Pat's Big Fumble

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The case has also laid bare the peculiar terms of Bowlen's 1998 proposal to let Elway buy into the team, a secret offer made at the height of the campaign to persuade voters to pony up more than $280 million in taxes toward the construction of a new stadium. Elway never exercised his option to buy, but Kaiser maintains that the offer itself was a violation of his ROFR.

The Elway deal may have gotten Bowlen crosswise with NFL policy, too. The Broncos are famous for taking a creative approach to the league's strict salary-cap rules, but the 1998 "memorandum of understanding" between Elway and Bowlen breaks new ground. Contingent on the success of the stadium campaign, of which Elway was a very public supporter, Bowlen offered his star player a piece of the team on incredibly favorable terms: Not only was the price heavily discounted, but the bulk of the money Elway would have to put into the deal would come out of millions already owed to him in deferred compensation. The offer came at a time when Elway was still playing for the Broncos and the team was under investigation by the NFL for its errant handling of $22 million in deferred salary owed to Elway and Terrell Davis -- a probe that would eventually lead to a steep fine and the loss of a third-round pick in the 2002 draft.

More than most NFL owners, perhaps, Pat Bowlen hates to lose. His glowering, alpha-dog competitiveness has stirred both admiration and resentment in front offices around the league. Time and again, he's demonstrated his willingness to bust the bank, shake hands with the devil and do whatever else it takes to gain and maintain an advantage. It's a trait that helped raise the Broncos from also-rans to back-to-back Super Bowl champions, kicked the stadium campaign into high gear and made Bowlen one of the owners' go-to guys in sticky negotiations with the television networks, the players and their own colleagues.

But as the Kaiser case shows, winning has its price. In his hunger to succeed, to play in the big leagues and build the team and the stadium he wanted, Bowlen has made questionable decisions over the years, starting with the deal he forged to buy the Broncos. Now some of those deals are coming back to haunt him. He may be on the verge of losing more than he ever hoped to gain.

It's enough to make a millionaire sing the blues.

Even longtime Broncos fans may have difficulty conjuring up fond memories of Edgar Kaiser. The team has had third-string quarterbacks who stuck around longer than Kaiser did. Heir to a Canadian mining and shipbuilding fortune, he bought the team from Gerald and Allan Phipps in 1981 for a reported $33 million, sold it three years later to Bowlen for a hefty gain -- and jetted back to British Columbia before most of the South Stands regulars knew he was gone.

Kaiser and the Broncos were never a comfortable fit. Players, coaches and local sportswriters tended to view him as aloof, autocratic and high-toned, a limo-and-Dom Perignon kind of guy. His idea of a good time was a sitdown with John Denver (to whom Kaiser dedicated an album of ballads of his own composition, Threads of My Life) rather than a round of golf with his quarterback. But during his brief stay, Kaiser made three moves that would help establish the winning tradition the Broncos have enjoyed for most of the past two decades.

Kaiser hired Dan Reeves, the coach who transformed the Broncos into a perennial playoff contender. Then he obtained the services of John Elway from the Baltimore Colts, overseeing a perfectly legal trade that in another business would have been classified as grand theft. Finally, when it was time to leave -- either because he was eager to make a killing on his Elway-enhanced investment or homesick for the lights of Vancouver -- he chose to sell to fellow Canadian tycoon Pat Bowlen.

Like Kaiser, Bowlen owed his fortune to family success in natural-resources development -- in his case, oil and real estate. Unlike Kaiser, he was determined to hold on to the Broncos for years to come; he was also keen on getting to the Super Bowl and then going back again and again. He competed in triathlons, hung around athletes and had a weakness for fur coats. When he joined the NFL, he'd just turned forty, which made him the second-youngest owner in the league.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast