DENVER • The mahogany desk — unpretentious, unassuming uncluttered — was emblematic of the man, and just as he left it.
The polished surface featured a 1990s-style flip phone, reading spectacles, a magnifying glass, business cards including both the Broncos’ former and current logos, a “From the desk of Pat Bowlen’’ memo notepad, a 15-year “Thanks for your service’’ employee recognition clock and pen holder, an old desk calendar and a giant wad of Big Red Gum.
And an in-box tray holding one piece of paper that stated: “To-do list.”
• Be Number One in everything.
• Beat the Raiders.
• Win Super Bowls.
All three boxes were checked.
More than 5,000 Coloradans said their own goodbyes at Mile High Stadium on Tuesday to the guardian angel of the Broncos through four decades. They steadily streamed, as did rush-hour traffic on adjacent Interstate 25, through the west club level section, reflected and meditated and looked at hundreds of memorabilia exhibits, including Bowlen’s desk from Dove Valley, family photos and the three Vince Lombardi trophies won by the Broncos.
It was a momentous, meaningful memorial to Can-Am Pat, the man in the Armani suit and the cowboy boots.
All of us teared up but were cheered up.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the tribute, which was extended beyond its scheduled five hours by two to get everyone into the hallways, was the greeting of every child, woman and man who came from Bowlen children Beth, Pat Jr., Johnny, Brittany, Annabel and Christianna. Pat always tried to protect them from the limelight, but the attention has glared on them since their father’s illness took him away from the Broncos and into the dark shadows.
People have wondered about the progeny, particularly because of the future ownership succession issue and ensuing statements, splitting of sides, claims, Johnny’s legal problems, a lawsuit brought by Bowlen’s brother Bill and NFL intervention and arbitration. Truthfully, the entanglements have been worrisome and public and not what Pat ever would have wanted.
However, for the first time, most of the gatherers Tuesday were able to see, touch and hear the Bowlen family. I’ve met the kids over 35 years, and I spent a half-hour with them Tuesday.
They are genuine and human and have deep feelings about their father and, as expected, are very emotional over his death. Like most families, they can be flawed, and they can be misunderstood. However, most essential, they care about the Broncos and the citizens of Colorado and keeping the franchise alive and thriving, as their father taught them. They’ve lived here, gone to school and worked here, and grown up with the Broncos and they want to carry on their father’s franchise and the tradition for more generations.
In 55 years of covering sports, I’ve never witnessed such a demonstrative and poignant response to the death of a sports “owner,’’ certainly not in Colorado or in most other locales. In professional football, the esteem paid to Pat Bowlen seemed reminiscent of praises for Art Rooney of the Steelers, George Halas of the Bears and Lamar Hunt of the Chiefs.
As we viewed the giant photo of Pat amid a mass of white roses and listened to a pianist play some of his favorite music, there was an agreement among the people of different races, political parties, ages, backgrounds and occupations: Pat Bowlen was unique.
He wasn’t perfect, and the Broncos weren’t either during his span from 1984 to 2019.
Oh, he was a rich guy from Canada, some said, and knew nothing about football, and probably was a hockey type. He did want to own a hockey team at one point, but Bowlen played high school football in Wisconsin and was a walk-on at powerhouse Oklahoma, and he was a star on a national championship junior football team in Edmonton — and later built a stadium for his hometown team. The Edmonton Eskimos honored Pat with a moment of silence at their game over the weekend.
There was the fur coat on the sideline that bothered a segment of Broncos’ fanatics There was a slip of the speech about New Orleans residents. And there were streaks of consecutive seasons without playoffs.
Nevertheless, the Broncos were one of the three most successful and dominant NFL teams for decades, and 300 consecutive games sold out at old and new stadiums in Denver. “This was his 301st sellout,’’ a Broncos executive said after watching the crowd.
Denver never had, and never will have, a better one than Bowlen — who will be honored at the Hall of Fame, then at a home game against the Titans, with a decal on the back of the Broncos’ helmets — Mr. B and with a place in sports and Colorado history
Near the end last week, Pat sang Oklahoma’s “Boomer Sooner’’ fight song with a daughter. He never went down without a fight and a smile. On the wall of notes signed by visitors Tuesday, a woman wrote: “One word for Pat Bowlen — WINNER!’’
If he were still here, he wouldn’t have been there. Pat Bowlen never would have approved, accepted or attended the homage.
His desk was clean, and his list was complete.
Pat Bowlen did not leave life undone.