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Quarterback John Elway balks at draft selection by Colts

Roy (Wrong Way) Riegels was once the talk of football. Now, some 50 years after Riegels's famous Rose Bowl blooper, John (Which Way) Elway is in the game's conversational spotlight.

He landed there courtesy of this week's National Football League draft and all the backroom maneuvering surrounding it. Everyone knew he'd be the first player chosen. But would Elway even play pro football? That was the question, one which his selection by the Baltimore Colts hasn't exactly resolved.

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Rather than run toward the wrong goal line, as Riegels once did, John has chased after a twin ''goal line'' - a career in either of two sports, football or baseball. Since two-sport pro athletes are as extinct as dinosaurs, this ultimate option play required a decision, and for Elway Tuesday appeared to be D-Day.

He leaned toward football, but only if someone besides the Colts drafted him. It isn't that John has an aversion to crabcakes or the Maryland shore, it's just that the thought of playing for a franchise in such disarray doesn't appeal.

Before the draft he dusted off a line from General William T. Sherman, when he told the Colts in so many words, ''If nominated I will not run; if elected I will not serve.''

For weeks, therefore, other clubs tried to make a deal with Baltimore, which held the No. 1 pick by virtue of its worst-in-the-league 0-8-1 record in last year's strike-shortened season.

Aware of John's interest in staying on the West Coast, the San Diego Chargers and Los Angeles Raiders emerged as the frontrunners in the Elway Sweepstakes. The Chargers could use a surplus of high draft choices as trade bait, while the Raiders, fresh from winning a $34 million court settlement from the league, had money to burn.

But the Colts apparently asked for more than anyone would offer, leaving Baltimore to make Elway the most disgruntled and perplexed No. 1 pick in non-military draft history.

''I wanted to give football a chance,'' he said at a press conference, ''but there just is no way I'm going to play in Baltimore. I told the Colts on three different occasions, but I guess they just didn't believe I would pass up the chance.

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''Well, I am. If they can't or won't trade me to a West Coast team, I'm going to sign with the Yankees.''

Last summer Elway played for the New York Yankees' Class A affiliate in Oneonta, NY. An outfielder, he batted .318, prompting owner George Steinbrenner to seek John's name on a new, long-term contract.

Using his baseball offer as leverage, Elway obviously is trying to force the Colts' hand. But if they don't come around, he may sign a pact with the Yankees that would give him the option of switching to football if and when a more attractive opportunity presents itself.

Danny Ainge basically took this route when he went from playing the infield for baseball's Toronto Blue Jays to the backcourt for basketball's Boston Celtics two years ago. He's made the transition smoothly.

Elway realizes, of course, that he is considered a can't-miss prospect in football, while in baseball his stardom seems less assured. Some good college players never learn to hit major league pitching, leading to a life in the minors.

That Elway was the big prize this season is somewhat ironic. After all, there were more quality quarterbacks available than ever before, and from winning programs too. Under Elway, meanwhile, Stanford never went to the Rose Bowl and was only 20-23-1. Even so, scouts are convinced he has both the arm and tactical sense, the latter no doubt picked up from his father, Jack, head coach at San Jose State.

Given today's heavy emphasis on the forward pass, it was not too surprising to see a record six quarterbacks taken in the draft's first, 28-team go-round. The previous high was four.

What was unusual was that five of these six went to teams in just one division, the American Conference East. After Elway's selection by Baltimore, Buffalo chose Jim Kelly of the University of Miami (Fla.) with the 14th overall pick; New England followed with Tony Eason of Illinois; the New York Jets snatched up sleeper Ken O'Brien of California-Davis; and Miami took Pittsburgh's Dan Marino.

The only first-round QB to escape the AFC East's grasp was Penn State's Todd Blackledge, who, in a rare situation, elected to turn pro despite having a year of college eligibility left. Blackledge was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs with the seventh overall choice, while Todd's roommate and Sugar Bowl star, Curt Warner, was tabbed by the Seattle Seahawks in the No. 3 spot.

Warner outgained Heisman Trophy winners in successive bowl appearances, racking up more yards than Georgia's Herschel Walker in this year's Sugar Bowl and more than Southern Cal's Marcus Allen in the previous season's Fiesta Bowl.

The only player to squeeze between Elway and Warner in the draft's pecking order was Southern Methodist running back Eric Dickerson, selected by the Los Angeles Rams with a pick acquired from Houston. Dickerson broke Earl Campbell's Southwest Conference career rushing record with 4,450 yards.

The first defensive player selected was Arkansas's Billy Ray Smith, a defensive end whom the Chargers grabbed on the fifth overall pick and the son of ex-Colt star Billy Ray Smith Sr.

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