Pat Bowlen, the Denver Broncos owner who transformed the team from also-rans into NFL champions and helped the league usher in billion-dollar television deals, has died. He was 75.
In a statement on the team’s website, Bowlen’s family said he died late Thursday night at home surrounded by loved ones. The statement did not specify a cause of death. Bowlen had battled Alzheimer’s for several years.
Bowlen, who grew up in Edmonton, was the first owner in NFL history to have his team win 300 games — including playoffs — in three decades. He had as many Super Bowl appearances (seven) as losing seasons, and Denver had a 354-240-1 record since he bought the team in 1984.
He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year.
Under his stewardship, the Broncos won Super Bowls in 1998, ’99 and 2016.
Following their 31-24 victory over Green Bay for the franchise’s first championship, Bowlen famously hollered, “This one’s for John!” Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway called it the greatest moment of his playing career.
Elway the executive returned the favour on Feb. 7, 2016, when he jabbed the silver Lombardi Trophy into the sky after Denver’s 24-10 win over Carolina and declared, “This one’s for Pat.”
That came 18 months after Alzheimer’s forced Bowlen to step down from his daily duties running the team.
“I’m just glad I had the opportunity,” Elway told The Associated Press in the victorious locker-room that night. “I didn’t want to think about it too much because I didn’t want to jinx anything. But I was waiting for the day that I was able to do that. So, I was glad and really thrilled that I was able to do that and we’ll take that trophy over to Pat next week and let him cherish it.”
Elway delivered the prize to Bowlen’s home back in Denver. And in the Mile High City, more than a million fans packed downtown for a victory parade 17 years after Elway capped his remarkable playing career by leading the Broncos to back-to-back titles.
Super Bowl 50 was the Broncos’ eighth trip to the big game, seven under Bowlen’s watch, and all of those with Elway’s help — first as his QB and then as his GM.
Bowlen’s wife, Annabel, who sat in for her husband for the team photo in the summer of 2015, and their children were on hand to accept the Lombardi Trophy on his behalf in Santa Clara, Calif.
Bowlen relished working behind the scenes and shied away from the spotlight. In the words of former coach Mike Shanahan, “Pat just wanted to be one of the guys.”
“That’s why I think he was so beloved by so many people, including myself,” Shanahan said. “And you also knew that he would give anything to make your football team better or at least get a chance at the Super Bowl. At that time you would say every ounce that he had — I should say every penny he had — he wanted to go into giving the football team a Super Bowl. That was his No. 1 priority. That was it. It was not trying to buy different companies and trying to make more money. His goal was winning a Super Bowl.”
Former Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said: “Most guys would tell you that played for him or worked for him that he was not only our owner, but he was your friend.”
Bowlen served as a sounding board for NFL Commissioners Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell. He was a driving force in the league’s growth as a member of several committees, including co-chairing the NFL Management Council and working on the league’s network contracts.
Bowlen had a deep appreciation for his players, whether or not they were stars, and it’s not unusual to see retired players watching Broncos practice.
“When I retired, Mr. B. told me I was welcome anytime at team headquarters,” said Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe. “He said I didn’t need a pass, either: ‘Your face is your credential.”‘
Ownership of the franchise is held in a trust Bowlen set up more than a decade ago in hopes one of his seven children will one day run the team. Until then, Joe Ellis is doing so in a “What would Pat do?” sort of way.
Those who worked for Bowlen remember a man who put production ahead of profits; trained tirelessly for triathlons; fostered a winning atmosphere from the lobby to the locker room; and was always quick with a compliment and sure to couch his criticism.
“It’s the old catchphrase ‘win-win,”‘ Ellis said. “He was all about that.”
Bowlen flashed his competitive streak whether on the road conducting league business, on the sideline watching his team, or on the StairMaster drenched in sweat.
It was evident in his dislike for Peyton Manning when the quarterback played for Indianapolis before joining the Broncos in 2012.
“I get it, and I respect that,” Manning said, adding that Bowlen flew back to Denver from his off-season home in Hawaii to welcome him when he signed with the Broncos, and they were friends afterward.
“If there was a way for him to compete against what he’s going through,” said former defensive end Alfred Williams, “he’d beat that damn disease every time.”