John Elway can’t drive anywhere around Denver without seeing his name or staring at a likeness of himself on billboards.
He operates seven automobile dealerships, which ironically matches the number on his Denver Broncos jersey. Thirteen years after arriving in Denver, 600 letters a week flow through the Broncos’ office requesting something of Elway. He is to Denver what Dan Marino is to Miami and Jim Kelly is to Buffalo.
Imagine the Broncos without Elway. The Seattle Seahawks would like to imagine the 1 p.m. game today in Mile High Stadium with a quarterback other than Elway. They can’t. No one can.
Sure, Elway’s and Marino’s knees creak like those of some senior citizens and Kelly suffers from chronic rotator cuff pain in his right shoulder. But they are the NFL’s proud remnants of the greatest quarterback draft in the history of the league, the Class of 1983.
Though the memories from that rare April day have faded - in some cases purposely - the best three of the six quarterbacks selected in the first round had to sell themselves to general managers in other cities. Though scouting reports rated this trio as future Hall of Famers, Elway, Kelly and Marino heard a few more no’s than anyone would expect.
“I remember Dan hired Marv Demoff as his agent, and he and I called every coach in the league to talk about drafting Dan,” said Minnesota Vikings linebacker coach Foge Fazio, who was Marino’s college coach at Pitt. “Don Shula of the Dolphins had the 27th pick and kept calling us back and telling us, ‘I’d take him, but he ain’t going to be there.’ But we called them all.”
Marino was available at No.27. Shula took him. He’s passed for 48,151 yards. Elway was drafted first by the Baltimore Colts but refused to go there. Kelly was the 14th choice but spent two years with the Houston Gamblers of the United States Football League before turning a sorry Bills franchise into a perennial AFC champion.
“Who knows what would have happened if the Colts didn’t trade me?” Elway said. “I’m just glad the way things worked out. I haven’t spent too much time looking back on what might have been. I look back more on going to the New York Yankees than staying in Baltimore. There really weren’t too many teams that I would not have gone, really.”
Elway went to the Broncos for offensive lineman Chris Hinton and quarterback Mark Herrmann. Behind Elway, the Broncos went to three Super Bowls, five AFC West title games and six trips to the playoffs. The Colts have gone to one playoff during Elway’s career. They lost the game by 17 points.
His reasoning was simple: Elway didn’t want to play for Colts coach Frank Kush.
“And I didn’t want to play for that other guy, the owner (Bob Irsay),” Elway said.
Baltimore not only lost Elway. They lost the Colts.
The 1983 draft was considered one of the richest ever. Besides the six quarterbacks who went in the first round, the top running backs (Eric Dickerson and Curt Warner) were franchise players. Teams needing offensive linemen couldn’t go wrong with Hinton, Bruce Matthews and Jimbo Covert.
But the quarterbacks drew the most interest.
“In ‘83, there were some great quarterbacks there,” former Buffalo Bills coach Kay Stephenson said. “What you look for is to find someone at the quarterback position that you can win with. You have some measurements to go by and which guy can make certain throws, but there are so many intangibles that are invaluable with a quarterback.”
Elway was the consensus first selection in the draft. He was talented enough to be the Yankees’ top draft choice in 1981 and hit .318 for the Yanks’ Class A farm team in Oneonta (N.Y.) one summer. At Stanford, he set five major college and nine Pac-10 records for his ability to pass.
He had it all. His father, Jack, was a coach. He had mobility along with having one of the strongest arms. He’s been durable enough to miss only eight starts in 13 seasons.
“Did you see the one throw (a cross-the-body 45-yard touchdown dart to Mike Pritchard) against Jacksonville last week,” Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said of the 35-year-old Elway. “I don’t know that John can throw the ball much better than that. He still can make all the throws, and he’s playing with a lot of confidence right now. The only thing he can’t do is that before he was a 4.65 or 4.7 guy with excellent agility. Probably now he’s a 4.9 guy and he still has agility.”
Probably the biggest shocks in the 1983 draft was why Todd Blackledge of Penn State went second and Marino was the last of the quarterbacks taken in the first round. Blackledge’s selection was simple. Kansas City Chiefs coach John Mackovic liked him and didn’t mind investing the seventh choice of the first round on Blackledge.
“It set the franchise back many years,” a former Chiefs executive said. “Mackovic, who came to the Chiefs from the Dallas Cowboys (where he was quarterback coach), flew on a private jet to Canton, Ohio, to meet with Blackledge and then to Pittsburgh to meet with Marino. He felt good about Blackledge.”
Blackledge struggled reading NFL coverages. He completed only 48 percent of his passes and ended up being dumped to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a fourth-round choice after five seasons.
“I knew from calling around that Elway was going to be the first choice and that the Chiefs liked Blackledge,” Fazio said. “Kelly had a great workout for Kay Stephenson. I didn’t know Kenny O’Brien. I had never heard of him, but I knew that Joe Walton was looking for a backup to groom behind Richard Todd. I knew the Steelers weren’t going to take a quarterback because they thought Terry Bradshaw was coming back despite an elbow injury.”
Marino sat in Fazio’s office and felt betrayed by the world. Twenty-four teams passed on Marino. Some apparently believed false rumors that he took drugs.
“There were all the rumors about Danny being on drugs, which weren’t true,” Fazio said. “We tested Danny. We called all the pro coaches and told them ‘This is the situation. Danny is clean. We want to make a clean record. We have the records right here.”’
Fazio made extensive files of Marino’s drug tests available to any one who would ask. It detailed the testing procedures, the labs, the doctors, the time, everything.
“Pro scouts came in telling me that they heard all these rumors,” Fazio said. “I don’t know how or why they got circulated.”
Shula believed. He knew that Marino not only had clean drug tests, but he was the one who requested them. He also saw a quarterback who had Joe Namathlike ability.
By their second year together, Shula and Marino were in the Super Bowl.
Kelly did the same to the Bills, but he was on the delayed entry program. Stephenson felt Kelly was the perfect quarterback for the Buffalo weather. Kelly preferred the warmth and fun of spending two years in Houston. Kelly was named USFL MVP in 1984. He opted to take his reward in a yearlong supply of beer.
“In a climate such as Buffalo, you have to have a person who has a little more physical and mental toughness than other quarterbacks because you are playing in adverse whether situations,” Stephenson said.
Penn State recruited Kelly as a linebacker. He signed with the University of Miami because he wanted to be a quarterback. Once he got to Buffalo, he was the perfect fit. The Bills won four AFC titles with him as their quarterback.
With Marino in Miami, Kelly in Buffalo and Elway in Denver, each took turns going to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately for them, they faced better teams.
“Dan was there a long time ago, so we can’t include him any more,” Elway said with a snicker. “I’m just glad Jim went there and lost four because I lost only three and it took all the heat off me. I thanked him for that.”
Tony Eason of Illinois and Ken O’Brien of California-Davis were the other 1983 quarterbacks who didn’t fit in with the other pack. Eason was a quiet, athletic quarterback who helped the New England Patriots go to one Super Bowl. O’Brien developed into a consistent quarterback for the New York Jets, but coming out of a small school, he was the least known.
“I had no idea who the other guys were in the draft,” O’Brien said. “I knew Tony Eason because his brother was my roommate in college. But I never fit into the mix. I had no idea. I had no scholarship. We were a Division II school so it was a tremendous jump to walk in and see Joe Klecko and Mark Gastineau, guys who were twice as big as you played against.”
Six quarterbacks. One round. One conference. All started. Three are still playing.
“It think it was really rare,” O’Brien said. “I don’t think you are going to see another six come out that highly. All the guys played. All played for quite a while. It’s rare that that happens.”