world. Someday, you'll be on the other end of one of these.' " John would buck up and get ready for the question he never stopped hearing: "Can your career be complete if you don't win a Super Bowl?" And Elway would give his Optimist Club answer—"Yeah, as long as I can look in the mirror and say I did all I could"—and know it was a lie. "I knew it wouldn't be complete," he would say after the game.
Any other year, any other Super Bowl, the Broncos would've made this Misery, Part 4. But not this time and not this team. Running back Terrell Davis and his Miracle Migraine came back and went through the Green Bay defense the way Gilbert Brown goes through a box of bonbons. The Broncos led by seven with less than 100 seconds to go, and then the Denver defense held Packers quarterback Brett Favre to nothing when it meant everything. Suddenly, Elway found himself on bended knee, running the last 28 seconds off his own mortality.
Up in the stands, the Elways were practicing crash landings. John's wife, Janet, had her head in her lap until her kids finally screamed, "Mom! We won!" Up in the coaches' box, Jack put his head between his knees and cried. Down on the field, up on his teammates' shoulder pads, Elway wept a little too. Said one of his wideouts, Ed McCaffrey, "You could see in his eyes what it meant to him."
"It means the other three Super Bowls are all erased now," Elway said, clutching Janet close. "Those were the ultimate losses, but this is the ultimate win."
The only problem was that redemption was so new to the Elways they didn't quite know what to do. John kept looking for his championship hat, only to be told he was carrying it in his hand. He had refused to watch tapes of the other three Super blowouts, but he couldn't wait to get the popcorn out for this one, only, "I don't think anybody taped it." Janet, her makeup running, was flummoxed. "I know how to handle a loss in these," she said. "I'm not sure how to handle a win."