It has been nearly twenty-five years since John Elway led the Denver Broncos to glory in Super Bowl XXXIII. They bested a talented Atlanta Falcons team. The Broncos ran it straight back following their victory the previous year against the Green Bay Packers. For Elway, that jubilant night at Candlestick Park would be the last time he would step onto an NFL field as an active player.
John Elway, so nearly, the nearly man
Elway entered the NFL under a cloud of controversy, and it was an explosive start to one of the greatest careers in league history. But his story is a complicated one, with triumph and failure in equal measure. Elway did what very few players have done before. He re-wrote his own history.
After fourteen years in the league, many had already written Elway's career eulogy. With three Super Bowl appearances under his belt and a string of accolades, he was headed to Canton. But he would carry a heavy weight upon his broad shoulders, one that he could never drop. He was the nearly man.
Those three NFL Championship games all ended in defeat. Elway could never win the big one. The former number one pick and one of the greatest quarterback talents of a generation had fallen just short.
As he entered the twilight of his career, most had given up hope on Elway securing that elusive ring. Three Super Bowl appearances in four years were followed by just one playoff victory in the next seven seasons. Many believed his chances were gone.
That was until the 1997 season. Despite reputuring the bicep in his throwing arm just seventeen days before the season, Elway started in Week 1. The Broncos would go on to claim an unlikely victory in Super Bowl XXXII. They retained their title the next year. Elway was no longer the nearly man, he was the man who went out on top.
The HOF quartet who helped the Broncos retain their crown
Four members of the Denver Broncos team that triumphed at Super Bowl XXXIII are currently enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame. Alongside Elway are tight end Shannon Sharpe, running back Terrell Davis and safety Steve Atwater.
If Broncos fans had to choose the most important player during those golden years of the late-90s, a large percentage would opt for Terrell Davis. His story is both tragic and truly inspiring.
As a child, Davis was abused, beaten and even shot at by his drug-addicted, alcoholic father.
He was drafted in the sixth-round of the 1995 Draft and dismissed as merely a camp body. In the second preseason game, Davis was given the opportunity to take some snaps on special teams. He subsequently delivered one of the most memorable plays in NFL history and never looked back. By the time Week 1 arrived, Davis was the Broncos' starting back.
From 1996 to 1998, Davis's operated at a level that few have achieved in the history of the game. In that three-season spell, Davis rushed for 6,436 yards with 65 total touchdowns, while also recording just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. His 157 yards and three touchdown performance saw him named Super Bowl XXXII MVP, and he followed that up with the regular season MVP in 1998.
Young NFL fans today will recognize Shannon Sharpe for his popular sports debate show, Undisputed, which he co-hosts with Skip Bayless. However, Sharpe was a vital cog in the powerful Denver offense which doubled up in SB XXXII and XXXIII.
Sharpe's quick wit and trash talk were on full display throughout his career. He gave opposition defenses a taste of what viewers could expect in later years. Sharpe was a favorite target for Elway, especially in red zone situations as they combined for over 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns over those two championship seasons.
The final member of the Broncos' famous four is safety Steve Atwater. An eight-time Pro Bowler, Atwater was getting toward the end of his career by 1998. When Denver faced the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, Atwater was relegated to playing mostly in third down situations.
However, NFL analysts believe that one of Atwater's greatest games occurred the previous year at Super Bowl XXXII. Atwater recorded six solo tackles, one sack, two passes defensed and a forced fumble, with many of his plays coming at crucial times as the Broncos edged past the Packers.
Super Bowl XXXIII was a watershed moment for the Broncos and their Hall of Fame quartet. Elway retired in the immediate aftermath, and Atwater left for the Jets. Davis would never regain the incredible level he attained over that glorious three-year period, and Sharpe would end up in Baltimore by 2000.
Meanwhile, Denver entered a rebuilding phase and would have to wait seventeen years to get their hands on the Vince Lombardi trophy again. But for those two phenomenal seasons, they were untouchable.