By Sofia Scekic
Six years of work and hundreds of interviews later, the work of Jason Cole ’84 culminates in “Elway: A Relentless Life,” the first detailed biography of John Elway ’83. The book, set to be released on Sept. 15, documents the life of one of the most prolific quarterbacks to play for the Cardinal and in the NFL. Elway, a two-sport athlete, was also drafted in the second round of the 1982 MLB draft by the New York Yankees and played one summer season with the Oneonta Yankees, one of New York’s Minor League affiliate teams.
Elway led the Denver Broncos to two Super Bowl titles in 16 years and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004. In 2011 Elway started in the Broncos’ front office, where he currently serves as General Manager and President of Football Operations. He won his third Lombardi Trophy as a Bronco in 2016, when Peyton Manning led the team to victory in Super Bowl 50.
Cole’s interest in Elway first peaked during their overlapping time as Stanford students. Cole joined The Daily as a junior at Stanford after writing for his high school paper, but the former sports editor did not write about the star quarterback on the Farm because he was not one of The Daily’s football writers.
After graduating from Stanford with a communication degree, Cole worked for the Peninsula Times Tribune, a now-defunct newspaper in downtown Palo Alto, for eight years. While there, he uncovered the false identity of James Hogue, a man in his mid-20s who pretended to be 18 to enroll at Palo Alto High School and eventually Princeton University. Now, Cole attributes his passion for reporting to that story.
“That story is when I truly fell in love with the art of being a reporter,” Cole said. “At The Daily, I fell in love with the idea that this could be my career, and the James Hogue story cemented the whole thing a few years later in 1986.”
Increased competition from nearby newspapers, however, drove the paper to shut down in 1993, and Cole moved to Florida, where he covered the Miami Dolphins for various newspapers over 15 years. After working for Yahoo Sports for seven years starting in 2006, Cole moved to Bleacher Report, where he continued to write about football.
As a writer for Yahoo Sports, he and fellow journalist Charles Robinson spent five years investigating Reggie Bush and USC, eventually discovering that Bush had broken multiple NCAA rules and accepted over $300,000 in cash and gifts as a player at USC. Bush later relinquished his 2005 Heisman Trophy, and USC forfeited its 2004 National Championship. Cole called the Bush story a “crowning achievement” in his journalism career.
He is currently a freelance novelist, authoring and co-authoring six other books to date.
Outside of writing, Cole is a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a position that he has held since 2012. Selectors nominate and vote yearly for players’ inductions into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
‘A passion project’
Like Cole, Elway’s career also took off on the Farm, where he cemented himself as an all-time collegiate great with two Pac-10 Player of the Year honors in 1980 and 1982, a unanimous All-American selection in 1982 and a second-place finish in Heisman Trophy voting in 1982.
As a spectator, Cole was mesmerized by Elway’s skill from the first time he saw him play.
“Elway is that person that you marvel at because he is a creature from another planet who can do things athletically that you know other mortals can’t,” Cole said.
“This is definitely a passion project,” he said of his interest in publishing the biography. “This is partly me as an 18-year-old sitting in the Stanford stadium and going, ‘Holy crap, what did I just see?’ That’s still there, and I’m happy that it’s still there. And that made this fun, and it made it a challenge. And it’s something that I wanted to do really bad.”
Cole started working on the book in 2014 and, by its completion, had spent more than 100 hours interviewing Elway alone. He also spent substantial amounts of time talking to Jack and Janet, Elway’s father and mother, and countless other coaches and football personnel, family members and friends of Elway.
Elway explained to Cole that Jack was the most influential figure in his life — his name is the title of the biography’s opening chapter.
An interesting point in Jack and John’s relationship, which Cole describes in depth throughout the book, was that Jack, a widely respected football mind and the San Jose State University football coach at the time, never coached his son in football or baseball.
“This was about peeling back layers to understand people,” Cole said. “What made [John Elway] was his father, who had this incredible love of sports, this incredible understanding intuitively about how to raise children and to make them passionate about the things that they did.”
“Elway: A Relentless Life” includes many anecdotes about Elway and his friends at Stanford, and Cole said one of his favorite parts of the writing process was reaching out to others who were involved in those moments. One chapter, titled “Kill or Be Killed,” details Elway’s decision to pledge to Delta Tau Delta fraternity, and shows some of the more amusing moments during that time.
