Still on the home team
Janet Elway talks about holding down the fort and moving on after divorce.
Janet Elway has a big family, a big dog, a big house and a big heart. But she lives a much smaller life than she once did.
And that suits her just fine.
It's been four years since Janet moved out of the home she shared with her famous husband, former Broncos quarterback John Elway. She ultimately gave up the role she'd played for 19 years: wife of a football legend, a woman whose life and marriage were defined by her husband's talent and success.
"I used to feel like I had to share my husband with the rest of the world, and I wanted him to just be mine, and I couldn't ever really ask that," Janet says. "A lot of that wasn't John's fault - it's just what comes with it. I think you do need to be very, very strong to be married to someone like that, whether they're rock stars or actors or athletes."
Janet has spent the past couple of years rebuilding her own strength, both physical and emotional. Today she smiles often, laughs easily and looks fit, thin and pretty in jeans and boots and a gauzy, sea-foam-colored top. She and the kids and their 150-pound bear of an Alaskan malamute, Kimo, have settled into a sprawling Cherry Hills home that reflects Janet herself: warm and welcoming, down-to-earth but elegant.
She seems calm and happy, perfectly comfortable with being a fortysomething mom with two kids in college and two teenagers at home, at peace enough with herself to talk candidly about the depression she suffered after the divorce.
"I'm sure a lot of people would think, 'How can you have a problem in the world? You have money - you have everything.' But you really have nothing if you're empty inside," Janet says. "I was without hope. I was without faith."
At the urging of friends and family, she began to see a therapist, something she still does twice a week. A Christian since the age of 12, Janet re-connected with her spiritual side and began a painful journey to greater self-awareness.
"I've always been very hard on myself and would beat myself up over the smallest of things. I was very unforgiving to myself," she says. "I didn't need any parent to discipline me or to ever be angry with me - I did it all to myself, 10 times over. When I started to realize that I would never do that to my own child - so how dare I do it to myself, a child of God? - I was able to understand that much better."
John and Janet Elway became the city's golden couple the moment they arrived in Denver. They met as freshmen at Stanford University in 1980, when Janet, a star swimmer, had just left the pool and John was returning from baseball practice.
"We grew up together," Janet says. "Here are two kids coming to Denver, and he's the toast of Colorado. And I'm looking around going, 'Why are people looking at us? This is so weird.' And then to have that grow into really a terrific, wonderful life."
The couple had four children together, and Janet devoted her life to being a full-time mom and Mrs. John Elway. But as much as they loved each other, there was another priority in John's life.
"John's love of the game - I couldn't compete with that, and I really felt that I needed to," Janet says. "There's a lot of temptations lurking all around that. It has a lot to do with having to share. I was very good at that for a long time. When it got to be too much, I just couldn't do it anymore."
After the divorce, Janet found herself frightened by the prospect of handling life on her own.
"I felt like a lost child. I had never had to pay the bills. The idea of buying a house, paying taxes - just doing the things that John always took care of - was overwhelming and very scary to me," she says. "It took some courage to believe in myself, that I could do it."
A place to come home to
She still feels overwhelmed sometimes by the 17,000-square-foot house she bought at the urging of friends. But when she talks about downsizing, she looks to the future and the fact that her four children will always need a place to come home to.
Two of them are already away: Jessica, 20, is a student at Stanford, and Jordan, 18, is at the University of Virginia. The two youngest, Jack, 16, and Juliana (JuJu), 15, are both at Cherry Creek High School. John lives nearby, which makes shuttling between houses easier for everyone.
"I think we've come through this pretty well. Obviously, it will always be a difficult thing. All of us wish that we could still be together," she says. "I know the kids were aware there were problems, so I don't think they were necessarily shocked when I decided to move out and take them with me. But it was honestly very difficult on them. We're a very, very close-knit group, and that includes John."
The children were always the couple's first priority, Janet says.
"I think John and I have done a really great job letting them know how loved they are, that it was not their fault. It came down to not even a choice - it had to happen, and we would do the best we could do for them. John and I both felt that the most important thing was to do our best at getting these kids through it with as little pain as possible."
Kids come first for Elways
John's frequent travels mean Janet gets to spend more time with the children, but their dad remains a big part of their lives.
"But we're doing a great job of sharing them. John and I have been able to maintain a pretty good friendship," Janet says. "At least we're very respectful of each other, and we haven't lost sight of the main goal, which is to make sure the kids are OK."
Taking care of herself has become a priority, too, which means regular workouts with friends and twice-weekly therapy sessions. Janet had part of her colon removed in 1998 and sometimes feels fatigued - she considers sleep her favorite pastime and grabs naps whenever she can.
But first and foremost, Janet says, "I'm a mom."
She hosts Young Life meetings on Mondays, which means 60 kids hanging out in the basement with the big-screen TV and pool table. In the summertime, the kids bring over friends to swim or shoot baskets, and Janet barbecues for at least 10 almost every night.
"I don't run a very tight ship around here, that's for sure," she says. "I'm just not the mom who's very strict with rules. I just never have been, and my children have never pushed me to have to really do that."
Weeknights find Janet in the kitchen, fixing dinner with the TV on while Jack and JuJu do their homework, and they all discuss American Idol (Janet adores rocker Chris Daughtry). She jumped into the singles life for a while, then jumped back out again.
"Because John was my one and only, I wanted to experience what it was like to date another man," says Janet, very glad now that she never got that tattoo of No. 7 with a heart that she once considered. "At first, it was so fun. I remember telling my girlfriend, 'I went out with six different guys in the last two weeks!' But I found that got old very quickly. It's really not my personality, and it's really not what I'm about."
Close friends arranged a blind date for her with Steve Perkins, a 50-year-old businessman, which has blossomed into a great relationship.
The best of both worlds
"It's so nice to have a little life with him, because it's just so different. No one knows who we are, no one cares who we are," Janet says. "Except for him - he cares who I am, and that's the greatest thing in the whole world. I was telling him last night that what I love about him is the way he loves me. I keep thinking, 'I don't deserve that. Things have to be much harder than this.' "
For the moment, though, things are simple and easy.
"It's great - I get to be the mom to my four kids, and I get to work on me, and I get to have my independence. And I also get to share my life with this great man," she says. "I've had the best of both worlds. I was able to live that life with John, and what we had was really great. And now I'm able to have more quiet, peaceful, real things."
Among those things is Janet's Camp, her fundraising campaign to send disadvantaged kids to YMCA day camp for two weeks during the summer. Janet took on the project at the suggestion of her friend Jean Galloway.
"When she approached me, I was really ready to do something to get my mind off of me. I think I was getting very sick of myself and wanting to put some normalcy back in my life, and it was a perfect fit," says Janet, who learned to swim at the YMCA in her hometown of Tacoma, Wash., and competed in her first Y swim meet at age 5.
On June 24, her back yard will be transformed into a kind of camp for adults, complete with games, contests and music. Her goal is to raise enough money to cover camp expenses for 250 low-income kids.
"My house lends itself to being able to throw a big party," she says. "There's just a lot of room for a lot of fun."
Fun has become another priority for Janet, who has learned not to take herself or life so seriously. She can laugh at herself now - and forgive herself and John, too.
"There's forgiveness on all sides," Janet says. "I had a great life with John. We had so much fun, and we had four healthy, great, amazing children, and I have the best memories in the whole world. He gave me so much, and I just feel grateful for that.
"It's too bad we couldn't make it work. But it's OK."