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The Drive: Recreated
January 11, 1987. AFC Championship game. Five minutes to go. Down 20-13. Ball on their own two yard line. A rainy day. Could it get any worse? John Elway and the Denver Broncos were in no man’s land. The Cleveland fans were on their feet, shouting on the top of their lungs. The Broncos were only 98 yards away from the score but it might as well have been 200 with the momentum going in the Brown’s favor. John Elway, the star quarterback for the Broncos, trotted out onto the field while thinking to himself, great quarterbacks make great plays in great games. That's what it's all about, isn't it?
With the first snap, Elway dropped back into his own endzone with the dawg pound screaming in his ears. He faked the handoff and checked his left. Right in front of him, Broncos’ halfback, Sammy Winder was open. With a swift of an arm, Elway’s pass connected with Winder’s hands. Winder made the over the shoulder catch and turned downfield. Wobbling a little, Sammy got tackled at the seven yard line by a Brown player. That’s it; one play at a time. 2nd & 5 at the Denver seven yard line. Elway took the snap and turned around to pitch the football perfectly to his running back. Winder ran to his right and tried to get to the outside of the blockers before cutting inside where he was met by two Cleveland players. He managed to gain 3 yards on the play. 3rd & 2 at the Denver ten yard line. Elway had been in this situation before, many times but never had he been 98 yards away. Now, it was only 90. The Broncos were in a two back formation. Elway, again, took the snap and faked the handoff to the first running back and then proceeded to slide the ball into Sammy’s gut. This time, he ran for what looked two yards straight into three defenders. Elway could hear the crunch. The zebras came on the field. Is it a first down? With the pylons in place, the ball seemed to be a first down. The Referees confirmed Elway.
1st & 10 at the twelve yard line. Elway took the snap under center and handed the ball off again. This time to the left side. Winder went between the tackle and guard and was met by one brown defender. They collided and Sammy went down for a three yard gain. Elway was running the offence so the defense had to be ready pr the pass play and run play. By doing this, He was bound to make a play action soon, and he knew it. 2nd & 7 at the 15 yard line. Elway took the snap and turned to hand the ball off once again, but this time, there was no handoff. He stuck with the ball and surveyed the field but didn’t have a lot of time. The Cleveland defensive end was maneuvering his way past Elway’s left tackle. Right when the defender broke through, Elway stepped up in the pocket to avoid the sack. He saw a sea of green ahead of him and took off. He was running down field and checked his right. A defender was coming fast so Elway decided to go to his left hoping to pick up the first down. At the 25 yard line, Elway dove forward with all his momentum, the browns defender hit him hard and the ball sprang out of his hands. Quickly, his left hand snatched the naked ball so the other team could not have it. The run was for eleven yards, resulting in another first down.
1st & 10 at the 26 yard line. Elway took the snap and turned around to hand the ball off. Again, he did not complete the handoff. He dropped back six steps and had all the time in the world to find his man. The defensive line was not doing anything against the blockers. Cutting across midfield form the right was Steve Sewell. Elway placed his pass right above a Brown and into the chest of Sewell. In the air, Sewell was hammered. He did a half-flip and landed on the Denver’s 48 yard line. Did he hold onto the ball? Yes he did. The catch was good for 22 yards. With every first down, the Broncos were gaining confidence and the crowd was getting quieter. Elway and the Broncos might actually do this.
1 & 10 at the 48 yard line. Elway took the snap and started backpedaling right away. There was no run fake this time. With the pressure coming from his back side, Elway stepped up to his left and fired a bullet towards the left sideline. Steve Watson had two defenders on him; one 5 yards in front of him and another on his back. The throw couldn’t have been better. It barely went over the first defender and then right into the chest of Watson. The pass was good for 12 yards.
TWO MINUTE WARNING. Elway could actually see his dream drive resulting in a touchdown. They were only 40 yards away and they had 2 minutes to score. The dream had become a reality.
1 & 10 at the Brown’s 40 yard line. Elway took the snap and faked the handoff, again. He turned to look at his receivers but he did not have much time. The Browns left end was around the right tackle and was coming fast behind Elway. Elway stepped up only to see two other defenders. To avoid the sack, he chucked a desperation ball towards the right sideline. Vance Johnson was streaking across the field. His man was behind him, but the safety was there. The pass overthrown towards the sideline, and the ball fell incomplete. 2nd & 10 at the Brown’s 40 yard line. 1:52 left in the ball game. Elway took the snap and started backpedaling. He glanced to his right, nobody was open. He then looked to his left, also nobody was open. He saw a defender to his left and stepped up in the pocket. Right in front of him was the huge Dave Puzzuoli from the Browns. Elway lowered his shoulder but the defender got the best of him. He was knocked back on his back at the Brown’s 48 yard line. Could this be the end? The Broncos were forced to take a timeout because the clock was still running.
