STANFORD — John Elway never planned to wear the number Stanford will honor Thursday night when the fifth-ranked Cardinal plays host to No. 2 Oregon.
He picked it only to appease those teammates who were upset that Elway had been promised No. 11, the jersey worn by a veteran defensive back.
“I was not going to take the number off anybody's back, that's for darn sure,” Elway said Monday. “As much as I wanted No. 11, it was an easy change for me.”
Three decades later, Elway and his now-famous No. 7 joins No. 1 Ernie Nevers and No. 16 Jim Plunkett as the school's only players to have their jerseys retired.
When having to choose a new jersey, quarterbacks coach Jim Fassel told the freshman, “The number doesn't make the guy, the guy makes the number.”
The kid who threw the ball so hard in practice it would leave a mark on receivers' chests proved Fassel right.
Despite never playing in a bowl game, the quarterback with the toothy grin threw for 9,349 yards and 77 touchdowns at Stanford from 1979-82. He still holds the school's single-game record of six touchdown passes against Oregon State in 1980.
Elway, 53, went on to win two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos and now is executive vice president of the team. He has been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the College Sports Hall of Fame. But it has taken his school eons to retire the jersey.
“It's unbelievably long overdue,” coach David Shaw said. “This is all for John. He's been everything a Stanford man should be.”
Junior receiver Ty Montgomery and sophomore defensive end Aziz Shittu will finish the season wearing No. 7, the jersey Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wears in honor of Elway.
No one put their stamp on it, though, like the two-time Pac-10 player of the year and 1982 All-American.
“The greatest Stanford football player I ever saw was Darrin Nelson as far as sheer ability,” said Jim Rutter, the school's athletics archivist. “But the guy that raised the hair on my arm was John Elway. My breathing would change when he dropped back” to pass.
Such as one play in a 34-9 defeat to USC in 1980. The fourth-ranked Trojans held a 12-0 lead as Stanford had a first-and-10 from the USC 46-yard line.
Elway, then a 6-foot-3, 205-pound sophomore, took the snap only to see the feared Trojan rushers upon him. He scrambled out of the pocket, eventually hurling the ball 60 yards past future 49ers star Ronnie Lott and into the chest of receiver Ken Margerum for Stanford's lone touchdown.
When John scrambled all rules were off,” said Nelson, now a UC Irvine administrator. “When he did that I had carte blanche to run deep. No matter where I was, he could get the ball there.”
The Cardinal was 20-23-1 in the Elway era although the coaching staffs boasted five guys who would lead NFL teams. The only winning season came in 1980 when Stanford finished 6-5 the first year he started.
But Elway's competitive spirit soared on Saturdays. A week after having four passes intercepted at Boston College in 1980, Elway rebounded at Norman, Okla., against the then-No. 4 Sooners. The quarterback completed 20 of 34 passes for 237 yards and three touchdowns in a downpour.
“It was the football version of “Caddyshack,' ” said John Macaulay, Elway's center that day. “Everything clicked.”
That was not always the case. Elway suffered an ankle sprain in a season-opening defeat at Purdue in 1981. Then the school faced San Jose State, coached by John's father, Jack Elway.
Dad didn't want son to play. Eventually a team physician cleared the immobile quarterback, who was intercepted five times and sacked seven more in a 28-6 defeat. Afterward, Jack Elway complained to Fassel, the offensive coordinator, that his son shouldn't have played.
“I know,” Fassel said. “But Jack, you didn't have to blitz him every damn down.”
Football so dominated the landscape it's easy to forget Elway also was an exceptional left-handed power hitter for the Cardinal baseball team. He hit .349 and drove in 50 runs in 49 games as a sophomore before signing a $140,000 contract with the New York Yankees.
“We had the ability to beat a lot of good football teams, but then again we had the ability to lose to a lot of teams we should have beaten,” Elway said of his memories.
The moment often associated with Elway and Stanford is perhaps the most bitter one: the 1982 Big Game.
The quarterback had rallied the Cardinal with a drive that included a 29-yard completion on a fourth-and-17 on its own 13-yard line. Stanford kicked a game-leading field goal with four seconds left.
Then came the infamous Play that derailed Stanford's bowl dreams.
Elway's Delta fraternity brothers were in the middle of it. Assuming Stanford had won, they stormed the field to congratulate the quarterback they called “Woody.”
“We're ahead of the trombone guy,” recalled Eric Hardgrave, 1983 Pac-10 baseball player of the year. “Then Kevin Moen is running by us.”
Moen ran through the Stanford band on the crazy kickoff return to score the touchdown for Cal's 25-20 victory.
The Play ended Elway's college career but not his legacy.
“The highs and lows were the things I remember the most,” he said.