Football family that Mr. B built would be terrible thing to lose in Broncos ownership fight.


Pat Bowlen did not invent Broncomania. But he put a championship ring on it and made everyone in Denver feel as if they personally lent a hand in hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy after all three victories in the Super Bowl.

Maybe that explains why when the Broncos go back to training camp, it feels more like a family reunion than work.

“You can feel Mr. B’s presence here,” said Ring of Fame receiver Rod Smith, gazing across the practice field.  “His legacy is everywhere you look.”

This is a family business Bowlen built with love. Everywhere you looked Saturday, there was a reminder why it would be criminal if the Broncos ever lost that loving feeling in a family argument over future ownership of a team Mr. B turned into a $2.6 billion empire.

Peyton Manning dropped by practice to chat up new quarterback Case Keenum. The grandkids of Smith frolicked in the end zone. After a disappointing 5-11 season, the grassy hill above the field where Von Miller led Denver’s defense through drills was filled with unrelenting orange enthusiasm from fans who renewed their season tickets at a 98 percent rate, highest in the league.

Everybody misses Mr. B, who reluctantly stepped down from day-to-day operation of the Broncos more than four years ago, given no choice by the insidious illness we curse as Alzheimer’s disease. Until late in 2013, franchise president Joe Ellis, the most visible member of a trustee board now entrusted with running the business, talked football with Bowlen on a daily basis.

Now, Ellis goes to see Mr. B only occasionally, when Bowlen is fit for entertaining visitors, to deliver a simple message.

“When I go see him, I tell him that I love him,” Ellis said. “And I tell him everything is going to be OK with the Broncos.”

It’s excruciatingly difficult to watch Mr. B, now 74, slip slowly away, losing touch in a relationship he forged with a team and a town for more than three decades. Few understand the pain better than Ellis.

“I go when I can see him, and feel up to seeing him,” said Ellis, before quickly adding, “Or I go when I think he might be up to seeing me.”

But don’t both sides of Ellis’ statement speak to the brutal, honest truth about Alzheimer’s? What makes the disease so cruel is how it can make victims and their loved ones feel so alone in the battle.

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