Elway’s arrival

The Broncos would return to the playoffs in 1983, rebounding from 1982’s gloomy strike-shortened season to finish 9-7.

But the defining moments of the year happened months before the regular-season opener — with what remains the biggest trade in franchise history and the arrival of the player who would most define the Broncos for decades to come.

That player, of course, was John Elway.

Even after the Broncos drafted Northwestern offensive tackle Chris Hinton with the No. 4 overall selection, the wheels turned. The Baltimore Colts had selected Elway with the No. 1 overall pick, and he had reiterated his desire to not play there and exercise his option to play baseball with the New York Yankees, who picked him in the first round of the 1979 Major League Baseball draft.

The baseball threat was a serious one. Elway had already recorded an outstanding season for the Oneonta (New York) Yankees in the short-season A-level New York-Penn League, batting .318 with a .896 OPS in 1982. He was patient at the plate, took his share of walks, could hit for power, and had speed to spare. It was reasonable to expect that if Elway had played baseball, he would have been in the major leagues by 1985 and could have been primed for a lengthy, stellar career.

But it’s likely he never would have been the transformative star he could be in football.

“If nothing happened within a week, I was going to sign with the Yankees,” Elway said just after his situation had been settled. “It’s not that I thought, ‘God, not the Yankees,’ but my preference was to play professional football.”

And that knowledge kept teams calling the Colts. The negotiations became serious between them and the Broncos, but were not conducted by the general managers or coaches. Instead, Broncos owner Edgar Kaiser dealt with Colts owner Robert Irsay, an impetuous owner who had habitually threatened to move his team — and in 1984, finally did.

Colts general manager Ernie Accorsi was willing to wait for what he felt was a fair deal for a franchise quarterback. Irsay didn’t. He agreed to send Elway to Denver in exchange for Hinton, Herrmann, and the Broncos’ first-round pick in the 1984 NFL Draft.

The news broke during the evening of May 2, 1983. A short pass away from Mile High Stadium sat McNichols Sports Arena, where the Denver Nuggets were trying to salvage Game 4 of their conference semifinal series with the San Antonio Spurs after falling behind three games to none. As the Nuggets took a 22-point halftime lead, the Broncos made the biggest trade in franchise history, and Elway signed his contract.

Broncos coach Dan Reeves, who had been sitting courtside, dashed for the exit.

At that point, the media caught on, and word spread. Press row became a ghost town. Television reporters, radio commentators and newspaper columnists grabbed their notes and gear, shoved it in briefcases and dashed to the press conference. It was held at 10:30 p.m. — barely on time to make the next day’s morning papers in Denver, and too late to beat the deadlines in the Eastern and Central time zones.

But there was no use in holding back. If Elway had been unveiled to Denver media at 3:30 a.m., the room would have still been packed and television stations would have gone back on the air — this was 1983, remember, and many still signed off for the night — to cover it.

Kaiser had altered the destiny of the franchise forever. No one knew that more than Reeves, who saw first-hand in Dallas with Roger Staubach how an athletic, multi-dimensional quarterback could galvanize the offense — and the entire team.

“This is the closest I’ve ever been to heaven,” Reeves said as Elway was introduced. “It’s my job now not to mess up.”

There were, of course, complications. Long-time Broncos antagonist Al Davis alleged that the NFL had blocked the attempts of his Los Angeles Raiders to trade for Elway. Hinton, who was initially upset by the deal, suggested through his lawyer that he would re-consider an earlier contract offer from the Chicago Blitz of the upstart USFL, but ultimately warmed to being a Colt and became one of their most beloved players in that era.

And Elway was not guaranteed anything regarding his role for the 1983 season. As the trade was announced, Reeves maintained that Steve DeBerg was still the No. 1 quarterback, and Elway would have to beat him out. DeBerg had experienced this before, in 1979 when San Francisco drafted Joe Montana. He would experience it again in 1985 and 1987, when the Buccaneers replaced him with Steve Young, and then Vinny Testaverde.

When Week 1 arrived on Sept. 4, Elway was the starter. DeBerg would start six games in 1983. But by December, Elway was pulling off the kind of comeback that would define his career, leading the Broncos back from a 19-0 deficit to stun Baltimore 21-19 in Week 15.

It clinched the Broncos’ fourth playoff appearance. And it announced in the boldest terms possible that the Elway Era was off and running.

1983 Schedule

Date Opponent Score
9/4 at Pittsburgh Steelers 14-10
9/11 at Baltimore Colts 17-10
9/18 Philadelphia Eagles 10-13
9/25 Los Angeles Raiders 7-22
10/2 at Chicago Bears 14-31
10/9 at houston oilers 26-14
10/16 Cincinnati Bengals 24-17
10/23 san diego chargers 14-6
10/30 kansas city chiefs 27-24
11/6 at Seattle Seahawks 19-27
11/13 at Los Angeles raiders 20-22
11/20 Seattle Seahawks 38-27
11/27 at san diego chargers 7-31
12/4 cleveland browns 27-6
12/11 baltimore colts 21-19
12/18 at kansas city chiefs 17-48
12/24 at Seattle Seahawks (AFC Wild card) 7-31

1983 offense

Pos Player Starts
qb steve deberg 5
qb john elway 10
qb gary kubiak 1
rb rick parros 5
rb nathan poole 10
rb dave preston 3
rb sammy winder 13
wr clint sampson 2
wr rick upchurch 11
wr steve watson 16
te ron egloff 10
te john sawyer 4
te jim wright 6
c billy bryan 16
t ken lanier 16
t dave studdard 16
g keith bishop 16
g mark cooper 2
g paul howard 14

Jan. 29, 1984: Randy Gradishar makes his seventh Pro Bowl appearance. Louis Wright also is named to the AFC Pro Bowl team but is unable to play because of a fractured finger.

1983 defense

Pos Player Starts
de walt bowyer 3
de barney chavous 13
de rulon jones 12
de brison manor 4
nt rubin carter 15
nt don latimer 3
lb steve busick 15
lb rick dennison 1
lb randy gradishar 16
lb tom jackson 15
lb jim ryan 12
lb bob swenson 2
lb ken woodard 1
cb mike harden 15
cb steve wilson 3
cb louis wright 16
s steve foley 13
s roger jackson 3
s dennis smith 13
s steve trimble 1

Record: 9-7

Third place, AFC west