A three-sport athlete at Granada Hills High School in Los Angeles, JOHN ELWAY, who this week steps into the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Gold Jacket Spotlight, starred in baseball, basketball and football. His skills in America’s pastime propelled him into Major League Baseball’s pipeline.
As a high school senior, John threw for 3,711 yards and 29 touchdowns as quarterback of the football team, while batting .551 and winning Los Angeles Player of the Year honors and the city championship in baseball. His play prompted the Kansas City Royals to select him in the 18th round of the 1979 MLB Draft.
The selection didn’t sway him to leave his commitment to Stanford University as a dual-sport athlete, however, and he enrolled in college.
“I’ve never seen any athlete, in football or baseball, with that arm,” remarked former Stanford head baseball coach Mark Marquess.
As a freshman at Stanford, he struggled in both sports, seeing little playing time on the baseball diamond and recording only 544 passing yards, six TDs and three interceptions as the backup quarterback. In 1980, he was named the starting quarterback for the Cardinal; however, this didn’t bring much more success.
The following season, the football team mustered only four victories, with John totaling 2,674 yards, 20 touchdowns and 11 picks. After a rough freshman baseball season, he turned things around as a sophomore. Fresh off his first of two PAC-10 Football Player of the Year awards, John was a more focused and dynamic baseball player. In 49 games after Year 2, he batted .361 with nine homers, 15 doubles, 50 RBIs and 47 runs scored.
In his final year as a Cardinal, his play helped Stanford to the NCAA Baseball Regionals, where he batted .444. On the gridiron, he was named PAC-10 Player of the Year and consensus All-America, won the Sammy Baugh Trophy and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting.
His success as a two-sport athlete heralded national attention.
George Steinbrenner, the owner of the New York Yankees at the time, had an eye on John. The “Bronx Bombers” selected him in the second round of the 1981 MLB First-Year Player Draft, ahead of future Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.
“He has a well-above-average major-league arm,” said Gary Hughes, a Yankees scout. “He runs well, makes contact, and this year he started hitting for power. That’s the big attraction.”
John signed with the Yankees for $140,000, more than the No. 1 overall pick received that year. He started his minor-league career in the New York-Penn League (Class A) batting 2-for-22. He turned things around, though, and finished with a .318 average in 40 games.
Still, John was viewed as the consensus top prospect in the upcoming NFL Draft. He held pre-draft meetings with several clubs, including the Baltimore Colts, who held the first overall pick. He and his family made it known they preferred he play for a West Coast team or, specifically, for Dallas or Miami. They expressed concerns about the direction the Colts’ organization was headed.
Even after the Elways stated their views, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle read aloud that the Baltimore Colts had selected him with the No. 1 pick.
While football was always John’s first love, the option to play baseball now seemed like a plausible career path.
“Right now, it looks like I’ll be playing baseball with the Yankees,” John said after being selected by the Colts. “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.”
After six days of waiting, the Denver Broncos offered a trade package for John.
“I’m definitely thrilled to be here,’’ he said in his first news conference after the trade. “It’s something I didn’t expect to happen. I’m glad to be playing in the NFL, and I’m glad to be playing for the Denver Broncos.’’
A quarterback who would go on to win two Super Bowls, a Super Bowl MVP, a regular- season MVP and nine Pro Bowl nods with the club, John was enshrined in Canton in 2004.