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As Pat Bowlen steps away, Broncos celebrate a man who shaped the NFL

Under Pat Bowlen (left), the Broncos won six AFC titles and two Super Bowls. Photo:

Under Pat Bowlen (left), the Broncos won six AFC titles and two Super Bowls.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo.-- The man is measured in the pauses. There’s silence, and breathing, the gasps that delay the inevitable gulp, the gulp that precedes the unavoidable tears.

He’s measured in the red that rose in Broncos president Joe Ellis’ cheeks as answering questions became harder and harder, as he apologized for speaking in the past tense about a man who’s still alive.

The man is Pat Bowlen, and on Wednesday in Denver, the Broncos owner’s health overshadowed the opening of his team’s training camp -- just as it should have. The night before, Bowlen, 70, ceded control of his team after 30 years of ownership due to his battle with Alzheimer’s, a disease that took hold several years ago.

In statements released early Wednesday, the Broncos and Bowlen’s wife, Annabel, acknowledged that a plan had been put in place years ago to address this very situation and that the family intends to keep the team under its control for the foreseeable future. Going forward, the Broncos will be held by the Pat Bowlen Trust, with Ellis in charge and the hope of one of Bowlen’s children eventually assuming their father’s role.

That designation will usher in few, if any changes to the Broncos from a football or business perspective. Ellis’ day-to-day life will be no different, John Elway’s role as general manager will not change. But for the first time in three decades, Bowlen will no longer walk through the door of his team’s facility every morning, and this is the detail that brings grown men to tears. 

“He didn’t walk through the door this morning, and that’s hard for people,” Ellis said. “It’s really hard for his family. It’s really sad. Everybody will stand together at the Broncos and the family and the NFL and in this community.” 

"What a sad, sad day,” Elway said, later adding that he will lobby for Bowlen’s bust to stand next to his in Canton. “I can say that from the inside out, it will never be the same.

"He has given me so much. It's going to be hard to walk through those doors and not see him.”

In a world where Donald Sterling is the most talked about owner in sports, men like Bowlen seem almost alien. He’s a man whose photo dots Elway’s office, who’s known to employees affectionately as “Mr. B,” who brings a stadium to its feet after the 300th win of his tenure. It sounds like a sports fairy tale, and yet it’s all true, every bit of it. Even as Alzheimer’s took hold, Bowlen reported dutifully to the Broncos’ facility south of Denver each day. He suffered the frigid temperatures of Super Bowl week in New York to stand on the sidelines of Denver’s practices, and even if he was just a figurehead by then, it mattered. 

“Alzheimer’s has taken so much from Pat, but it will never take away his love for the Denver Broncos,” Annabel said in her statement.

For years, speculation about Bowlen’s health has been a whisper in Denver and around the NFL. In 2009, Bowlen revealed to Denver Post columnist Woody Paige that he had been suffering from short-term memory loss. In the years that followed, his presence at the team’s facility and on the sidelines waned, and yet it never became a story. It was Bowlen’s battle, his silence, and Denver respected it. 

That respect was earned through two Super Bowl wins and six berths, through just five losing records in 30 seasons, through years of work on the NFL’s labor committee and broadcast committee. Bowlen is one of the men who helped shape the modern NFL, and sometimes it takes a day like Wednesday to remember and celebrate his contributions. 

But it wasn’t a day to eulogize. As much as Ellis, Elway and coach John Fox slipped into the past tense in their remarks, each tried to steer the focus to the present and the future. Bowlen leaves a structure and a legacy, and it’s still his team, in something more than name and less than practice.

“The trustees are not owners,” Ellis said. “They are in charge of the trust. Pat Bowlen is the owner. I don’t know if that’s technically true or not -- I’m not a lawyer -- but that’s how I feel, and that’s how the family feels, and that’s how everybody at the Broncos feels.”

And so life will go on, for the Broncos and for Bowlen and his family. Condolences have poured in from around the NFL, and they will continue, and then they will subside. Football will begin. Peyton Manning will again become the name of the day, and the Broncos will continue to do what they’ve done for the majority of the past 30 years: win. 

Asked whether Bowlen’s illness and his step back from the team would provide an added impetus to hoist the Lombardi Trophy this year, to win one for Mr. B, Elway was resolute. No. “We want to do it every season,” he said. “It’s the same amount of urgency that we always have each year going into it.”

That’s just the kind of franchise Bowlen built.

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