Jun 14, 2019
- Covered Broncos for nine years for Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News
- Previously covered Steelers, Bills and Titans
- Member of Pro Football Hall of Fame Board
of Selectors since 1999
Jeff LegwoldESPN Senior Writer
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Former Denver Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith once said Pat Bowlen was “the one behind everything we did, the one who gave us the championship feeling.”
And for more than three decades directing one of professional sports’ most successful, most passionately followed teams, Bowlen always said his overriding principle as he sat at his desk each day was that, “We’re No. 1 in everything,” and that was the fuel for everyone who worked alongside him.
Bowlen died Thursday night at his Denver-area home after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, just under two months before he was set to be formally enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was 75.
He is survived by his wife, Annabel, who also has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; their five children, Patrick III, John, Brittany, Christianna and Annabel Victoria; his first wife, Sally Parker; and their two children, Amie Klemmer and Beth Bowlen Wallace; his brothers Bill Bowlen and John Bowlen; and sister Mary Beth Jagger.
Bowlen’s family released a statement in the early-morning hours Friday:
“We are saddened to inform everyone that our beloved husband and father, Pat Bowlen, passed on to the next chapter of his life late Thursday night peacefully at home surrounded by family. His soul will live on through the Broncos, the city of Denver and all of our fans. Our family wishes to express its sincere gratitude for the outpouring of support we have received in recent years. Heaven got a little bit more orange and blue tonight. Pat Bowlen had a competitive spirit with a great sense of humor. As fun-loving as he was, he always wanted us to understand the big picture. We will forever remember his kindness and humility. More important than being an incredible owner, Pat Bowlen was an incredible human being.”
A public tribute will be held Tuesday at Broncos Stadium at Mile High, and a private funeral will be held June 24 in Denver.
I will miss Pat greatly and will always treasure the times we had together.
He was a tremendous mentor and a tremendous friend. My heart goes out to Annabel and the entire Bowlen family. pic.twitter.com/hBwtIAOisQ
– John Elway (@johnelway) June 14, 2019
In Bowlen’s 35-year tenure as Broncos owner, the team had as many Super Bowl trips — seven — as losing seasons, and the Broncos won three of those Super Bowls (XXXII, XXXIII and 50). Since 1984, the Broncos had the most winning seasons (21) in the NFL and second-most playoff appearances (18).
“Pat gave me so much and he was someone that I always looked up to,” John Elway, the Broncos’ president of football operations and general manager, said in a statement Friday. “He gave this team everything we needed to be the best and compete for championships, and the focus was always on football. That’s all you can ask for in an owner — yet he did more.
“He was a tremendous mentor to me and a tremendous friend. Pat was a great listener, always asking what was going on, and I learned so much from watching him. He was a terrific leader. Whether things were going right or things weren’t going right, he would always let you know what we needed to get better. He did a great job of applying pressure at the right times but always trusted his football people to make the right decisions. Other than his family, nothing meant more to Pat than making sure the Denver Broncos were successful. What he did for this team, this city and the entire NFL will never be matched. His shoes will never be filled. I will miss Pat greatly and will always treasure the times we had together.”
Bowlen, known as “Mr. B” to many who worked for him, was also the first owner in pro football history to oversee a team that won 300 games in his first 30 years at the helm. He is the only owner to reach the Super Bowl with four head coaches: Dan Reeves, Mike Shanahan, John Fox and Gary Kubiak.
But it was not only the team’s on-field success that was Bowlen’s signature; it was his mixture of humanity, compassion and the ever-present expectation of success that he showed all of the team’s employees, both inside and outside of the players’ locker room.
“You saw him every day,” Elway said. “He cared about you as a person, he cared about you as a player, and he gave you everything he had to help you succeed, but you always knew you were expected to care as much as he did.”
I just woke up to the the very sad news of my friend & confidant Mr.B passing away.The world has lost a great man/legend.My heart & prayers to the Bowlen family.
