John Elway refused to play for the Baltimore Colts. And he had a plan B.
An organization slowly imploding from within, the Colts held the first overall pick of the quarterback-rich 1983 NFL Draft, and Elway was the obvious pick among all of the the future All-Pros and Hall-of-Famers after lighting up the Pac-10 conference over the course of his four years at Stanford.
Most great prospects, short of sitting out a whole year, have no way around joining whichever sinking ship is on the clock. Elway, however, had baseball. And not just any baseball team, but the New York Yankees.
A bat, a glove, and the famous pinstripes became Elway’s way out. So when the Colts, despite Elway’s four-month old warning that he would not sign with Baltimore, made the rocket-armed quarterback the first pick of the ’83 Draft, the plan never changed.
”Right now it looks like I’ll be playing baseball with the Yankees," Elway announced at a news conference in San Jose. "It will be a couple of days, or maybe even two weeks, before I make the final decision. We haven’t ruled out football, but it doesn’t look good right now.”
Of course, Elway never actually meant to give up football. But he sold the baseball angle hard, and he had the numbers to give his claim credibility.
In the summer of 1982 with the Yankees Low-A affiliate in Oneonta, Elway’s slash line (AVG/OBP/OPS) was .318/.432/.896 to go with four homers, 25 RBI, 13 stolen bases, and three more walks than strikeouts. His legendary hose didn’t just turn heads on the football field, either. In just 77 defensive chances, he used the same right arm that beat NFL defenses for 16 years to gun down eight baserunners.
The ability and charm of Elway was not lost on the late George Steinbrenner, who owned the Yankees from 1973 until his death in 2010.
"He was the all-America kid with a big smile, like a modern-day Frank Merriwell or Jack Armstrong, one of the old sports heroes," Steinbrenner told ESPN’s Rich Cimini. "That appealed to me. He would’ve been a hero in New York."
So with the stamp of approval from the Yankees in his back pocket and football still the ultimate prize, Elway played the waiting game after the Colts picked him first overall on April 26, 1983. The staring contest between Robert Irsay of the Colts and John Elway lasted six days until, finally, the Denver Broncos made an offer sweet enough to make the Colts blink.
Chris Hinton, who was Denver’s first-round pick in that same draft, backup quarterback Mark Herrmann, and a 1984 first-rounder were shipped to Baltimore in exchange for the 22-year-old gunslinger. The rest is history. The Baltimore Colts became the Indianapolis Colts the next year and Elway reached three Super Bowls in the 1980’s before finally getting over the hump with back-to-back Super Bowl wins to cap a Hall-of-Fame career.
Currently, Elway is the general manager of the Broncos, and he’s entrenched in talks with the team to extend his contract as general manager past the 2017 season. It’s likely he’ll become the highest-paid executive in football history, surpassing Baltimore’s Ozzie Newsome, who brings in $3.75 million each year.
Of course, Elway has earned every penny the Broncos are preparing to pay to keep him. Since inheriting a broken 4-12 team in 2011, Elway turned the ship around and immediately returned the Broncos to the playoffs, keeping them in the postseason annually until they finally broke through and won Super Bowl 50 in February of 2016.
The former quarterback and his team of scouts built a team to win now and from now on, acquiring Pro Bowlers in the NFL Draft, unrestricted free agency, street free agency, and college free agency. Elway has showed discipline by letting players like Brock Osweiler, Eric Decker, and Julius Thomas walk while re-signing crucial parts like Chris Harris, Von Miller, and Derek Wolfe.
Not to mention, when he zeroed in on Peyton Manning in the spring of 2012, he sold the future Hall-of-Famer on Denver better than his counterparts in Tennessee, Houston, San Francisco, Arizona and Seattle could for their respective organizations, landing the most prized free agent in NFL history in just his second year on the job.
It’s all added up to a 69-27 record in the regular season, a 6-4 mark in 10 playoff games, two Super Bowl appearances, and one victory. But it might be more than his unprecedented success that convinces the Broncos to pay him the big bucks to stay in Denver.
Elway is using the same principle that allowed him to be traded to the Broncos in the first place. He knows that, more than anything else, leverage swings negotiations. Whether or not he ever really aspired to play professional baseball in New York, he let the other side of the table believe it was an option.
In 2017, instead of baseball, it’s politics. Elway, who has described himself as "middle-right," endorsed Mitt Romney in the 2012 Presidential Election, and since then has told Chris Wallace of Fox News that he’s been approached to run for political office.
Elway has publicly denied any plans to run for governor, but there’s no doubt that he would be a dream candidate for the GOP. In a state that becomes bluer with every year that passes, perhaps only a Colorado legend like Elway could break through for the Republicans.
Playing baseball was never his plan, and he may not have any serious political ambitions beyond endorsing Republican candidates, but like the threat of the pass that made his quarterback draws deadly, it’s the seed of an idea that he may one day pick up politics that will keep the Broncos on their toes and flexible in contract talks.
There’s always been a plan B for Elway, and he’s used it to manipulate the other side of the negotiating table, whether his opposition is another NFL franchise, a player with an expiring contract, or his own organization.
It’s leverage — the same thing that makes Elway a master negotiator and team-building expert — that will make it so expensive to keep him.
Will Keys is an Editor for Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @WillKeys6.