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RAMSEY: Elway, the draft dodger, changes view of selection process

April 20, 2011
photo - JOHN ELWAY Photo by AP

ENGLEWOOD – John Elway is an NFL draft dodger, and that’s why it’s jarring to listen to him talk about, yes, the NFL draft.

The Denver Broncos new guru is a draft nerd. He’s given his life over to the selection process, which he hopes will transform his franchise from weak to mighty. He talked for nearly an hour about the draft Wednesday afternoon. You get the feeling he could talk for a couple of days.

This is, remember, the same Elway who defied the entire idea of the draft in 1983. For decades, before and after, college players had been told where they would play.

Elway reversed the process. He told the NFL where he would play. He refused to play for weird and wily Colts owner Bob Irsay and manipulated the franchise into trading him to Denver.

He, no doubt, dodged the draft. And now he’s a great cheerleader for the same process he so expertly defied.

I had to ask him about the irony of the situation.

“It wasn’t the draft,” Elway said, a big smile coming to his face. “It was where I was going. … I understand both sides of the conflict. I understand having been a player that because of the draft you’re restricted about going where you want.”

Hate to contradict you, John, but you shredded those restrictions.

In the spring of 1983, Elway altered NFL history, hurried the Colts' move from Baltimore to Indianapolis and ignited mass celebration across the Front Range.

Elway did not want to play for the Colts, which made sense. The Colts had won only two of 29 games and played in crumbling, half-empty Memorial Stadium.

Elway commanded the Colts, then based in Baltimore, not to select him with the first pick. The Colts ignored him, which also made sense. He was only the NFL’s best-ever quarterback prospect.

But Elway had a rare blessing for an NFL prospect. He had leverage. George Steinbrenner was infatuated with the idea of Elway playing shortstop at Yankee Stadium.

Soon after the Colts selected him, Elway rented a hotel room in San Jose, Calif., called a press conference and announced he planned to play for the Yankees.

“It looks like I’ll be playing baseball,” Elway said.

Colts general manager Ernie Accorsi told Irsay to be patient. Accorsi had read Elway’s baseball scouting report. He knew Elway had a choice between becoming a matchless quarterback or a decent shortstop.

But Irsay was a stubborn, insecure man. He had made his massive fortune in Chicago real estate, but still felt the need to embellish his background. He said he had earned a degree from the University of Illinois. He did not. He said he survived combat duty. He had not.

And he was thrifty, a good trait in general but a bad trait for an NFL owner. He knew Elway expected a five-season, $5 million contract. He disliked the idea of handing so much of his cash to anyone, and that included Elway.

Irsay ignored Accorsi, dealing behind his GM’s back with the Broncos. Six days after the draft, Irsay sent Elway to the Broncos for offensive lineman Chris Hinton, quarterback Mark Hermann and the Broncos’ 1984 first-round pick.

Accorsi was watching TV when he first heard reports of the NFL’s biggest robbery of the 20th century.

Virtually everyone saw the trade as severely tilted in the Broncos' favor. Everyone, that is, except Irsay, who defended the transaction while dismissing Elway’s future.

“He’ll never be any good,” Irsay said, emphasizing his view had nothing to do with “resentment.”

Elway, the draft dodger collected 300 touchdown passes, 150 victories, five wins in the AFC title games and two Super Bowl triumphs.

Irsay died in 1997. He will not be remembered as a prophet.

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