The Denver Broncos announced Wednesday morning that owner Pat Bowlen will be stepping down, relinquishing control of the team he has run since 1984 to Broncos president Joe Ellis as Bowlen battles Alzheimer’s disease.
The news of Bowlen’s declining health did not come as a surprise to those who knew him well, as well as some who didn’t, with reports dating as far as 2009 indicating that Bowlen was struggling with memory loss. The official nature of Bowlen’s acknowledgement of the disease has been difficult to process for those nearest to the team.
“It's a really, really sad day,” Ellis said in a statement to the Denver Post. “It's sad for his family, his wife and his seven children. It's sad for everyone in the organization. And it's sad for all the Bronco fans who know what Pat Bowlen meant to them as an owner. It's a day nobody wanted to see happen.”
FOX NFL commentator John Lynch played for Bowlen for four seasons in Denver, and said that while it’s been difficult to see the owner’s health decline in recent years, he still anticipates that Bowlen’s influence will be felt every time the Broncos take the field.
“I think Joe will do a tremendous job, and he’s worked with Mr. B for a long, long time,” Lynch said. “John Elway is the same way. For a lot of people, that season last year would have been a great season, but not for the Denver Broncos, because they really are all about one thing, and that’s winning world championships. They came close but fell short, and I think his impact will always be felt on that organization.”
After spending 11 seasons in Tampa Bay, Lynch joined the Broncos as a free agent in 2004 and made the Pro Bowl at safety in each of his final four years. Lynch says Bowlen’s impact on the club and his dedication to winning were a large part of the reason he decided to sign with Denver.
“He was there every day but he let people do their work and just was a support system, and, furthermore, was just an incredibly likable man.”
“He’s the ultimate owner in my mind,” Lynch said. “He, I just think, was the perfect mix -- someone who was passionate and clear in his vision for the franchise, which was to win world championships. And everything he did demonstrated that.
“He walked the walk and it was so clear that that’s what his vision was. His philosophy was to hire really good people and let them do their jobs. He was there every day but he let people do their work and just was a support system, and, furthermore, was just an incredibly likable man.”
Not surprisingly, Bowlen’s Broncos teams did win championships -- two of them, in back-to-back seasons in the mid-'90s -- and reached the Super Bowl a total of six times since Bowlen’s family bought the team for $78 million 30 years ago. A lot of the Broncos’ sustained success, Lynch believes, is directly tied to the way Bowlen treats the plays who work for him.
“He was a constant presence,” Lynch said. “He wasn’t overbearing or meddling, but he was always there for you, and you knew the Denver Broncos organization was going to do things first class, do things right. A lot of (the team’s success) was because of the way he did things, and it permeates from the top. It trickles down, and he set a tremendous example.”
The most recent Super Bowl appearance came in February, and though the Broncos lost to the Seattle Seahawks, that Denver was in it at all was a fitting tribute to Bowlen and his impact.
“It means everything,” Lynch said. “I think every owner states that, ‘We’re about winning championships,’ but he means it. Everything he does -- there’s been a perfect synergy in bringing back John Elway because he knew John could bring them a championship again, or at least that was his hope. So I think having that opportunity to be there, that’s why he owns that team. That’s what he relishes, and I think it made him proud.
“Obviously it didn’t end up the way he wanted or anyone else wanted, but I’m sure there was a tremendous amount of pride for Mr. B, and he’ll be watching (this year) and hopefully they get right back there and it’s a different turnout this time.”
Lynch, himself, has experience dealing with Alzheimer’s, as he lost one of his grandfathers to the disease. One of the things he took away from that experience, he says, was the acceptance that some days will just be better than others and the ability to focus on the good days over the bad.
“My wife and I and my family were skiing earlier this year and we ran into Mr. Bowlen, and his beautiful wife Annabel said he was really having one of his great days,” Lynch said. “He gets so excited when he sees one of his former players, and we just had a tremendous time. There are days that aren’t so good, too, but that day was a tremendous day, and it’s a memory that I’ll relish forever, along with many others.”
And though the nature of the disease is such that those afflicted with it don’t tend to get better, Lynch says he’ll choose not to dwell on the diagnosis that is taking him away from the team he loves so much.
“It’s not a fun disease to watch someone who has so much aptitude and so much to offer — you can see the frustration when I’ve been around him in recent times ...”
“It’s a brutal disease because people who have so much to offer emotionally and intellectually -- you can see that the thoughts are there, but they just can’t express them, and it’s hard,” Lynch said. “It’s frustrating, particularly for a man like Mr. Bowlen who is so prideful of himself, and in great shape.
“You don’t know why God gives you those challenges, but we had great years with my grandfather when he had Alzheimer’s for many, many years. And even though they lose some of their ability to communicate their thoughts, there’s still so much that they have to offer, and Mr. Bowlen is no different.
“ ... It’s not a fun disease to watch someone who has so much aptitude and so much to offer -- you can see the frustration when I’ve been around him in recent times, when he tries to get thoughts out and can’t,” Lynch added.
“But he’s still a joy to be around and is still an incredible person. The only thing now is he won’t be involved in the day-to-day operations, and that’s sad, but I choose to celebrate what a tremendous owner he’s been and what an impactful person he’s been for the Denver community, the state of Colorado and Broncos fans all over.”