When Robert Howsam Jr. drives along Interstate 25 past Mile High Stadium, he looks past the massive sports cathedral and sees his yesterdays.
He remembers the days before I-25 was built, the days before the Broncos arrived in Colorado. He sees, just north of where Mile High now sits, the efficient, modest Bears Stadium, which his father, Bob, built on the side of a garbage dump. He sees a 9-year-old boy in the 1950s wrestling with weeds and collecting trash in the blazing summer sun.
Robert, sitting in his home near The Broadmoor, laughs as he remembers his father, a diligent dreamer who built a powerful minor-league baseball franchise before bringing the Broncos to the Front Range as the franchise’s first principal owner.
Father gave no breaks to son. Bob expected to find a parking lot cleansed of weeds and garbage.
“Oh, he was always checking,” Robert says. “He was always saying, ‘You are goofing off.’”
Bob spent his youth tending bees on the family farm a few miles south of Alamosa. He worked hours in the southern Colorado sun, suffering a multitude of bee stings. Hard work, he believed, vastly improved any young man.
“He felt this was personal development,” Robert says of his long-ago afternoons of weeds and trash.
So much has changed. Today, the average worth of an NFL franchise is $2.6 billion, and Colorado Sunday afternoons in the fall belong to the orange-clad Broncos. The franchise, winners of three Super Bowls, reigns as the state’s secular religion. This weekend, the Broncos late owner Pat Bowlen and defensive back Champ Bailey will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Bob was the brave pioneer who started the saga.
In 1959, Bob led a group of investors who sought to bring professional football to the edge of downtown Denver as part of a crusade, led by Texas megamillionaire Lamar Hunt, to form the American Football League. Bob and father Lee earned a comfortable living, starting with the beekeeping business, but they were no magnates.
Once the established National Football League heard about the renegade league, it quickly offered expansion franchises to Dallas and Minneapolis, the most attractive of possible AFL destinations. The NFL had no interest in poaching Denver from the AFL.
Bob and the crew of football rebels persevered. For a $25,000 franchise fee, the Howsams brought pro football to Colorado. Bob, convinced his native city would support the team, spent close to $1 million adding 11,000 seats to Bears Stadium, pushing the capacity to 35,000.
He was fueled throughout his life by intense optimism, but his belief in an immediate Colorado football romance proved premature. The Broncos, wearing used brown uniforms purchased in a salvage sale, stumbled to four wins in 14 games and never drew more than 20,000 fans. Howsam lost $270,000, more than $2 million in 2019 dollars.
“I was convinced that someday professional football would be successful in Denver, but I knew I didn’t have the money to stick it out,” Howsam wrote in his autobiography. “I knew at the end of the season I would have to sell out.”
He talked with John Monfrey, who owned the Falstaff beer distributorship in San Antonio. “Monfrey was something of a rake, a gambler and horse-racing proponent with impressive connections; he was even rumored to have ties to the Mafia,” reported Texas Monthly.
For a few weeks, the beer tycoon prepared to transport the Broncos to Texas. But this possibility alarmed Denver businessmen Calvin Kunz and Gerald Phipps, who wanted the Broncos to remain in Colorado. The pair purchased Howsam’s interest in the Broncos along with the Bears and the stadium built on the side of a dump.
On May 26, 1961, the day of the sale, Bob and his wife Janny drove to Bears Stadium and examined the house the Howsams built.
“I … thought about the twists that life takes, and I shed a few tears,” Bob wrote.
But this is not a sad story. Bob’s life was one of triumph. The tears soon ended.
Bob, deep in his soul, was a baseball man. He built the Denver Bears into the nation’s premier minor league franchise. In good seasons, the Bears drew more fans than struggling Major League teams.
In 1964, Bob was named general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, and he constructed the roster that won the 1967 World Series. Later, he enjoyed a spectacular 11-season run as Cincinnati Reds general manager, assembling the famed “Big Red Machine” that won four National League titles and consecutive World Series championships in 1975-76.
He didn’t hold a grudge. Bob returned to Denver and joined packed crowds at Broncos games. It took a decade, but football fans in Colorado eventually developed a romance with the Broncos. Bob’s radiant optimism, the one that led to his life-altering gamble in 1960, was proven sound.
Bears Stadium, improved and enlarged over the decades, was torn down in 2002 after the Mile High was constructed a few hundred yards away. The house that Howsam built is a memory.
But a strong, lingering one. On his drives through Denver, Robert still can see the cozy stadium his father built.
The one with a clean parking lot.