The Denver Broncos retired John Elway’s No. 7 jersey four months after he announced his playing career was over in 1999. The following year, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. And the Pro Football Hall of Fame welcomed the quarterback in his first year of eligibility in 2004.
One honor Elway never thought would come will take place Thursday night.
Thirty years after he graduated from the university, Stanford finally retired Elway’s iconic No. 7 jersey at halftime of its game against second-ranked Oregon which ended up in a 26-20 victory.
Elway joined Jim Plunkett (No. 16) and Ernie Nevers (No. 1) as the only players whose jerseys have been enshrined by the program.
“Realizing the history, it wasn’t something that happened a whole lot at Stanford. And that’s why it was a great surprise and thrill to learn when coach David Shaw called me a few months ago and told me that they were going to retire the number,” Elway said by phone this week. “I think that makes it so much more special now than if they’d done it earlier.”
Stanford has been selective with bestowing such an honor.
Nevers’ jersey was retired in 1970, some 45 years after he led Stanford to a Rose Bowl victory over Notre Dame. Nearly 21 years after he became Stanford’s only Heisman Trophy winner, Plunkett’s jersey was retired by the school in November 1991.
Nobody at Stanford really knows why it took so long for Elway’s jersey to be retired. The Cardinal quarterback was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1983 NFL draft and one of the most celebrated athletes in school history.
Shaw said he started asking the question when he was a wide receiver at Stanford in the early 1990s and asked again after he was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach in January 2011. In the past year, after Bernard Muir took over as athletic director, those conversations escalated.
“I remember thinking about when I was here. I came in, one of my friends, (quarterback) Mark Butterfield, was wearing No. 7. I said, ‘Why the hell are you wearing No. 7?’” Shaw said. “Mark had a great senior year and was great and I just kept thinking, ‘Nobody should be wearing No. 7.’
“And I came back as a coach, Toby (Gerhart), great player, ‘Why is he wearing No. 7?’ The last couple years I kept going around and I talked to some of our historian people, I talked to Bernard and I said, ‘We have to do this.’ He was completely on board. And everybody I talked to said, ‘Yeah, why haven’t we done that?’ There was no malicious intent. I think it was just one of those things.”
Shaw said he has spoken to Muir about developing a standard for future numbers to be retired. Muir declined to discuss what the process might entail.
Wide receiver Ty Montgomery and defensive end Aziz Shittu both wear No. 7 currently. Whenever they graduate or if they decide to switch numbers next season, nobody at Stanford will ever wear No. 7 again.
The irony is that Elway, now the executive vice president of the Denver Broncos, never intended to wear that number.
He wore No. 11 in high school and, in a story he has told many times over the years, a defensive back already had taken that number at Stanford. Elway said he chose No. 7 over No. 12, which were the only numbers available, “because few athletes wore the number.”
Now quarterbacks at every level, including Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wear seven in Elway’s honor.
Elway threw for 9,349 yards and 77 touchdowns while completing 62 percent of his passes at Stanford. He held nearly every major passing record — most of them since shattered by Andrew Luck — when he left school. Elway still owns the single-game record with six touchdown passes in a 54-13 win against Oregon State on Nov. 1, 1980.
Elway was the Pac-10 Conference Player of the Year in 1980 and 1982, when he also was a consensus All-American. After the Cardinal lost at rival California on the infamous lateral play in his final collegiate game, Elway finished second to Herschel Walker in the 1982 Heisman Trophy voting.
“We had the highs and lows when I was at Stanford,” said Elway, who led the Broncos to five Super Bowl appearances and two titles during his NFL career.
Stanford football’s recent renaissance, which includes three straight BCS bowl appearances, surely helped bring more attention to Elway’s cause — and it could help others soon.
Stanford greats such as Bobby Garrett, Frankie Albert, John Brodie, Gerhart and Luck are among the top candidates to have their jerseys retired.
Shaw said he already has spoken with Gerhart about entering the school’s hall of fame, though he wouldn’t commit to a similar jersey retirement. He has not allowed any player to wear Luck’s No. 12 since the quarterback graduated after the 2011 season.
“I don’t know what their plans are,” Elway said. “Maybe this one opens the door for others to be retired.”