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A quarterback who could have saved the Colts Elway: The " future Hall of Famer says it was nothing against Baltimore. He simply wouldn't play for Frank Kush or Bob Irsay.

On the morning of April 26, 1983, the day of the NFL draft, Baltimore Colts owner Bob Irsay was trying to hold a fire sale.

Even though the Colts owned the first pick in the draft, Irsay didn't want to draft the top prospect, Stanford quarterback John Elway, because of his demand for a five-year, $5 million contract.

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That was fine with Elway, who didn't want to play for Colts coach Frank Kush.

But other teams were making lowball offers because they knew Irsay wanted to dump Elway.

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Irsay was ready to deal Elway to the New England Patriots for Pro Bowl guard John Hannah and a No. 1 pick when Colts general manager Ernie Accorsi objected.

Irsay then called Kush into his office and asked if he'd like to have Hannah. Kush didn't want to buck the owner.

"I'd love to have him, Boss," Kush said.

Accorsi finally played his trump card.

He told Irsay, "If you make that trade, we'll have two press conferences. The first to announce the trade and the second to announce my resignation."

Irsay then backed off and Accorsi drafted Elway, who promptly said he'd play baseball rather than play football for the Colts.

But Accorsi had a good baseball scouting report on Elway, who was an opposite-field slap hitter and not a top prospect. Certainly not a Hall of Fame prospect the way he was in football.

Accorsi figured if the Colts held firm, Elway would change his mind because he wanted to play football.

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Nobody knows what Elway would have done if months had passed, and he had to decide in July or August whether to skip football that year.

That's because six days later, Irsay traded Elway without telling Accorsi.

Dealing directly with Edgar Kaiser, who was then the Denver owner, Irsay gave Elway away for offensive lineman Chris Hinton, quarterback Mark Herrmann and a No. 1 pick.

Jim Saccamano, who is still the Broncos' director of media relations, said, "You talk about defining a city. You can ask people in Denver where they were when they heard about the Elway trade and they can tell you. They remember it the way they remember the Kennedy assassination."

Accorsi also remembers where he was when the trade was announced. He was watching ESPN when they cut in with the news.

Now the assistant general manager of the New York Giants, Accorsi has no regrets about trying to fight the trade.

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He had grown up in Hershey, Pa., steeped in Colts tradition. The only job he ever wanted was general manger of the Colts.

"I was fighting for the integrity of the franchise," Accorsi said. "He was so clearly the top prospect that to give in to all that pressure was to sell the franchise down the river. I wasn't going to be responsible for that. I had far too much respect for the people who had gone before me and the tradition of the franchise."

The following February, six weeks before the team moved to Indianapolis, Accorsi stuck to his promise and resigned.

Accorsi said he thinks if the Colts had gotten Elway, they never would have moved.

Bob Leffler, who was the Colts' marketing director, agrees. Now head of the Leffler Agency, a Baltimore-based marketing firm that includes the Ravens among its clients, Leffler said he thinks Elway's presence would have sold 10,000 season tickets in 1983 and rejuvenated the franchise.

Leffler had started to promote Elway on draft day, holding a party at the Baltimore Convention Center. He had a satellite dish to show ESPN's draft coverage because the city wasn't wired for cable, and he had Mel Kiper Jr. provide live commentary for the fans. Leffler even had a mannequin dressed to look like Elway in a Colts uniform.

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"Then he came on TV and said he wouldn't play in Baltimore," Leffler said. "I felt pretty foolish."

"The thing I felt worst about is that Baltimore took a bad rap," Accorsi said.

Accorsi said he had assumed Irsay was the problem. Elway has since said that Kush was as much or more of a problem.

Elway, whose Broncos play the Ravens today, told Denver reporters last week, "I have nothing against the city [of Baltimore]. I said it 800 times. I'm at the point where I'm kind of tired of saying it because it was never anything against the city. It was Kush and Irsay. That's the whole deal."

It turned out that playing for former Denver coach Dan Reeves, who's now losing with the New York Giants without a top quarterback, wasn't much of an improvement on Kush. Reeves never got Elway a running game or a defense to complement his arm.

The result is that Elway carried the team to three Super Bowls, but got crushed all three times by better-balanced NFC teams.

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Mike Shanahan, the current coach, has finally added a strong running game and defense, but now Elway is in the twilight of his career.

Meanwhile, the ramifications of that trade continue to reverberate in the NFL to this day.

When the Colts moved on March 28, 1984, they didn't have Elway or Accorsi. Without an experienced general manager on hand, Irsay turned the team over to his son, Jimmy. He made a series of personnel blunders, notably the trades for Eric Dickerson and Fredd Young that cost the team five first-round picks, three seconds and two players.

It wasn't until Irsay demoted his son and hired Bill Tobin as general manager in 1994 that the Colts were turned into the contender they are today. But now the team is having trouble selling tickets. Despite the Colts' 5-1 record, their game against the Patriots today will be blacked out in Indianapolis because the game isn't sold out.

Accorsi, meanwhile, went to Cleveland where he pulled off the Bernie Kosar deal and built a team that went to five straight playoffs.

Pub Date: 10/20/96


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