ENGLEWOOD, COLO. (AP) - The craggy lines in his face cut a little deeper. That trademark hitch in his step is a bit more pronounced.
These days, when John Elway scans the field looking to make the perfect move for the Broncos, he is viewing not from under center but from a second-floor office that overlooks the practice field.
At 52, the man who engineered The Drive and so many other great comebacks during a Hall of Fame career is producing yet another one _ maybe the most important he’s been part of. He is resurrecting Pat Bowlen’s franchise, turning it from an out-of-touch, losing laughingstock back into a fan-friendly Super Bowl contender.
Whether the Broncos make it to New Orleans or not this season, Elway has already accomplished the first mission simply by coming back to run Denver’s front office.
“The first order of business, in my mind, was to connect back to our fans,” he told The Associated Press in an interview from his office, a jar of jelly beans on the desk, a magnetic Broncos depth chart hanging on the wall.
On Saturday, the Broncos play Baltimore in the AFC divisional round. They are on an 11-game winning streak and favored to go to the Super Bowl for the first time since Elway hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the 1998 season.
“Somehow, we lost that connection,” Elway said. “At least, it had never been like that since I’d been here. The disconnect was there, you could feel it. The fans didn’t feel like they were part of the organization.”
Though it was Denver’s magical 1977 “Orange Crush” Super Bowl team that sparked Broncomania, it was Elway’s arrival six seasons later that turned the relationship between team and fans into a much more personal affair. As the best player coming out of college, Elway was headed to the Baltimore Colts, who held the first pick in the draft. He balked, and the impression was he would end up only where he wanted to go.
The Broncos came up with the goods for a trade and Elway said `yes’ to Denver.
Over the next 16 years _ including 47 game-saving drives, three Super Bowl losses, countless other heartbreaks and close calls and, then, finally, two titles _ No. 7 and the city of Denver became interconnected. Elway chose Denver. Denver loved him back.
As the era of free agency began and the game became more of a business, Elway was a Bronco all the way, one of those increasingly rare instances of a player who spent his entire career with one team.
And after he rode off into the sunset following the second title, things weren’t quite the same for the team or the player.
“I wanted to see how it would be when I got away from it for a while,” Elway said.
He bought car dealerships, got into the restaurant business. He enjoyed success with both, but had trouble staying away from his first love, the game he learned under the guiding hand of his father, Jack, a longtime college head coach before becoming a scout for the Broncos in the 1990s.
“I’m used to having a scoreboard,” Elway said, “and there’s a scoreboard in football every week.”