(Editor's note: An earlier version of this story was unclear in a reference to the number of John Elway's dealerships sold to Republic Industries in 1997 and now owned by AutoNation.)
It was looking to the world like National Football League great John Elway was finished, settling into a middle-aged retirement of lush golf courses and tending to his investments.
But how could a guy with a career record of 34 fourth-quarter comebacks ever be finished?
Not only is the 50-year-old former Denver Broncos quarterback back with the Broncos, neck deep in a labor dispute, draft-pick planning and franchise rebuilding. But Elway also is plotting a comeback in the business that got into his blood when he was 29-year-old Broncos No. 7: auto retailing.
His game plan? Open or acquire auto dealerships in and around Denver. But there's a twist: In 1997, Elway sold his six Denver stores to a new publicly traded company called Republic Industries.
That company became AutoNation, now the biggest dealership group in the country. And AutoNation, which still owns Elway's stores, will be Elway's competitor.
It is a bold plan.
While Elway runs the Broncos' football operations, he will operate dealerships under the Elway name through a private investment group. Former AutoNation executive Todd Maul will be in charge of dealership operations.
Elway, Maul and partner Mitch Pierce have one thing in common. They were all big western retailers in the 1980s and 1990s -- Pierce from Tempe, Ariz., and Maul from Denver's multifranchise Chesrown Group -- who were among the first auto dealers to sell out to Republic.
Elway sold his Denver-area stores for a reported $82.5 million in cash and stock, and made it possible for AutoNation to execute its "Mile High" strategy there. AutoNation acquired 17 Denver stores and operated them all under the brand name "Elway."
The Super Bowl champion separately leased his name to AutoNation for nearly a decade to help it take root in Denver.
Now comes the challenge: Elway has his name back. His noncompete clause is long expired. And he wants to invest again in auto dealerships. In Denver.
This has been brewing awhile. Since 2004, Elway and Pierce have owned two Toyota/Scion stores in Manhattan Beach and Ontario, Calif. But it is their Colorado aspirations, under the name Elway Automotive Group, that are gaining attention.
Partners Elway, Maul, Pierce and Indianapolis dealer Fernando Falcon opened their first new dealership in Greeley, Colo., Elway Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Ram. The store consists of franchises that Chrysler Group rescinded in its dealer consolidation drive and then were combined in a single new point awarded to Elway. The group now has arranged to buy Burt Chevrolet, a 75-year-old store in Englewood, Colo., near the Broncos headquarters and training camp.
"I always thought I'd be able to get back into this market," Elway says from his office at the Broncos' headquarters in suburban Dove Valley. "I love Denver, and I want to be here. I know the market, and this is where I want to build the business."
But the big difference between the Denver market where he thrived as a young Toyota-Nissan-Honda-Hyundai-Mazda-Ford dealer in the 1990s and the Denver market of 2011 is AutoNation.
Thanks to Elway himself, he and his partners must now contend with a competitor that reported $12.5 billion in revenues last year.