NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of Sports Collectors Digest.
John Elway burst onto the sports scene as a dynamic field general for Stanford University in 1979. The uber-talented, multi-sport athlete starred on the gridiron and on the baseball diamond for the Cardinal.
The strong-armed outfielder was drafted in the second round of the 1981 draft by the New York Yankees. He even spent some time in the minor leagues playing short-season ball for the Oneonta Yankees. He showed such promise that Yankees owner George Steinbrenner planned to add him to the big league squad by 1985.
The Yankee pinstripes were not meant to be, however, as Elway fulfilled his destiny and became one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Elway spent his entire 16-year NFL career playing for the Denver Broncos and at the time of his retirement was the winningest quarterback and second-most prolific passer in NFL history. He is a two-time Super Bowl Champion, a Super Bowl MVP and the 1987 NFL MVP.
The king of the fourth-quarter comeback, Elway was a winner, plain and simple. After suffering three heartbreaking Super Bowl losses, he ended his career on a high note, capturing back-to-back Lombardi trophies by winning Super Bowls XXII and XXXIII, endearing him to fans and solidifying his legacy even further.
Elway was enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton in 2004.
In this exclusive interview with SCD contributor Tony Reid, Elway talks about his admiration for a fellow all-time great quarterback, pride in his signature and his collection of game-used items from his storied career.
As a multi-sport athlete from Granada Hills to Stanford to the professional level, you have signed your name countless times for fans over the years. When was the very first time you were asked for your autograph?
If I had a dollar for every autograph I've ever signed ... well, let's just say that I could probably retire. In all seriousness, for a long time in the early part of my career, I never understood the fascination with autographs. I was always uncomfortable with it because I would rather have talked to a person who I looked up to than have a piece of paper with their name. But over time, I understood it more. The first time someone asked me was in high school. I think it was after an article came out about me in a magazine.
What is your most memorable fan interaction over the course of your playing days?
Oh, gosh. There are so many. When pregnant women ask me to sign their bellies, that's always a little uncomfortable. People have tattoos of me on their body and people have me sign parts of their body and then say they won't ever bathe again. That's always a little disturbing. I feel badly for their friends and family.
As a Hall of Famer and one of the all-time greats, your autograph is in high demand. How much fan mail and how many requests do you receive now?
My longtime assistant, Kathy Hatch, is probably the best person to answer that question. I just know that we still have plenty of requests to deal with every week.
You have one of the nicest signatures in sports. How much pride do you take in your signature?
Thank you. I've been told that I have a good signature. I can always tell when I've been signing too many for too long, because my signature doesn't look good to me either. That's when I know it's time to stop. So, I do take pride in it.
As a young athlete, what players inspired you?
Roger Staubach of the Dallas Cowboys is who I always wanted to be when I was in the backyard or playing ball with my buddies. I loved that he could run and was in the Navy, too. He was always a gentleman.
Who inspired you further once you became a pro and a great in your own right?
Actually, probably still Roger. He was so successful in business and always carried himself with such professionalism and dignity. I really liked that.
Your iconic rookie card appeared in the classic 1984 Topps set. How special was it the first time you saw yourself on a trading card? How great was it to see yourself on a baseball card (1982 Oneonta Yankees) for the first time, too?
I think the Yankee card was the most memorable because I grew up with baseball cards. Football cards weren't as prevalent to me. So, to see myself in my Stanford uniform with a Yankee reference was pretty cool at that time.
Did you manage to hold on to cards of yourself over the years? Do you have a favorite card or piece of memorabilia that was produced of you during your career?
Yes, the card companies were always good about sending me my cards, and some entire collections. So, I do have a lot in my storage unit. My favorite piece would have to be my Super Bowl jerseys and rings and my Hall of Fame ring and jacket.
Did you collect sports cards as a kid? If so, who or what did you collect?
I really didn't. I was just too busy playing games myself and going to my dad's games. Besides, I never had any extra money.
Your accolades and accomplishments are seemingly endless. As a Pro Football Hall of Famer, two-time Super Bowl champion, a Super Bowl MVP and 1987 NFL MVP, do you have a room or area where you have memorabilia and awards displayed?
I do have an office in my home that has all of my game balls displayed. There's another area in my home that has some of the latter accomplishments.
Is there an item from your career that you don’t have that you wished you had held onto?
Not really. I don't get too nostalgic about stuff. I just wish I had a better memory to recall some of the events. But, maybe my old glove, or the bat from my first hit as a Yankee.
Jersey swapping is a big tradition in professional sports now. If you could go back in time and swap jerseys with one player, who would it be and why?
Well, of course there would be Roger Staubach and some of the all-time great quarterbacks, like Otto Graham and Johnny Unitas would be on the list, too.
— Tony Reid has written about sports collectibles for such publications as Beckett and Sports Collectors Daily. He works full-time at a sports card shop in Central Pennsylvania and collects RCs in baseball, basketball and football. You can reach him on social media at @reidrattlecage.