DENVER -- It was a scene befitting a conquering hero. There were cheers, tears and the spoils of victory.
After 16 years, it really was the only way John Elway could leave Mile High Stadium -- saluting the fans as they saluted back. Holding the AFC Championship trophy high, a wide smile on his face as 75,000 supplicants paid tribute to the greatest athlete Denver has known.
"I don't think there's ever been a guy in the NFL who symbolized his town like John Elway," Shannon Sharpe said. "If you think of Denver, you don't think of skiing. You think of John Elway. It's always been John, and even if he retires, it will still always be John."
So when Elway took the microphone sand shouted to the fans, "I love you," he already knew how they felt about him.
Still, the tour around the field more than 20 minutes after the conclusion of the victory over the New York Jets was somewhat unexpected. Elway usually is more reserved than, say, Brett Favre. Although he shows his emotions on the field more than, say, Joe Montana ever did, Elway's personality never seemed to fit being the focal point of a coronation.
But that's what Sunday's celebrations felt like.
"I didn't feel comfortable, taking that lap," said Elway, expected to announce his retirement after a little more business, the Super Bowl vs. Atlanta on Jan. 31 in Miami. "But I'm glad I did it. I had a chance to see the fans and look into their eyes, to really concentrate on them. They were so happy.
"That's one of the nicest things about playing. You win a football game, and the fans are that happy. I'm glad to see that."
While Broncos fans can't be looking forward to their team without No. 7 at quarterback, they understand that, at 38, Elway is a bit old and worn for a young man's game. Sure, it's been a wonderful season for veteran quarterbacks, from Elway to Steve Young to Chris Chandler to Vinny Testaverde to Randall Cunningham to Doug Flutie. And Elway probably still has the drive to stick around.
"You never lose the fact you want to play mentally," he said. "But physically, it might not be there."
The post-game commemoration should remain more memorable than Elway's performance itself, which was ragged. He was only 13-for-34 for 173 yards, and many of his passes were far off-target.
But in the most dire of times, with the Broncos floundering early in the third quarter, down 10-0 and looking like misfits in the AFC Championship game, Elway provided the big play. His 47-yard completion to Ed McCaffrey sparked the Broncos, who scored 23 straight points to win their fifth conference crown with Elway at quarterback.
At the end, with blow-up Elway dolls and life-size posters and banners proclaiming "Thanks For The Memories, John," and "From Denver With Love," sprinkled through the stands, Elway made his little tour, the Lamar Hunt Trophy held high, flocks of cameramen following, their flashbulbs illuminating the Mile High night.
"That made me feel great," said Broncos fan Ron Dubosar. "I love the guy. Everybody loves the guy. Everybody would love to have him back. But if he's got to go, he's got to go."
Most of the Broncos believe it was Elway's final home game. If they didn't before the post-game partying, they almost certainly do now.
And they are proud that the 16 years of heroics ended the way it did.
"If this is his last game, how do you send John Elway out a loser?" asked Sharpe. " We knew it couldn't end that way.
"He came back this season for another shot at the Super Bowl, and that's where he's going. That should be the ending."
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