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As Bowlen’s health fails, his impact on NFL, Broncos stays as strong as ever

The Broncos have someone special to win Super Bowl 50 for: their owner since 1984, Pat Bowlen, whose struggle with Alzheimer’s worsens but whose impact on the league and team remains as strong as ever. 

SAN FRANCISCO — After the Broncos outlasted the Patriots in January to advance to their second Super Bowl in the past three seasons, Joe Ellis, their president and CEO, climbed atop the victory stage. Most of the Bowlen family ascended too. There were, by Ellis’s recollection, seven children of Pat and Annabel Bowlen, along with Pat’s brother, various spouses and three grandkids.

The person that Ellis most wanted to celebrate with, the person most responsible for the direction of one of the most successful NFL franchises, was not at the stadium. Pat Bowlen, the Broncos’ owner since 1984, watched the game at home, in front of the flat-screen television in his bedroom.

As the Broncos’ defense battered Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Peyton Manning threw two touchdowns and the crowd screamed so loud the stands shook, Ellis’s thoughts often drifted back to Bowlen. “The electricity was as high as I’ve ever seen it,” Ellis told in telephone interview. “The air never came out of the balloon.”

And then: “I wish Pat had been there.”

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He loved this place. He loved this team. He loved his players. I should say loves. For him not to be able to share that anymore, it’s just not fair. —Joe Ellis

Pat Bowlen became the first NFL owner to obtain 300 career victories by his 30th season. His teams won the AFC Championship Games after the 1986, ’87 and ’89 seasons, won Super Bowls after the ’97 and ’98 campaigns, and made it back to the title game two years ago.

Those close to Bowlen don’t want to share publicly many details of his health: like when he first began to suffer from Alzheimer’s, or when his condition worsened, or when he stopped going to Denver’s practice facility every day—literally Monday through Sunday—a ritual he followed for more than 25 years.

The Denver Post first reported in May 2009 that Bowlen was experiencing memory loss. In June ’14, he yielded control of the franchise due to health concerns. His mother, Arvella, died in ’06 after her own lengthy struggle with Alzheimer’s.

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Now, with the Broncos back in the Super Bowl, those close to Bowlen wonder what he sees when he watches that TV in his bedroom. They wonder whether he can comprehend what happened, what it means, even just a part of it.

At NFL owners’ meetings, Ellis sits in the seat that Bowlen once occupied, right across the table from the Cowboys’ oligarch Jerry Jones. “I like not to think about [the Alzheimer’s],” Jones told in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I still feel Pat’s presence sitting there across from me. I don’t want to think about it any other way.”

“The disease is so wicked and unfair,” Ellis said. “Here’s a guy who had so much to offer, and the disease, it takes away your mind, and it takes away your life. It took away what Pat loved most, more than anything. He loved this place. He loved this team. He loved his players. I should say loves. For him not to be able to share that anymore, it’s just not fair.”

“I was going to visit last year,” said Dan Reeves, Bowlen’s coach from 1981 to ’92. “Annabel says, you don’t want to go here. He wouldn’t recognize you. He wouldn’t know if you’re there or not.”

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Bowlen bought the Broncos from Edgar Kaiser Jr. for $78 million. (Current valuation is, ahem, slightly higher, according to Forbes: $1.94 billion.)

Reeves had no idea until the day he walked into Kaiser’s office and Kaiser said, “Meet your new owner.” Bowlen, trim, fit, with a penetrating gaze, extended his right hand. Bowlen told Reeves that he was one of the reasons Bowlen bought the team. “From that point on,” Reeves said, “there was nothing that I asked for that I felt was important that he didn’t do.” Indoor practice facility? Done. Lunch served to the players? Of course. Even when Bowlen fired Reeves, they remained friends.

That was Pat. He encouraged Ellis to obtain a master’s degree and helped him land a job with the league office. He completed triathlons. He ran every day, even from airports to the team hotel, and he challenged players in the weight room or on the stair machine. He was a lot like two quarterbacks the Broncos drafted in 1983—John Elway and Gary Kubiak. Here were three men as competitive as any humans on the planet.

For the first few years of his tenure, Bowlen mostly listened. Commissioner Pete Rozelle had told him that, to keep his mouth shut for three to five years, to study the landscape and the political machinations. He followed that advice. Asked how many other owners listened to Rozelle, his successor, Paul Tagliabue, told, “Let’s say Pat was in the minority.”