One of the funnier moments from Elway’s time as a Delt featured former University president Donald Kennedy — so Cole reached out to the Kennedy early in the writing process asking about his recollection of the incident.
“That was really fun, getting those emails from Don Kennedy,” Cole said. “I did not expect that when I reached out to him, but he got back to me within a couple of days.”
Kennedy passed away in April 2020 from COVID-19 complications.
One of the more difficult parts of the writing process, Cole said, was making sure that he did not cover up the difficult parts of Elway’s character because of his admiration and reverence for the Hall of Famer.
“He’s not the easiest guy in the world to get along with — he’s super competitive and super opinionated,” Cole said. “He’s super driven. People who are like that are not always easy to get along with. He was hell-bent on winning, but I’m willing to write that part [of Elway].”
Mental toughness and physical skills: a unique combo
Nearly everything about Elway impressed Cole, from his physical skills to his mental toughness to his knowledge of the game. But two stories serve as a testament to his prowess that stand out above the rest to Cole.
In June 1979, Elway played in the Los Angeles baseball championship on the Granada Hills High School team as they faced off against Darryl Strawberry’s Crenshaw High School team. Strawberry, a pitcher, went on to become the number-one pick in the 1980 baseball draft and played for the New York Mets and three other teams in his 17-year MLB career. Elway, an outfielder, was the star of Granada Hill’s team, which, according to Cole, was not very good, while Crenshaw was considered a powerhouse team with Strawberry on the mound.
Midway through the game, with Granada Hills losing and looking for something to spark the team, the coach called on Elway to pitch, even though Elway hadn’t pitched since early in the season.
“All of a sudden, [Elway’s] coach said, ‘No, it’s you — you’re going to do it because you’re that tough,’” Cole recalled.
Granada Hills ended up upsetting Crenshaw for the city baseball championship, which Cole attributes to Elway’s mental toughness and his physical abilities.
His mental fortitude helped him throughout his football career — notably, nearly 20 years later in Super Bowl XXXII, when the Broncos faced a crucial 3rd-and-6 late in the game against the Green Bay Packers.
Elway, according to Cole, understood the defensive scheme that the Packers were in better than the coaches, allowing him to anticipate the Packers defensive play and plan for how to gain the first down.
“[Elway] anticipated something happening there — he used his mind, not just his physical ability,” Cole said. “It wasn’t just that he could still run well enough, it wasn’t that he could just throw well enough — it was that he understood the situation.”
Elway picked up the first down in what became one of the more famous moments in Super Bowl history with the “helicopter play,” and the Broncos ultimately won the game 31-24, giving Elway his first championship.
Cole said he has not seen any other quarterback in NFL history who possesses mental and physical skills to the level of Elway’s, although Andrew Luck ’12 and Patrick Mahomes are the closest.
Team identity change leads to success
Despite Elway’s wealth of talent that helped him become the number-one overall pick in the 1983 NFL draft, the Cardinal teams he was a part of never played in a bowl game. The Cardinal’s best chance came in 1982, when the team, sitting at 5-5, needed to win the Big Game against Cal to receive an invite to the Hall of Fame Classic bowl game. Cal, however, infamously pulled off “The Play,” and the Cardinal lost 25-20 in Elway’s final game at Stanford, ensuring that Elway walked out of Stanford without ever leading his team to a bowl game.
During his time on the Farm, the team constantly fluctuated between mediocre and bad. Cole said tensions between the Athletic Department and the academic side of the school resulted in periods of success for Stanford football intermingled with stretches where the team had losing records or did not appear in bowl games.
Even so, once Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw ’94 were hired as successive head coaches in 2007 and 2011, respectively, the outlook of Stanford football changed for the better, with Cole calling the culture and recent success of the team “tremendous.” Harbaugh, despite coaching Luck, shifted the identity of the team from a pass-first offense to a team that played “tough-guy football” that focused more on wearing teams down with the run game. Luck, like Elway, was chosen as the number-one overall pick, and went to the Indianapolis Colts in the 2012 draft.
“That has created the greatest era of football in Stanford history [over] the last decade-plus,” Cole said. “The totality of who we are over the last decade is tremendous. The level that we have reached, we have never reached on a consistent basis, ever, in the history of the school.”