NFL Hall of Famer Gary Zimmerman realized Pat Bowlen was a different type of owner when he signed up for a turkey during his first Thanksgiving with the Denver Broncos, thinking it was all a joke. “Then I come into the locker room and there’s Pat sticking turkeys into our lockers,” Zimmerman recounted last year.
But Bowlen hasn’t been showing up for work as he always has, and the Denver Broncos announced Wednesday that “Mr. B.” was giving up control of the team because of Alzheimer’s disease. Team president Joe Ellis, who will take over as CEO, said Bowlen has dealt with the condition privately for several years.
“This place will never be the same,” a choked-up general manager John Elway said. “It’s going to be very hard to not see him walk through the front doors every day.”
Bowlen acknowledged some short-term memory loss in 2009 and stepped back from day-to-day operations in 2011 when he promoted Ellis to president. While it’s not clear how advanced Bowlen’s Alzheimers is, his wife Annabel was the only family member to speak publicly through the Broncos.
“He has strongly believed, and often said, ‘It’s not about me,’” she said. “Alzheimer’s has taken so much from Pat, but it will never take away his love for the Denver Broncos and his sincere appreciation for the fans.”
Bowlen bought the Broncos from Edgar Kaiser in 1984 for $78 million, likely saving the franchise from bankruptcy. He’s seen few controversies, and Bowlen’s affable personality endeared him to employees and players alike. Under his guidance, the Broncos won 60 percent of their games, six AFC titles, and two Super Bowls.
Known as much for his humility as his competitive fire, Bowlen did his best to stay out of the spotlight even as he built a fan base that extends throughout the Rocky Mountain region. Mayor Michael Hancock, a decades-long friend, was a team mascot under Bowlen. “This city hasn't been the same since Pat's arrival," he told ABC7.
Friends described Bowlen as quiet and prone to generosity. His well-known philanthropy earned him the Mizel Institute's 2013 Community Enrichment Award. As chairman of the board of Denver Broncos Charities, Bowlen oversaw the Broncos invest more than $25 million in missions and hospitals, from blood drives to food banks.
That includes an ongoing relationship with the Denver Rescue Mission, a ministry “changing lives in the name of Christ by meeting people at their physical and spiritual points of need.” The mission bought an old hotel in 2005 for its long-term transitional programs, and the Broncos donated $150,000 to fund a youth center at the facility. The 990 square foot area is equipped with computers and tutors, and holds community programs and Bible studies. Team staff continue to volunteer at the mission, the Broncos say, and autumn anti-hunger drives will benefit the mission.
“I would be hard-pressed to believe that there’s an owner that cares more about his city, about his state, about his players than Mr. Bowlen does,” Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe, who played 12 seasons with the Broncos, said last year when Bowlen received his Mizel award.