Mr.B, I’ll never forget the impact you had on my life.I can’t thank you enough. Rest In Peace, TD#patbowlen #broncos pic.twitter.com/93x25GFOcr
– Terrell Davis (@Terrell_Davis) June 14, 2019
Bowlen had stepped away from the team’s day-to-day operations just before the 2014 season, quarterback Peyton Manning’s third year with the team and one season before the Broncos’ most recent Super Bowl win in 2015.
The Broncos had 300 of their current streak of 403 regular-season and playoff sellouts during Bowlen’s tenure. The Broncos are a regional passion as their .598 winning percentage since Bowlen purchased the team in 1984 ranks in the top five in all U.S.-based sports leagues.
“Pat was driven by the will to succeed and his competitive spirit made him a great leader,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “We all will greatly miss him and his kindness, passion and wisdom. Pat had a deep love for the game of football, the Broncos and the City of Denver. …
“Pat personified all that’s right about the NFL and is extremely deserving of this summer’s recognition as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
Bowlen and his family paid $71 million for the Broncos to gain controlling interest in separate transactions ($51 million for 60.8% interest in 1984 and $20 million for the remaining 39.2% in 1985) and the franchise is now valued at $2.6 billion in the latest Forbes rankings.
Since Bowlen stepped away from the day-to-day operations, he put the team’s control in the Bowlen Family Trust as team president and chief executive officer Joe Ellis, who is one of the three trustees, took over the daily operations.
The trustees were given the job, in the family trust, of picking the team’s next owner, which Bowlen had said he hoped would be one of his children. However, in the past year, that plan, as well as the trustees’ oversight of Bowlen’s estate, has been challenged by some of the family members in Colorado District Court.
Ellis has consistently said he would “follow Pat’s plan” and choose one of Bowlen’s children at the “appropriate time,” but the decision is still shrouded in at least some doubt. Daughter Brittany is considered to be the leading candidate among Bowlen’s children as she gains more experience with the team.
“You always wanted the best for him, you always wanted to do your best for him,” said Hall of Famer Terrell Davis, who won two Super Bowls with the Broncos. “He’s the greatest owner in any sport. That’s just a fact.”
Pat Bowlen was born in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. He attended Oklahoma University and worked in his father’s oil and gas company before carving out his own business in real estate.
Bowlen’s competitiveness would often appear in the team’s weight room in his daily workouts, where Smith said he would “challenge anybody on that Stairmaster.” Bowlen, who rarely missed a workout, competed in the Ironman Triathlon.
Bowlen’s signature moment might have been when he proclaimed, “This one’s for John,” as he raised the Vince Lombardi Trophy after Elway and the Broncos defeated the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. Almost two decades later, after the Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50, Elway returned the favor, saying, “Well, I’m going to say this and he would not want me to say this, but this one’s for Pat.”
Player after player has a story about Bowlen visiting him after an injury, checking in during a difficult time, be it a death in the family or an illness.
“But it was that he checked on you, good times and bad and everything in the middle,” Smith said.
When cornerback Darrent Williams was murdered in a drive-by shooting in the early-morning hours of New Year’s Day in 2007, Bowlen covered the funeral costs and chartered a plane so the entire team could be in Fort Worth, Texas, for the funeral.
Bowlen’s passion for the team and for those around him and even when making a difficult decision was on display no more than when he fired Mike Shanahan after the 2008 season. Bowlen and Shanahan appeared together at the news conference, Bowlen cried and Shanahan said, “Pat and I will be best friends forever.”
Bowlen served on 15 NFL committees, including the powerful broadcast committee as well as the management council executive committee. Dick Ebersol, the former head of NBC Sports, has called Bowlen one of the league’s most important owners for Bowlen’s support of international games, the record TV deals and also called him the “father of Sunday Night Football.”
Bowlen, through Denver Broncos charities, donated more than $30 million to local charities, including the funding for the Denver Broncos Boys and Girls Club, making the Broncos the only professional franchise to fully fund a Boys and Girls Club.
“He was always competitive and caring,” Elway said. “I came to Colorado as a kid and he’s been a part of my life almost my whole adult life. And even in the tough decisions, he cared about everybody and he always kept those relationships with people, he took care of the people around him.”