ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Pat Bowlen, whose three decades of ownership of the Broncos has included six Super Bowl appearances, two NFL championships and more than 300 victories, has given up control of the team so he can battle Alzheimer’s disease, the team announced Wednesday morning.
Team president Joe Ellis will assume control of the Broncos as Bowlen, 70, focuses on his health.
“In recent years, Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen has taken a reduced role with his team while courageously and privately battling Alzheimer’s disease,” the team said in a statement. “The Broncos are very saddened that Mr. Bowlen is no longer able to be part of the team’s daily operations due to his condition. We continue to offer our full support, compassion and respect to ‘Mr. B,’ who has faced Alzheimer’s disease with such dignity and strength.”
The announcement comes on the eve of training camp and the start of a new season in which the Broncos are among the favorites in the AFC to reach Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Ariz., after last season’s humiliating 43-8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.
In 2009, Bowlen acknowledged he was experiencing short-term memory loss. And in 2011, Bowlen stepped away from day-to-day operations of the organization when he promoted Ellis to president.
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“He wants us to win,” a visibly upset Ellis said at a news conference at Dove Valley on Wednesday afternoon. “He’s left us with a blueprint that’s easy to follow. … He didn’t walk through the door this morning and that’s really sad.”
An emotional John Elway, brought aboard in 2011 to run the front office was also emotional, in his news conference, fighting back tears and his voice cracking.
“This place will never be the same,” he said. “What he’s done for this city, for this state, what he’s done for the NFL as a whole will never be matched. … He will never be replaced.
“I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am without Pat Bowlen.”
The ownership of the Broncos is held in the Pat Bowlen trust and is overseen by nonfamily members. Bowlen’s long-term goal has been to have one of his seven children to run the team when they’re ready.
The trust was put in place a decade ago as part of a plan to keep the Broncos in the Bowlen family. Ellis has the final say on decisions made by the organization. The team will not be put up for sale.
Last year, Bowlen said, “If something were to happen to me, I’ve already made this clear, this team is going to stay in the Bowlen family no matter what. It’s a great asset. And it’s a lot of fun if you do it right.”
Bowlen has five children with his wife Annabel — Patrick, John, Brittany, Annabel and Christianna. Patrick and John work for the Broncos, while Brittany works in the league office. Bowlen also has two children — Beth, who also works for the Broncos, and Amie — from a previous marriage.
Last year, Bowlen became the first NFL owner to reach 300 victories by his 30th season of ownership.
“This is a sad day for the NFL,” commissioner Roger Goodell said. “Pat Bowlen’s leadership has been critical to the success of the Broncos and the entire NFL.”
“As many in the Denver community and around the National Football League have speculated, my husband, Pat, has very bravely and quietly battled Alzheimer’s disease for the last few years,” Annabel Bowlen said in a statement. “He has elected to keep his condition private because he has strongly believed, and often said, ‘It’s not about me.’
“Pat has always wanted the focus to be solely on the Denver Broncos and the great fans who have supported this team with such passion during his 30 years as owner. My family is deeply saddened that Pat’s health no longer allows him to oversee the Broncos, which has led to this public acknowledgment of such a personal health condition.”
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Before stepping away from day-to-day operations, Bowlen and Ellis worked to hire Elway to run the football operations of the organization. Elway, who led the team to five AFC titles and two Super Bowl championships as the team’s quarterback, then hired John Fox to succeed Josh McDaniels as coach.
The Broncos have won the AFC West title each of the past three years. In 2011, in the height of “Tebowmania” of quarterback Tim Tebow, the Broncos won the division and beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round on the first play of overtime, just their second playoff victory since winning the second of two Super Bowl titles after the 1998 season.
The next week, the Broncos were blitzed by the New England Patriots, 45-10, in the divisional round and as he left Gillette Stadium, Bowlen said, “Not a bad season but not a great season, either. I want a great season.”
After the Indianapolis Colts released quarterback Peyton Manning, who had missed the 2011 season because of multiple neck surgeries, the Broncos pursued and signed him to a five-year contract, ending the Tebow Era in Denver.
Under Manning, the Broncos have gone 13-3 each of the past two seasons, gaining the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. In 2012, the Broncos lost to the Baltimore Ravens in double overtime in the divisional round. Last season, they returned to the Super Bowl for the first time in 15 years.
During the offseason, the team has upgraded the defense and it has a stated goal of returning to the Super Bowl and winning it this season.
Bowlen and his siblings bought the Broncos in 1984 from Edgar Kaiser for $78 million. Forbes has listed the Broncos’ value at $1.16 billion. Under his ownership, the team won AFC titles in 1987, 1988 and 1990, all resulting in blowout losses in the Super Bowl.
After a heartbreaking loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round of the playoffs after the 1996 season, the Broncos came back the next season and returned to the Super Bowl thanks to two playoff road wins, then upset the heavily favored Green Bay Packers, 31-24, in San Diego on Jan. 25, 1998, for their first championship.
It was on the podium after receiving the Lombardi Trophy that Bowlen famously said, “This one’s for John!” then handed the trophy to Elway, who had known so much Super Bowl heartache.
The next season, the team started 13-0 before finishing 14-2, then rolled through the playoffs and beat former coach Dan Reeves and the Atlanta Falcons, 34-19, in Miami on Jan. 31, 1999, for their second title.
The Super Bowl wins helped spur public support for a new stadium, and Invesco Field at Mile High opened in the parking lot of old Mile High Stadium on Sept. 10, 2001. But the playoff success that was expected to come with the new stadium never materialized.
The Broncos won only one AFC West title from 1999 to 2008, in 2005. That season included their only playoff win in that time, a divisional round home win over the Patriots. The next week, playing the AFC Championship Game at home, they fell behind early and lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 34-17.
The team went 24-24 the next three seasons and in 2008, it blew a three-game division lead with three games to play, culminating in a 52-21 loss to the San Diego Chargers and another missed playoff season. Two days later, Bowlen fired longtime coach Mike Shanahan.
Bowlen and Ellis then hired Josh McDaniels, who started 6-0 as coach before finishing 2-8 and missing the playoffs again. The next season, the team started 3-9 before McDaniels was fired, and the 4-12 season disillusioned many longtime fans.
But that set up for Bowlen and Ellis to bring in Elway to revamp the football operations and set the team on its current course of success, one the organization hopes culminates in February at the Super Bowl in Arizona with just four words.
“This one’s for Pat!”