3rd & 18 at the Browns 48 yard line. 1:47 left in the game. The crowd was back into the game. The famed dawg pound was yelling at the top of their lungs. The Broncos were faced with their biggest test yet. They needed 18 yards in one play or they would be forced to punt. Elway needed a big play and a little bit of luck. It was now or never. Elway was in a shotgun formation with a running back on both sides. He motioned his running back, the one on his right, and the player ran past center. At this exact second, Elway yelled, “HIKE.” The ball was snapped but it hit the receiver in the butt. The ball went wobbly and towards the ground in front of Elway. He managed to keep his eye on the ball and was able to stretch his arms for the ball. He wrapped his hands around the football and immediately started backpedaling while surveying the field. The Offensive line was holding up, giving Elway the time he needed. He spotted a receiver stopping around the first down marker and couldn’t believe his eyes; his receiver was wide open. Elway whipped the ball over two Browns defenders and it hit Mark Jackson in the chest. A Brown’s defender dove at Jackson but Mark just stepped to his right, avoiding him. Jackson was then immediately hit by a browns defender. He was being carried backwards, but because of the forward progress rule, Jackson had just made the most important catch of his career, or so he thought.
1st & 10 at the Brown’s 28 yard line. 1:19 left in the game. Elway hurried his players to the line of scrimmage. He was not going to spike the ball here; he had the momentum and he wasn’t letting it go. Elway took the snap and went back only three steps and lofted a ball towards the right sideline. The ball, intended for Steve Watson, was not catchable. Elway overthrew it again towards the sideline. There was no way on earth that Watson was going to come down with that ball. Another incomplete pass. 2 & 10 at the Brown’s 28 yard line. 1:10 left in the game. Elway was in a shotgun formation once again. He snapped the ball and looked to his right. The offensive linemen were nonexistent on the play; they let the Defensive players go straight for Elway. But the Broncos had wanted them to do just this. Elway, feeling the pressure turned to his right and dropped a little pass to Steve Sewell who had the offensive linemen in front of him to block. He turned downfield and started to run. A defender dove at him but he easily brushed him off with a stiff arm, and then, cut back inside where they was still little space. Nailed from behind, Sewell was tackled but gained about a yard more from the hit which forced him forward. The screen pass was good for 14 yards.
1st & 10 at the Cleveland 14 yard line. 0:57 left in the game. Elway took the snap under center and went back three steps. He threw a floater to the endzone. Watson was there and he jumped over the defender and caught the ball. He was in the endzone! But his feet were out of bounds. The Browns defenseman pushed him out so he wouldn’t have the chance to make the touchdown. Incomplete pass. There wasn’t that much time left and Elway wanted to score so badly. 2 & 10 at the Browns 14 yard line. 0:42 left in the game. Shotgun formation. Elway took the snap and went back a couple of steps. The Browns were bringing a heavy blitz to his right. Elway quickly realized what was happening and immediately looked to his left. In front of him was his right tackle. He yelled at him to block for him while hesitating to see where the defense was at. He then sprinted towards the sideline. Elway needed to get out of bounds to stop the clock. That was probably all that was on his mind. Elway was sprinting and passed the 10 yard line. A defender was running stride for stride with him but Elway had that one little factor that cannot be measured, heart. Elway sprinted a little faster and started to dive out of bounds at the five yard line. By now, the crowd was almost nonexistent. Where they should have been getting louder, they got quieter. Everybody in the stands could feel that dramatic momentum shift.
3rd down & 1 at the Cleveland five yard line. Elway needed a touchdown to tie the game. He needed a good play. They had been in this 3rd down situation two times before on this drive and Elway could almost smell the endzone grass. He was not going to fail this time. If he scored, he was a hero, if not, he was a choke. Elway certainly did not want to be remembered as a choke. Elway, in the shotgun formation, motioned a receiver. When the receiver got into his new position, the ball was hiked. Elway performed a seven step drop while surveying the field and spotted a man cutting into the endzone. This was it for Elway. He threw the hardest throw he had ever thrown and watched as the bullet zipped past the first defender and into the chest of Mark Jackson. Was it a catch? Elway wanted so badly for the play to be ruled a touchdown. He immediately looked at the referees and watched as their arms flew straight up. TOUCHDOWN! Elway couldn’t believe it, they had actually drove 98 yards and scored the needed touchdown. He pumped both of his fists into the air just like a hero. His teammates rushed onto the field and hugged him. They had done it. The impossible had become possible. The unimaginable had become imaginable.
But it was not over. The Broncos were still down 20-19. They needed the extra point to send it into overtime. Rich Karlis, the Broncos kicker, trotted out on the field. He was a different type of kicker. The last of his kind. He kicked the football barefoot, without any protection for his right foot. Most importantly, he was about to kick the most important extra point in his life, bootless. The snap was perfect; the holder held the ball right in its spot and Karlis swung his foot. The barefoot connected with the ball and sent it flying towards the middle of the post. As the ball was passing through the uprights, Rich turned around and ran over to the Broncos bench with the biggest smile on his face. Elway, Jackson, Karlis, and all the Broncos had done it. But, again, nothing was won. The Broncos were not yet going to the Super Bowl. They still had to hold up on defense and then score in overtime.