“I will die with my boots on with the Broncos.’’ – Pat Bowlen
Pat must have been wearing his black leather cowboy boots Thursday night.
His all-encompassing, extraordinary stewardship of the Broncos is ended, but he leaves a long, legendary legacy.
Happy trails, Mr. B.
Pat Bowlen was mortal, but he will be immortalized forever in Colorado, Canton, Canada, and with the compassion we all share for those who suffer with Alzheimer’s.
As a noble man and a gentle man, Pat was a leader of champions.
In the four decades of our relationship — most times friendly, sometimes adversarial, all times fascinating — I never heard Pat raise his voice, and I never saw him touch a football, except when he raised the one atop the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Because of the significance of the Broncos’ franchise in this state, and the popularity of the National Football League in this country, their histories cannot be written without remarkable references to, and reminiscences, of Pat.
During the 35-year reign of the Bowlen family, the Denver/Colorado/Rocky Mountains Broncos have reached seven Super Bowls and won three, experienced only seven losing seasons and compiled the fourth-highest winning percentages in the four major American professional sports leagues. The once laughingstocks of the AFL and the NFL were no joke after Bowlen bought the franchise March 21, 1984. In the '60s the Broncos won just 12 games in four seasons. In Pat’s first year, the Broncos won a team-record 13. In the '80s, '90s and the 2000s they have finished with 15 more double-digit victory seasons.
In our first interview, I said: “You’re now the owner. Now what?’’
“I don’t own the franchise. I’m a trust for the people of Denver. They own the franchise,’’ Bowlen said. “I can’t (mess) it up.’’
He didn’t. How green is Dove Valley?
The Canadian-American became a respected and revered Coloradan and a powerful man in pro football.
We mourn his passing. We honor his living.
Prior to every season for 30 years, I’d ask Bowlen for his prediction. Annually he’d reply “19-0.’’ The Broncos and Bowlen nearly achieved his perfection prophecy in 1998 with 17 victories and only two losses — and the team’s second championship.
In the 1980s I told Pat, who owned a beachside home adjacent to the “Magnum P.I.’’ estate outside Honolulu, I was visiting Hawaii and sought a restaurant recommendation. “Join me at mine for dinner.’’ That evening Pat opened up about his guarded lifetime. “I didn’t dream of buying a football team, but I’m living the dream.’’ That’s when I asked how long he intended to be with the Broncos, and he said: “Permanently. This is my only job.
“I will die with my boots on with the Broncos.’’
Bowlen, who inherited second-year quarterback John Elway, said: “I’ve got to keep surrounding him with the people who can help him win it all. My only goal is to be No 1.’’
Following the Broncos’ first Super Bowl triumph in XXXII, he shouted “This one’s for John,’’ who returned the compliment after Super Bowl 50.
Few realized that Bowlen, who seemed a rich, flashy Canadian when he arrived in Denver, actually was humble, shy and reserved. He purposely didn’t reveal the hundreds of millions of dollars he donated to Colorado charities, or the community centers and the football fields he paid to have built. “We all give back,’’ he said.
Pat, whose net worth paled in comparison to many of the owners, also didn’t want anybody to know he almost went broke — twice! — during the Broncos’ ascension to glory.
Pat brought class. He moved the team from an antiquated Quonset hut office, the tired locker room, the pitiful weight-lifting area outside and a practice field that wasn’t even 100 yards long to an avant-garde headquarters (he named for his father) southwest of Denver, then approved an mammoth indoor facility (which team executives named for him after Bowlen was forced to step aside because of his debilitating illness).
Little touches were grand improvements. Players were provided with single rooms on the road and larger chartered jets. He flew players to their hometowns after injuries or because of illness. He said hello to every employee in the complex, and knew all the names. He worked out each morning in the modern training facility with the players and competed against them. He stood on the sideline at every practice without uttering a word. He put several underprivileged young men and women through college.
He guided the drive, with effort and money, to replace old Mile Stadium with a new, state-of-the-league edifice.
And he rarely interfered with a request on expensive free agent decisions (Peyton Manning, for example), new contracts and personnel choices. He chose to be the man behind the curtain.
Then, in May 2009, I phoned Pat to talk about the fissure between coach Josh McDaniels and quarterback Jay Cutler.
I asked innocently: “How are you doing, Pat?’’
“I’m fine physically, but I have short-term memory problems.’’
“We all do at our age.’’
Pat, who was two years older, told me he didn’t remember the two Super Bowl victories.
It was a startling, sad revelation.
Bowlen elevated Joe Ellis to administer the business side of the Broncos and brought back John Elway to direct the football operations.
Pat’s final actions were to devise plans of action to return the Broncos to greatness (two more Super Bowls) and establish a process for determining the next generation of Bowlen family governance, similar to the successions with such quality franchises as the Steelers and the Chiefs.
Bowlen, most deservingly, will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame Aug. 3. He belongs on the Pikes Peak of Coloradans.
In Pat Bowlen we trusted. He certainly earned it, and more.
With his boots on.