At least until it came time to elect Rozelle’s replacement. The old guard wanted Jim Finks. But not Bowlen. And not Jones. They became part of the group later known as the “Chicago 11” that pushed Tagliabue into office in 1989. “We weren’t in step with the establishment,” Jones said. “What I’d sense with Pat was a progressive, forward-looking, forward-thinking owner. I wanted to be teammates.”

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Flash forward to 1993. American had just come through a recession. The NFL told its TV partners that it couldn’t give them a break on their television contracts, which ran from 1990 to ’93. But the league did offer to give them an extra year for the same price as the rights cost in ’93. “We all shook hands on it,” said Dick Ebersol, the longtime chairman of NBC Sports. “Only to have these owners come in and say, no deal. They were led by Jerry and Pat. They were seen as Young Turks.”

Bowlen and Jones predicted that another network would come out of nowhere and drive up the price. They were right. In came Fox, with a bid of $400 million each season. Jones said he and Bowlen kicked each other under the bargaining table in delight. At the time, Ebersol said, CBS and NBC paid in the low-$200 million range each year, and they lost money on that.

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The demand came from Bowlen himself: The networks had 24 hours to bid. Ebersol asked his bosses for more cash. They found it. The NFC games went to Fox, the AFC games went to NBC. “Pat was the guy who fairly said, whoever comes back with the highest bid wins,” Ebersol said. “But he also gave us an extra Super Bowl. That told me he wasn’t interested in crushing us. He just wanted the best deal.”

“It was a watershed day,” Jones said. “It changed NFL history, and the game’s relationship with TV.”

When the Broncos secured their first Super Bowl triumph in January 1998, Bowlen held the trophy high and yelled, “This one’s for John.” He meant his quarterback. The one who felt more like his son.

The next season, Ellis returned to Denver to help Bowlen secure enough votes for the public to fund three-quarters of a new stadium. Bowlen planned to cover the rest himself. In Week 9, the 7–0 Broncos traveled to Cincinnati to play the Bengals. They scratched out a 33–26 win, just before the vote.

Bowlen called Ellis later that night. “Biggest win in franchise history,” he screamed.

The stadium vote passed.

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In 2003, Ebersol said the NFL came to NBC and told them ABC wanted out of Monday Night Football. Ebersol wasn’t interested—he didn’t want to lose even one date for The Tonight Show—but he had an alternative idea. He wanted to turn Sunday night into the best window of the week, complete with flex scheduling in the final six weeks of the season, in order to showcase the best games.

Ebersol flew to Colorado to meet with Bowlen. He made his pitch, and Bowlen loved the idea.

But on Nov. 28, 2004, Ebersol and two of his sons, Charlie and Teddy, boarded a private charter jet that had flown from Los Angeles, where they had watched the Notre Dame–USC game, to Colorado. The plane took off again from Colorado and crashed. Teddy died. So did the jet’s captain. Charlie was sitting two feet from Teddy, but he was thrown from the plane and survived. He dug his father out, and Dick survived as well. He spent the next two months in bed, most of that in various hospitals, and he broke six vertebrae in his back.

In late January 2005, Ebersol made his first work phone call since the accident. He called Pat Bowlen. “He heard my voice,” Ebersol said. “I started to cry. He started to cry. And that meant so much to me. Here was this guy who started off as a tough negotiator, icy, almost one of the coldest people I’d dealt with in my life. Here he was melting over the telephone, as was I.”

Eventually, both men caught their breath.

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“I have really good news for you,” Bowlen told Ebersol. “I have one convert.”

He meant Tagliabue. He meant for Sunday Night Football—now the most-watched program on U.S. network television.

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In April 2005, Ebersol’s phone rang. It was Roger Goodell, then Tagliabue’s deputy. “How fast can you get down here?” Goodell said. Ebersol went as fast as he could, assisted by a cane, and he sat down with Tagliabue, Goodell, Pat Bowlen and Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Bowlen had told him it would take $650 million to make SNF viable to the league. “I’m prepared to pay the figure that’s been discussed,” Ebersol told the group. “I’m prepared to spend $600 million.”

He looked at Bowlen, who had a twinkle in his eye but didn’t say a word.

“They should drive him immediately to the Hall of Fame,” Ebersol says now. “It was on his watch that the economic indicator of the NFL, which has always been positive, went into super orbit.”

The men became friends. Ebersol visited Bowlen two or three times each year, flying to Colorado to meet for dinner. In 2009, Ebersol started to hear that “some changes were happening with Pat.” But every time they met, Bowlen seemed the same as he always had before.

