It's not the kind of news that typically breaks overnight -- but longtime Broncos owner Pat Bowlen has always done things his own way.
A short time ago, the Broncos released a statement through NFL.com revealing that Bowlen, seventy, is formally giving up control of the team -- something that actually happened several years ago according to sources speaking with Westword. What's new is confirmation that Bowlen suffers from Alzheimer's disease.
Bowlen took over the ownership of the Broncos in 1984, ushering in the greatest period in the team's history. During this period, the team went to six Super Bowls, winning two of them, in 1997 and 1998. And unlike owners whose egos demanded they make every on-the-field decision for their franchise, Bowlen empowered people with football experience and trusted that they'd make the right choices. His faith wasn't always rewarded: See the misbegotten Josh McDaniels era. But for the most part, the Broncos have proven that it is possible to achieve elite status in what by national standards is a mid-size market.
Nonetheless, it's been obvious in recent years that Bowlen was no longer controlling the Broncos' destiny on a day-to-day basis -- something sources confirmed to our Alan Prendergast back in November 2010. Here's an excerpt from that item:
For months commentators have been engaged in a coded whisper campaign about Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen's health and diminished role in the organization. As the 2-6 team staggers into a bye week amid raging concerns about its leadership, talk about Bowlen's admitted "short-term memory loss problems" and low profile has intensified, even as club officials insist that everything's fine. Nonetheless, knowledgeable sources tell Westword Bowlen is no longer the team's major decision maker on key subjects.
The rumor mill started grinding in earnest last year, after Bowlen informed Denver Post columnist Woody Paige that his memory isn't what it used to be and that he was even having trouble recalling details of the Broncos' championship seasons in the late 1990s. Never the most accessible of NFL owners, Bowlen has granted few audiences to journalists since that exchange; his last interview was more than nine months ago.
At the time of Predergast's report, Broncos spokesman Patrick Smyth insisted that "Mr. Bowlen is heavily involved in all matters of the organization and remains a key figure on several NFL committees." Moreover, he continued to appear at games and important events, such as the 2012 press conference announcing the signing of quarterback Peyton Manning. Yet interviews were few and far between, with team president Joe Ellis and executive vice president of football operations John Elway clearly doing the heavy lifting.
This reality is confirmed by the Broncos in the following 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.
As Mr. Bowlen focuses on his health, the Broncos have announced changes to their leadership structure that will ensure the long-term stability of the franchise.
Those changes include placing the ownership of the team in a trust controlled by non-family members, according to NFL.com, and putting Ellis in direct control of the team.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell may be a controversial figure in many eyes, but his comments about Bowlen are on the mark. He writes:
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This is a sad day for the NFL. Pat Bowlen's leadership has been critical to the success of the Broncos and the entire NFL. From building a championship team that is a pillar of the community to his important work for the league on television and labor matters, Pat's love of the game drove him and we have all benefited from his passion and wisdom. But the time has come for Pat to focus on his health and we fully support him. Joe Ellis has been a trusted executive for Pat for many years after working with us at the league office. Joe's deep experience ensures that the Broncos will continue to have strong leadership.
Indeed, nothing has really changed behind the scenes with the Broncos. The leaders who acquired Manning's services and returned the Broncos to an elite level continue to be in place. But they owe a debt of gratitude to Pat Bowlen, as do all Broncos fans.
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.