ENGLEWOOD - John Elway, the man most responsible for the Broncos' past six trips to the Super Bowl, struggled to speak. He was paying tribute to his mentor, Pat Bowlen, and he had so much to say.

But the words wouldn't come.

"Ah," Elway said, his eyes glistening. "Ah."

The quarterback who courageously defied marauding NFL linebackers was frightened of a Broncos future without Bowlen, his employer who doubles as his close friend.

"What a sad day it is around here," Elway said. "This place will never be the same."

On a personal level, this was a sad day. Bowlen is a physically fit 70-year-old who should have enjoyed another decade directing his Broncos, but Alzheimer's robbed his mind of the ability to guide the team.

And yet .

On the football field, there is no reason to worry about the Broncos. If you want to understand the secret of Bowlen's success during his 30-year run as owner of the Broncos, look at No. 7.

Yes, look at Elway.

During the 19 seasons (1983-99 and 2011-2013) of Elway's association with the franchise, the Broncos traveled to the Super Bowl six times and competed in 28 playoff games. During the dozen seasons (1999-2010) of Elway's Bronco exile, the franchise failed to travel to the Super Bowl and competed in only five playoff games. Yes, I realize Peyton Manning did much to revive the Broncos, but No. 18 would never have traveled to Denver without Elway as his recruiter.

An owner can become infamous much easier than he can become famous. Just look at Washington's Danny Snyder. Snyder is a brilliant man when it comes to business. He's a wandering buffoon when it comes to football.

Bowlen understood his limits. He should be applauded for what he did not do.

He did not meddle.

He did not try to act as if he knew everything about football. He did not interfere with the experts he hired to run his team.

Bowlen never caught a pass, never threw a touchdown, never devised a game plan.

Still, he earned the admiration and affection of millions of Broncos fans. They could see him on the sideline, at first in those dreadful fur coats before he reformed and turned to dignified dark suits. Those fans sensed the Broncos were led by an owner who loved the team as much as they did.

They could see the pain in his eyes after losses. They could see he demanded, almost required, victory. Other than his family, nothing meant more to Bowlen than his Broncos.

But he wasn't just an extremely wealthy fan. Bowlen did not have a deep understanding of football. He did have a deep understanding of excellence.

His hunger for dominance ruled him. This meant he was never afraid to fire coaches. He waved goodbye to Mike Shanahan, his close friend. And he quickly admitted he had made a grave mistake in hiring Josh McDaniels, the boy blunder.

This message always hovered over the Broncos: Win, or else.

"There was always a gentle, subtle pressure," Elway said.

Bowlen is a complicated man. Stoic, distant, prideful, shy and awkward. A Colorado enigma, even after 30 years as leader of our state's secular religion.

But he had a strong sense of timing. On the greatest moment in Broncos history, the Super Bowl trophy was handed to Bowlen after a win-for-the-ages over Brett Favre and the Packers.

Bowlen, in a humble, genius move, quickly handed the trophy to Elway while shouting, "This one's for John."

Elway lowered his head Wednesday as he thought back to the moment. He swears he was surprised by Bowlen's gesture, largely because he had struggled mightily in the game, throwing for only 123 yards.

"Probably the most humbling, thrilled feeling I've ever had in my life," Elway said.

That feeling, the one of ruling over the football universe, is the blessing Bowlen and Elway delivered to Broncos fans.

On a gloomy Wednesday, that feeling seemed long ago as Elway paid his regards to his friend.

Bowlen chased ultimate victory with everything inside him. There is no doubt about that.

But don't worry.

The same unquenchable hunger lives within Elway.


Twitter: @davidlukeramsey