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Bowlen promoted Ellis to team president in 2011, and together, they hired Elway to run their football operation. “The fans had lost trust in the football team,” Ellis said. “And John Elway gave us instant credibility. He opened the door to regain that trust.”

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That was perhaps the last major football decision that Pat Bowlen made. It worked out just fine. The Broncos won the AFC West each season under Elway’s stewardship. Elway went after and signed Peyton Manning in 2012, after Bowlen had given him the full authority to do as he saw fit.

Ebersol flew to Colorado the day the Broncos announced the Manning signing. He wanted to share the joy with Bowlen, and what joy there was. “He was over the moon,” Ebersol said. “He had let John do the deal himself. That’s how Pat operated.”

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Tagliabue presided over the NFL from 1989 until 2006. In that time, he saw the league change dramatically in four distinct areas—television revenue, starting with the ’93 deal; labor peace (mostly) with the players association; stadium construction (funded often in part by the NFL itself); and international growth. “Pat might have been the only owner who had a major role in every one of those four areas,” Tagliabue said. “I worked with over 100 owners. I would put Pat in the top five.”

Bowlen co-chaired the NFL’s labor committee for 10 years. He chaired the broadcasting and NFL Network committees, too. He advocated for expansion. He wanted to play games in London and Germany and Mexico. He thought a team belonged in Los Angeles.

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He even helped to create the franchise tag. He argued at league meetings for teams to be able to retain their best player as long as they paid the (high) market rate for him. In the NFL’s offices, Tagliabue said, they called the franchise tag the “Elway rule.” He told Elway that once. “I should get paid a bonus for that,” Elway said.

When Elway and Manning led the Broncos to Super Bowl XLVIII in February 2014, Tagliabue met with Bowlen for lunch at a Hyatt in Jersey City, N.J. “He was beginning to have health issues at that point,” Tagliabue said. “Subsequent to that meeting you would hear from Goodell and other people that Pat would lose his train of thought in mid-sentence. We talked on the phone occasionally and he was fine. But I know that he’s not fine at all right now, to put it mildly.”

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As tough as it all is, I still feel the essence of him there. —Dick Ebersol

In October, Ellis drove to Bowlen’s house to share some news: he would be inducted into the franchise’s Ring of Honor on Nov. 1, when the Broncos hosted the Packers. Bowlen paused, as a smirk surfaced on his face. “Now, why the hell would you guys want to do that?” he asked.

What a glorious day that was, though. The Broncos bludgeoned the Packers, 29–10, to improve to 7–0 on the season. Annabel addressed the crowd. That’s the one ceremony Ellis can remember where no one seemed to leave their seats.

Bowlen did not attend. But his old friend Ebersol flew to meet him in late October, and four hours before kickoff, he was invited to the Bowlen home. Pat was having a decent day. Ebersol went over to the house. They talked for 40 minutes, with Ebersol doing most of the talking. “In so many ways, he was still the Pat I knew,” Ebersol said. “And he said two things that were so Pat.”

The first: Slow down, say that again.

Ebersol: “He always used to say that.”

The second, as Ebersol prepared to leave for the stadium. Please stay.

So Ebersol sat down. They talked for 15 more minutes.

“Will you come back?” Bowlen asked him.

“Do you want me to?” Ebersol said.

“Yes,” Bowlen responded.

They made plans for a trip. “As tough as it all is, I still feel the essence of him there,” Ebersol said. “Those eyes! At no point, did I not have Pat Bowlen’s eyes staring at me, with him listening and trying to pick up everything I said. That was the same way he was in every deal I had with him.”

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“There’s a void that we just simply can’t fill right now,” Ellis said. “Someday, one of his kids will fill it. But until they’re ready, the void will be there.”

Eventually, one of Bowlen’s children will take his place. For years, Pat told friends that his daughter Brittany, according to one, “had a real chance to be the first significant female owner in NFL history.”

But that’s for another day. “There’s a void that we just simply can’t fill right now,” Ellis said. “Someday, one of his kids will fill it. But until they’re ready, the void will be there.”

Bowlen’s impact on NFL history, on the spectacle that is the Super Bowl, on the billions in revenue, on the international growth, on the labor peace, is undeniable. Last week, after the Broncos’ final practice before they left for San Francisco, Ellis spoke to the team about Bowlen and his ownership and his influence.

Ebersol, for one, has already considered the perfect ending. “The Broncos win,” he said. “John Elway climbs atop the stage. He grabs the trophy. And he says, ‘this one’s for you, Pat.’”