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.
Building consensus among seven Bowlen children from two marriages on how to run the family business in the long term can be very delicate business, especially when everyone in Broncos Country is leaning over the fence, gossiping about every new twist in the family melodrama.
That’s why it was significant when Ellis acknowledged on the eve of training camp that 28-year-old Brittany Bowlen has not only expressed an interest in replacing Mr. B but is actively working to become qualified as the caretaker of a sports franchise regarded as a civic treasure.
While Ellis was careful not to declare Brittany the heir apparent, she long has been the obvious leading candidate for the job, which no doubt prompted her stepsister Beth Bowlen Wallace to make headlines and waves this year when she declared “I’m ready right now” to take over operation of the team.
Although Mr. B’s spirit remains strong at team headquarters, can Ellis keep the family peace and avoid legal challenges or pressure to sell to the Broncos to an outsider until Brittany is ready take the reins, especially if her real-world business education and football apprenticeship require three, four or possibly more years?
I asked Ellis, who celebrates his 61st birthday in November, how much longer he wants to be a place-holder atop the organizational chart in the Bowlen family business.
“I’m going to see it through. I don’t know when that will be, but I’m going to see it through,” Ellis said. Let him explain: “It’s important to do this the right way and think it through and not be hasty in your decision, because you don’t have just an obligation to the family. You have an obligation to the National Football League, my partners and, most importantly, to our fans that we put the right person in there.”
On a sunny July morning, when Broncomaniacs posed for photos in front of the Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse and Manning’s young twins walked around the facility like they owned the joint, the family vibe was so strong I asked Smith if he felt as if Mr. B were standing next to us.
“Oh, he’s here. Absolutely. Everything you see is what he built,” said Smith, who retired from the Broncos after the 2006 season with 849 receptions and two Super Bowl rings to call his own.
Then Smith wrapped his arms around Mr. B’s spirit and uttered what sounded like a prayer for the sports team Denver loves best.
“When a man builds something as great as this, he wants to keep it in his family,” Smith said. “And the fact it’s a family business? I means everything. Pat Bowlen didn’t build a football team just for himself. He built something to last generations.”