Just saying the name “Elway” is like uttering the echo of “Denver.” It is the invocation of the patron saint of every powder-skiing, Frisbee-tossing dude from Denver.
“You know, it’s John Elway’s town, but we get to live here, too,” a friend of mine said just before my wedding, because he and I are two of those Denver dudes. And the beautiful wife is a Denver girl. And we got married in a field where the sunset behind the mountains blew up all orange and blue—the same colors as the uniforms of God’s favorite football team, or so the bumper sticker goes.
These days, she says she could care less about football, but anytime I put on that cheesy championship tape of the 1997 season (which I often do at this time of year), she magically appears in the doorway at the exact moment when Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen raises the Super Bowl trophy and says, “This one’s for John.” And yes, every time her eyes fill with tears.
That moment in Super Bowl history is the primary reason I still own a VCR, along with the fact that I’ve still got Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch on tape, and a couple of old Greg Stump ski films like Blizzard of AAHHH’s.
Yes, I’ll probably soon be watching those movies again, too, while fondly looking back on the glory years: The years when the Broncos played winning football; the years before I-70 west of Federal became a parking lot every Saturday morning; and back to a time when I could still ski 215s and still had most of my hair.
Yes, nostalgia and hope become better buddies at this time of year. If I think back to some of the best ski days or Sundays of my life, it doesn’t seem like such a stretch to hope there will be some absolutely epic powder days this season and that the Broncos will kick a little ass on the football field, too.
I don’t think that second part is gonna happen, though. I don’t like that this new Josh McDickless coach seems to think he’s so much smarter than the rest of the world. And as much as I’m prepared to be proven wrong, when he traded away Kid Cutler I realized that I’m a lot less interested in watching him coach than I was in watching an all-pro quarterback hurl the ball.
The fact that Josh came straight from Boston also doesn’t sit too well. The sight of all those BoSox hats in the brewpubs around town would seem to indicate that we’d hit the quota on acquiring expat New Englanders years ago. I mean is there any sort of reciprocity program where we get to ship an equal number of snowboarders back east for basic training or business school?
I’m just kidding, kind of, because I figure the average Eastern transplant digs 300+ sun-filled days a year and good powder skiing as much as any local kid from Park Hill. And as much as I like to remind Patriots fans that their team’s collective record of wins against the aforementioned Mr. Elway matches my own record of professional touchdown passes—zero—the truth is that in the last 50 years almost everybody in Colorado came from somewhere else.
‘Native’ stickers aside, my dad moved us here from New York when I was 2. He wanted to be an attorney, and a ski bum, and figured this was the best place in the world to combine the two pursuits. At first, all our relatives acted as if we’d moved to some low-budget, backcountry version of Austria. But over time, many came and saw the light. I still have visions of uncles flying back east with raccoon tans and a couple cases of Coors.
Back then, in most folks’ minds, Colorado was still just a recently annexed territory of cowboys and hippies, with moonbeams and mountain streams and John Denver on every radio station. Once in college a kid asked me, “How did you get your mail?” In his mind, the whole state was just one giant national park, with little outposts of quality caffeine and high-minded culture in towns like Aspen and Vail.
That is until Mr. John Albert Elway reminded the rest of America that folks from Colorado could come to your town and let off a little steam, too. Cleveland learned pretty fast that there’s more to the Centennial State than Fort Collins veterinary school students and Boulder Buddhists playing defense for the Broncos. Mention “The Drive” in Ohio and nobody will think you’re talking about how long it took to get to the ski hill. Bring up the “Super Bowl” in Green Bay and nobody starts flashing back to their last Red Rocks Dead Show. And if you go to Kansas City, Los Angeles or Oakland or even sunny San Diego (take your pick) and proudly declare yourself, “A Donkeys’ Fan,” people won’t feel compelled to go and hide their mules.
Nowadays, when people hear “Colorado,” they think, “great skiing, John Elway,” and “good football.” Probably in that order, too.
Hyperbole? Not at all: The emergence of Elway made it easier for kids from Colorado to go out into the world and not be mistaken for cowgirls or cowboys without a cow. It’s no stretch to say that as the Broncos did better on the field, the city’s civic pride also grew. Something new was taking shape west of Manhattan, east of Los Angeles, and cleaner than Chicago. When the Broncos lost, we thought we’d stalled. When they won, it was if we were living in our high-elevation Oz—titletown with a view. Elwayville.
Which is why I’m going to spend a lot more Sundays skiing this year than I am going to spend watching football. Out of respect for John. Because even if the Broncos haven’t been the winningest team in the past couple years (they haven’t been too bad, either), at least they always showed up with a gunslinger in tow. Plummer, Cutler, Griese—those guys came to throw. But sending a message that your team is going to prosper from an “efficient and consistent system,” well, that just isn’t that compelling a story to sell to an audience with so many Extreme! Organic! Outdoor Options! of other things to do.
So thanks to Mr. John Elway for all of the fantastic football memories and for helping this little cowtown claim its crown as the Queen City of the Plains. This winter when I’m outside skiing fresh powder on a Sunday instead of indoors watching replays of recycled schemes, I’ll gratefully say, “John, this turn’s for you.” •
Next Issue: Elwayville, It’s Ruined: 10 Things that Were Way Cooler Before You Got Here.