ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – On a cool night in Santa Clara, California, on Feb. 7, 2016, John Elway thrust the Lombardi Trophy into the air and hollered, “This one’s for Pat!”
It came 18 years after Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen had declared, “This one’s for John!” following the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship, a 31-24 win over Green Bay in San Diego after Elway helicoptered his way into NFL immortality in his fourth shot at a title.
Elway called it the greatest moment of his Hall of Fame career, and he was determined to return the favor after rejoining his beloved Broncos as Bowlen’s general manager and vice president of football operations in 2011.
He finally got the chance when the Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers 24-10 in Super Bowl 50, 18 months after Alzheimer’s forced Bowlen to step down from his daily duties running the team.
“I’m just glad I had the opportunity,” Elway told The Associated Press in the locker room that night. “I didn’t want to think about it too much because I didn’t want to jinx anything. But I was waiting for the day that I was able to do that.”
Bowlen, who transformed the team from also-rans into NFL champions and helped the league usher in billion-dollar television deals, died late Thursday, just under two months before his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was 75.
In a statement posted on the Broncos’ website, Bowlen’s family said he died at home surrounded by loved ones. They did not specify a cause of death. Bowlen had Alzheimer’s for several years.
Bowlen was the first owner in NFL history to oversee a team that won 300 games – including playoffs – in three decades. He had as many Super Bowl appearances (seven) as losing seasons, and Denver is 354-240-1 since he bought the club in 1984.
Under his stewardship, the Broncos won Super Bowls in 1998, ‘99 and 2016.
Super Bowl 50 was the Broncos’ eighth trip to the big game, the seventh under Bowlen’s watch.
Bowlen’s wife, Annabel, who recently announced that she, too, has Alzheimer’s, and their children were on hand to accept the Lombardi Trophy on his behalf in Santa Clara.
Elway delivered the third Lombardi Trophy to Bowlen’s home back in Denver, and more than a million fans packed downtown for a victory parade 17 years after Elway capped his remarkable playing career by leading the Broncos to back-to-back titles.
“His soul will live on through the Broncos, the city of Denver and all of our fans,” Bowlen’s family said in its statement. “Heaven got a little bit more orange and blue tonight.”
Bowlen was born in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, on Feb. 18, 1944. He earned business and law degrees at Oklahoma University before working in his father’s oil and gas company and embarking on a successful real estate business in Canada.
He and his family purchased the Broncos in two transactions in 1984 and `85 for $71 million. The franchise is now valued at $2.6 billion, according to the latest Forbes rankings.
During 35 seasons with him as owner, Bowlen’s teams compiled a .596 winning percentage – tied for second-best in the NFL during that span. Among professional franchises in the four major North American sports, only the San Antonio Spurs, New England Patriots and Los Angeles Lakers were better, according to the Broncos.
Bowlen relished working behind the scenes and shied away from the spotlight. In the words of former coach Mike Shanahan, “Pat just wanted to be one of the guys.”
“That’s why I think he was so beloved by so many people, including myself,” Shanahan said. “And you also knew that he would give anything to make your football team better or at least get a chance at the Super Bowl. At that time you would say every ounce that he had – I should say every penny he had – he wanted to go into giving the football team a Super Bowl. That was his No. 1 priority. That was it. It was not trying to buy different companies and trying to make more money. His goal was winning a Super Bowl.”
Bowlen served as a sounding board for NFL commissioners Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell. He was crucial to the league’s growth as a member of 15 NFL committees, including co-chairing the NFL Management Council and working on network TV contracts such as the league’s ground-breaking $18 billion deal in 1998.
“Pat personified all that’s right about the NFL and is extremely deserving of this summer’s recognition as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Goodell said.
Hall President & CEO David Baker said: “Pat’s leadership helped shaped the NFL into what it is today. He also transformed the Denver Broncos into one of the finest franchises in the league and gave a winning identity to an entire region. He was a man who lived life with passion, conviction and demonstrated the highest level of integrity at all times.”
Bowlen had a deep appreciation for his players, whether or not they were stars, and it’s not unusual to see ex-Broncos watching practice.
“When I retired, Mr. B. told me I was welcome anytime at team headquarters,” said Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe. “He said I didn’t need a pass, either: `Your face is your credential.“’
Ownership of the franchise is held in a trust Bowlen set up more than a decade ago in hopes one of his seven children will one day run the team. Until then, Broncos President and CEO Joe Ellis, one of three trustees, is doing so in a “What would Pat do?” sort of way.
Although daughter Brittany is hoping to one day take over the team, the succession plan and the trustees’ oversight of Bowlen’s estate has been challenged in state district court in the last year by some members of the Bowlen family.
Those who worked for Bowlen remember a man who put production ahead of profits; trained tirelessly for triathlons; fostered a winning atmosphere from the lobby to the locker room; and was always quick with a compliment and sure to couch his criticism.
Bowlen flashed his competitive streak whether on the road conducting league business, on the sideline watching his team or on the StairMaster drenched in sweat.
It was evident in his dislike for Peyton Manning when the quarterback played for Indianapolis before joining the Broncos in 2012.
“I get it, and I respect that,” Manning said, adding that Bowlen flew back to Denver from his offseason home in Hawaii to welcome him when he signed with the Broncos, and they were friends afterward.
Bowlen is survived by his wife, Annabel, and seven children: Amie, Beth, Patrick, Johnny, Brittany, Annabel and Christianna.
The Broncos and Bowlen’s family will host a public tribute Tuesday at Broncos Stadium at Mile High and a private funeral will be held June 24 in Denver.
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