Updated: July 24, 2014 at 10:16 am
ENGLEWOOD — Even as dementia began to rob him of some of his fondest memories over the past few years, Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen reported to work every day to oversee multimillion-dollar upgrades to the team's training facilities and roster.
So his absence from Dove Valley headquarters on Wednesday as players reported for physicals on the eve of training camp was as jarring as the announcement that the 70-year-old Bowlen was giving up control of the team because of Alzheimer's disease.
"This place will never be the same," a choked-up general manager John Elway said. "... It's going to be very hard to not see him walk through the front doors every day."
Yet, Elway and team president Joe Ellis pledged to continue Bowlen's legacy and winning culture he fostered during his long stewardship of the franchise.
Ellis is adding the title of chief executive officer and will have final say on all matters.
"Mr. Bowlen has entrusted Joe to take his spot and he couldn't have appointed a better guy to step in for Pat," Elway said. "Joe's a guy that bleeds orange and blue."
Ownership of the franchise is held in a trust Bowlen set up more than a decade ago in hopes that one of his seven children will one day run the team, Ellis said Bowlen asked him to run that trust.
Elway, who brought Bowlen two Super Bowl rings during his Hall of Fame playing career, demurred when asked if he aspired to one day own the team.
"That family owns the Broncos. Pat Bowlen still owns the Broncos. We have total respect for that," Elway said. "They've hired me to run the football operations and I'm thrilled to do that. I work for Pat still, as well as the Bowlen family, and I'm going to continue to do that."
Ellis said that with Bowlen no longer able to run the team, the community and fan base deserved to know what was going on, so the family agreed to make public the condition he's dealt with privately for several years.
"Alzheimer's has taken so much from Pat, but it will never take away his love for the Denver Broncos and his sincere appreciation for the fans," Bowlen's wife, Annabel, said in a statement.
After acknowledging in 2009 that he suffered short-term memory loss, Bowlen stepped back from day-to-day operations in 2011 when he promoted Ellis to president. For the first time this offseason, Ellis represented the Broncos at the annual owners meetings.
Under Bowlen's guidance, the Broncos won six AFC titles and two Super Bowls. At 307-203-1, Bowlen and New York Giants founder Tim Mara are the only three-decade owners in pro football history to win 60 percent of their games.
The Broncos' 186 home victories are the most in the NFL since he bought the team in 1984, when Elway was his quarterback, and the Broncos' five losing seasons during those 30 years are the fewest in the league over that span.
Bowlen was known as much for his humility as his competitive fire, doing his best to stay out of the spotlight even as he built a winning culture and a fan base that extends throughout the Rocky Mountain region.
He was instrumental in the league's explosive growth at its longtime chairman of the broadcast committee, Ellis said, and Elway said Bowlen deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"I'd love (his bust) to be right next to mine," Elway said.
When Elway brought Bowlen his first of consecutive championships in the late 1990s, the owner took the Lombardi Trophy in his hand at center stage after an epic win over heavily favored Green Bay and declared, "This one's for John."
"That was the highlight of my career," Elway said Wednesday.
Bowlen's affable style endeared him to employees and players alike.
When Bowlen received the Mizel Institute's 2013 Community Enrichment Award, Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe said: "I would be hard-pressed to believe that there's an owner that cares more about his city, about his state, about his players than Mr. Bowlen does."
Hall of Famer Gary Zimmerman said at that same event he realized Bowlen was a different type of owner when he signed up for a turkey in his first Thanksgiving in Denver, thinking it was all a joke.
"Then I come into the locker room and there's Pat sticking turkeys into our lockers," Zimmerman recounted.
During Peyton Manning's whirlwind free agency tour in 2012, Zimmerman said, he knew any other teams pursuing the four-time MVP were just wasting their time.
"I knew he'd be a Bronco before he did," Zimmerman said, "because once he visited here and met with Mr. Bowlen, I knew there was no way he could go anywhere else."