He never saw a pass he couldn’t complete, often using his laser-like right arm to squeeze tight spirals into places other quarterbacks wouldn’t dare venture. And if his arm didn’t hurt you, his legs would.
From 1979-82, Elway did it all for the Cardinal, passing for 9,349 yards and 77 touchdowns. His six scoring tosses against Oregon State in 1980 remain a team record.
He also excelled in baseball. As a senior, he played right field and batted .361 with nine homers and drove in 50 runs in 49 games. The New York Yankees made him their second-round pick.
But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Elway, nicknamed “Woody” by friends, was a swashbuckler who operated with calm and confidence, and made others better. While he never made it to a bowl game – the crushing Big Game loss of 1982 denying him the opportunity – pro scouts knew he was the best player in the country, even if the Heisman Trophy voters didn’t. He finished second to running back Herschel Walker of Georgia by 695 votes.
Andy Geiger, the Stanford athletic director at the time, said the last-second loss to Cal on a controversial kickoff return cost Elway the Heisman.
Elway laughs about it now.
Elway was a two-time Pac-10 Conference Player of the Year and a consensus All-American. In 30 of his 42 college games, he threw for 200 yards or more.
In 1983, Elway was the No. 1 pick of the NFL Draft by the Baltimore Colts, who promptly traded him to Denver. He led the Broncos to five Super Bowls, winning his last two and earned MVP honors in 1999. Tough and instinctive, Elway was the king of comebacks and used his uncanny scrambling ability to keep plays alive and demoralize opponents.
He orchestrated 35 fourth-quarter comebacks and 46 game-winning drives.
During his 148 career victories, Elway ran 774 times for 3,417 yards. He was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2004.
Now 53, Elway is executive vice-president of football operations for the Denver Broncos.
On Thursday night, he will return to Stanford Stadium for the sixth-ranked Cardinal's nationally-televised showdown against second-ranked Oregon. At halftime, Elway’s No. 7 jersey will be retired, as he joins No. 1 Ernie Nevers and No. 16 Jim Plunkett as the only players in program history accorded the distinction.
“It is a tremendous honor and I am truly humbled by Stanford retiring my number,” he told GoStanford.com Wednesday. “To be included in the small fraternity of retired numbers with two legends of the game like Ernie Nevers and Jim Plunkett, makes it that much more special.”
Elway, who earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and was a member of the Delta Tau Delta Fraternity, said beating top-ranked Washington 30-0 in 1982 ranks as his favorite football accomplishment on The Farm.
“But my best memories come from all the great friends I made during my days at Stanford,” he said.
As part of the halftime celebration, Stanford will receive its 19th-consecutive Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup for having the most successful men’s and women’s athletic teams in 2012-13.