The Story of John Elway … the Outfielder

August 4, 2011— I am writing this post from Denver, Colorado, where I have been for the last days, and where I conducted one of the best interviews of my life.

The interview took place with a former Yankees minor leaguer, who played professional baseball for one season. Actually, to be more accurate, he played for six weeks in the Single-A New York-Penn League.

You’re probably wondering why I believe this interview was so special.

Well, the former minor leaguer’s name is John Elway. The same John Elway who played quarterback for the Denver Broncos for 16 seasons, throwing for more than 50,000 yards and for 300 touchdown passes. The same John Elway who took the Broncos to five Super Bowls, and who won the last two – in his final two seasons. The same John Elway who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004.

The same John Elway who is regarded as one of the single greatest football players in the history of the game.

While die-hard Yankees fans know may know that Elway played rightfield for the Oneonta Yankees in 1982, I believe that I am in the process of writing the most thorough story about Elway’s time in the Yankees organization.

This feature, which will appear in the September issue of Yankees Magazine, will include all of the background information on what went into Elway’s decision to sign a reported $140,000 contract to play for the Yankees. It will include a description of just how much Yankees late owner George Steinbrenner wanted Elway to wear the pinstripes, and it will include quotes from Elway’s Oneonta teammates and the scout who watched Elway play at Stanford University.

But what I believe will separate this story from any others which were written on this subject is Elway’s words. I spoke to Elway for a half hour in his office at the Denver Broncos facility. Elway, who is in his first season as the Broncos executive vice president of football operations, spoke candidly about how his success in Oneonta nearly swayed him toward baseball.

“Finishing the season the way I did gave me the confidence that I could play baseball at a high level,” said Elway, who after starting 1-for-22, completed the season with a  .318 batting average. “Baseball became a viable option for me that summer. I enjoyed playing baseball everyday. I left there thinking, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but this is something I would definitely be happy doing for a long time.”

Elway, who played signed with the Yankees in 1981 and played for Oneonta in between his junior and senior years of at Stanford University, was drafted by the NFL’s Baltimore Colts, a team he stated he would not play for. The Colts ultimately traded Elway to Broncos, and that compelled the quarterback to go in the direction of the gridiron

But for one summer, he was a Yankee, and he enjoyed every minute of it.

“I lived in a fraternity house with 11 other guys,” Elway said. “I think the rent was $10 each for us. I had not spent that much time on the east coast, so that was a lot of fun. I enjoyed traveling on the buses, and we went to a local pizza parlor for dinner and a few beers after every game, and that was always a great time. We didn’t have cars, so we walked to the park everyday, walked to the pizza parlor after the game and walked home after that.

“They had egg and water balloon tosses before a lot of the games, and that was part of being a minor league baseball player,” Elway continued. “It was a great experience for me.”

Near the end of the interview, I asked Elway if he ever asks himself what his life would have been like had he chosen baseball over football.

“I think about that all of the time,” Elway said. Even though my football career turned out the way it did, to be dead honest with you, if there is one thing I would have liked to have done, it would have been to be a Yankee. I look at the legacy that Mr. Steinbrenner has left there, which is one in which they do everything they can to win baseball games and championships, and I am in awe. I really don’t think about what it would have been like to play baseball. I think about what it would have been like to have played for the Yankees.

“But even thought I ended up playing professional football, I am still proud to have been part of the Yankees organization,” Elway concluded.

The collection of photographs in this story are spectacular, especially the open spread image (below), which Yankees team photographer James Petrozzello took moments after my interview with Elway.

The background of the photo features memorabilia that represents the highlights of Elway’s career, including photos of his two Super Bowl wins and a photo of him with fellow 1983 rookie quarterbacks (who are also in the Pro Football Hall of Fame) Dan Marino and Jim Kelly. But what I believe to be the most special part of the environment is the football that Elway has his hand on.

Petrozzello noticed the football sitting on a shelf, where it would not have been seen in the photo, and he asked Elway if he could place it in a mail container on the desk. Elway gladly approved, and as a result, the legendary quarterback is holding a football that bears the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s logo.

The symbolism I find in the football is that it is the piece of memorabilia that is most prominent in the photo, and it represents the greatest of Elway’s gridiron accomplishments.

Lastly, thank you to John Elway for so much time, candor and kindness. He is as great a person as he was a quarterback. And to Denver Broncos vice president of corporate communications Jim Saccomano and executive director of media relations Patrick Smyth, many thanks for the tremendous efforts on this project. They both went above and beyond to make this story happen, and they represent everything that is good about our business.

–Alfred Santasiere III

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