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VALLEY WILL MISS ELWAY : FORMER GRANADA HILLS STAR GOING OUT ON TOP.

Byline: KAREN CROUSE

They say bad news comes in threes. So there was no surprise, just sadness, when the word leaked out that John Elway plans to follow Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky into retirement.

We have been bracing ourselves for Elway's farewell since the blustery January day when the former Granada Hills High product broke into a victory lap after guiding the Denver Broncos to a second straight Super Bowl, his sentimental jog around Mile High Stadium revealing his hand, as it were.

What a way to go out; with 173 passing yards in a 23-10 win over the New York Jets in the AFC Championship game before a home crowd that loved him to tears and with an MVP performance two weeks later in a 34-19 victory over Atlanta in Super Bowl XXXIII at Miami.

Elway leaves with 51,475 passing yards and 300 touchdowns. Los Angeles may field a Super Bowl champion of its own - as opposed to simply helping to school the MVP of one - before anyone approaches Elway's tally of 47 fourth-quarter comebacks.

His reputation as a clutch performer is intact and so, to the end, was his zeal for his sport. Like Jordan and Gretzky, it was the process Elway loved and not just the prizes. To the very end, he'd sooner lose a game than miss a practice. He was one superstar who never misplaced his helmet, his shoes and socks, his priorities or his passion.

There's a story we never tire of re-telling of Elway, his body sore and battered, walking stiffly out of the locker room at Mile High Stadium after a win over Seattle. Heading toward the exit, he spotted 15 kids playing a game of toss on the darkened field and spontaneously joined them.

He ached to play, though certainly not for all the attention it brought him. It was the game Elway loved, not the accompanying fame, though once resigned to the latter he handled himself with untold grace.

There are a handful of quarterbacks entering the NFL as Elway leaves it. Like hockey's No. 99 leaving in `99, there's a certain symmetry to Elway's departure; the best of the 1983 quarterback crop (he was the winningest member of a class that included Dan Marino and Jim Kelly) going as the most heralded class of quarterbacks since then arrives. Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith, Cade McNown and Daunte Culpepper have their collective work cut out for them if they are to clear the bar that Elway and Co. raised to a ridiculous height, really.

But it's not just Elway's numbers that will be hard to surpass. The way he carried himself off the field was just as exceptional. As far as football took him, Elway managed never to lose sight of his roots. He remained grounded even as his celebrity took off.

He donated his time and money to Granada Hills High, kept up the friendships he forged in high school and remained ever-mindful of all the people who had helped him along the way.

Gretzky and Jordan were much the same way. Indeed, in the slot machine of professional sports, Elway, Gretzky and Jordan were three cherries in a row. They were that all-too-rare combination of talent and unpretentiousness, their larger-than-life image on the athletic field giving way to an almost bashfulness off it.

They wore their celebrity with a certain dignity that seems sadly missing among so many of today's rising sports stars.

Elway caused a furor in 1983 when he signed a rookie contract that made him the highest-paid player in the league, at $1 million per year. It was years before the good fans of Denver deigned to admit that maybe he damn well deserved it. Tim Couch, this year's No. 1 draft pick, wrangled a $12.2 million signing bonus and all of Cleveland rejoiced.

The money to be made in professional sports is so mind-boggling nowadays, it has turned mere mortals into demigods and their support systems into disciples who mainly worship the almighty dollar.

Alas, the adoration of star athletes takes root early. It goes well beyond all the column inches devoted to their exploits in the local newspaper.

Among the most disturbing things we read in the aftermath of last week's Columbine High shooting tragedy in Littleton, a suburb of the city that Elway largely built, was the pronouncement of one former member of the `Trenchcoat Mafia' - the same clique to which the two alleged shooters belonged - that the athletes at the school, a sports powerhouse, openly defied authority.

If athletes were targeted as victims, well, frankly, some students weren't surprised. That athletes commanded special treatment was driven home to some of their nonplaying peers last year when five athletes at the school reportedly were arrested on felony burglary charges that were later reduced, in all but one of the cases, to misdemeanors.

``A lot of us were outraged,'' the student was quoted as saying. ``It comes down to the same belief at a lot of schools: The jocks could get away with anything.''

If true, it wouldn't be the only example of a high school jock culture gone horribly astray, just the latest. Not long ago author Bernard Lefkowitz painted a chilling picture of perverse entitlement in ``Our Guys, The Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb.''

It all seems so far removed from the days we fondly remember, when standout athletes were a source of pride in their community, not fear. They were the self-starters and the overachievers and the ones most likely to help carry our groceries outside to our car.

If anyone in the San Fernando Valley has a disparaging word to say about Elway, we haven't heard it. For three glorious years in the 1970s and for 16 years in the pros, he embodied a bedroom community's dreams and ideals. He was our fair-haired boy, our adopted son and he remained one of us through rich, richer and richest.

Somewhere there's a kid with a cannon for an arm who says he wants to be just like John Elway when he grows up. All we can hope is that he means that in every way.
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Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 25, 1999
Words:1035
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