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Pat Bowlen Dies: Broncos Owner's Life, Legacy and Fight for Team

Pat Bowlen will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on August 3.
Pat Bowlen will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on August 3.
Denver7 via YouTube

Less than two months before his scheduled August 3 enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen has died after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 75.

Bowlen's passing, announced by the Broncos at 12:10 a.m. today, June 14, is triggering a wave of nostalgia for the man rightfully regarded as the most successful pro-sports owner in Denver history, thanks to the three Super Bowl titles the squad collected during his run. But it's also expected to bring the distasteful fight for Broncos control among his children to a head.

There's no hint of internecine warfare in the family's official reaction to Pat's death. The statement, credited to his wife Annabel, who's also been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and children Amie, Beth, Patrick, Johnny, Brittany, Annabel and Christianna, reads: "We are saddened to inform everyone that our beloved husband and father, Pat Bowlen, passed on to the next chapter of his life late Thursday night peacefully at home surrounded by family. His soul will live on through the Broncos, the city of Denver and all of our fans. Our family wishes to express its sincere gratitude for the outpouring of support we have received in recent years. Heaven got a little bit more orange and blue tonight."

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The family adds: "Pat Bowlen had a competitive spirit with a great sense of humor. As fun-loving as he was, he always wanted us to understand the big picture. We will forever remember his kindness and humility. More important than being an incredible owner, Pat Bowlen was an incredible human being."

An attorney by training, Bowlen made his fortune in Canada by way of oil, gas and real estate, and his purchase of the Broncos in 1984 represented a fortuitous bit of timing; the year before, then-owner Edgar Kaiser acquired the right to sign quarterback John Elway. The Stanford QB was the key to the team's emergence as a perennial power, and he closed out his stellar career with a pair of championships, for the 1997 and 1998 seasons. The Broncos also won Super Bowl 50 in February 2016.

Along the way, Bowlen repeatedly proved his willingness to empower the likes of head coach Mike Shanahan and Elway, currently the designated team runner, with the ability to make decisions that kept the Broncos relevant even during less successful periods — though the past two seasons have been marked by a serious decline.

Brittany Bowlen during a 2018 public appearance.
Brittany Bowlen during a 2018 public appearance.
CBS4 file photo

By then, of course, Bowlen wasn't the man in charge. In November 2010, sources told Westword that he was no longer the Broncos' major decision maker because of issues related to memory loss. But it wasn't until July 2014 that he formally gave up control of the team.

"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," the team announced at the time. "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 Broncos were subsequently put in the hands of trustees that currently consist of CEO Joe Ellis, team counsel Rich Slivka and attorney Mary Kelly. But Bowlen had made it clear he wanted one of his kids to take over for him, with son John — the "Johnny" mentioned above — seen as the frontrunner. But that was before he was busted for a 2015 domestic-violence episode involving whippets and booze and a 2017 DUI.

In May 2018, daughter Beth Bowlen Wallace, a product of Pat's first marriage, nominated herself as the team's heir. Problem was, the trustees openly favored Brittany Bowlen for this role, though she was seen as being too young (she's in her late twenties) and not sufficiently seasoned to take over immediately.

This past October, as the grooming of Brittany moved forward, Pat's brother Bill Bowlen widened the family schism with a lawsuit designed to put the Broncos in Beth's hands. And while the complaint is currently in limbo, it symbolizes potential ugliness to come.

But that's a subject for another day. It's better now to focus on Elway's words when accepting the Super Bowl 50 trophy: "This one's for Pat."

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