SAN DIEGO, JAN. 28 -- He's an owner who likes the spotlight, but thrives without it. On Wednesday, he was nowhere to be found amid the Super Bowl hubbub; he biked 50 miles, pedaling into the solitary hills north of here.

He loves to talk, but isn't inclined to give a chapter when a verse will do.

As a pro football club owner, Pat Bowlen, 43, is as refreshing as a Pacific breeze. He doesn't like to be chauffeured: The Denver Broncos' owner drives a Bronco.

"Football," said Bowlen, blond, tanned, slender and fit, "is a labor of love to me." Being a "full-time" football club owner has cost him millions, diverting his attention from his more lucrative ventures in natural resources and real estate. "Fortunately, I can choose what I want to do," he said. "What I want to do is own a football team. It's more fun than all the other things put together.

"I enjoy the game. I'm young enough where I can be there without someone saying, 'Who's this old guy?' "

Bowlen had just returned from a closed Broncos' practice in preparation for Sunday's Super Bowl against the Washington Redskins. He could have passed for a Southern Californian: blue shirt with top two buttons open, gold chain, faded jeans, no socks, white running shoes. Sunglasses hung from a shirt button.

He "rarely" wears a tie to the Broncos' offices in Denver, but he'll always wear a suit and tie to games and "to see my banking friends."

Bronco players respect him, they can relate to him as a peer, an athlete. In 1983, Bowlen competed in the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii, placing 136th out of more than 1,100. It took him 11 1/2 hours. He swam 2.4 ocean miles, bicycled 112 miles and ran a marathon.

"Probably the majority of other owners have no idea what it is even like to compete in athletics," said Broncos defensive end Rulon Jones.

"He's in the training room a lot, finding out about the injured guys," said linebacker Jim Ryan, from William and Mary. "Not just because he wants this guy playing on Sunday, but he wants to know how they're feeling. He knows how hard it is to play through an injury. He has a genuine concern for the person, not just the guy as a football player."

Mingling among the employees is what Bowlen learned as a boy from his late father, who made millions in oil. Each morning, Paul Bowlen would walk through his oil-drilling plant in Edmonton, talking with his workers. The son merely does the same.

"You can see him at the Broncos' headquarters most days," said linebacker Simon Fletcher, "and he's not just sitting over in his office. He talks to you, and it's not usually about football. He wants to know about your family, your kids, whatever."

"I can relate to their aches and pains, their families," said Bowlen, the father of four. "Those kinds of things, I suppose, make a difference. Just because they call you owner doesn't mean that has to change the way the players, the coaches, your staff react to you.

"It sounds all hearts and flowers, but to be successful in any business your people have to feel like they belong there, like they want to be there, are a part of it.

"I've been laughed at over Pollyanna stuff like that, but football players in general really want to play this game. If we win on Sunday, if we're fortunate enough to win that game, and the players had a choice, either $64,000 or a Super Bowl ring, 90 percent would take the ring. I know what they want."

Bowlen says his family was always "well off." It was a Canadian pioneer family. His grandfather, J.J. Bowlen, was lieutenant governor of Alberta. But his father's business had led him and his wife to an Alberta crossroads in the dead of winter, February 1944, with the snow piled high, when Pat Bowlen was about to be born. His mother, a Wisconsin native, insisted she be taken "out of this godforsaken country" to Prairie du Chien, Wis., to give birth.

A few months later, the mother and son returned to Alberta. Pat Bowlen grew up around Calgary and Edmonton, and spent summers with his grandmother in Prairie du Chien; as a youngster, he fished in the Mississippi.

He was sent to a Jesuit prep school, Campion, in Prairie du Chien, played football and hockey and ran track and received a hockey scholarship to Notre Dame. Instead, he enrolled at his father's alma mater, Oklahoma, where briefly he was a walk-on with the football team. Athletics seemed behind him as he moved on to the University of Oklahoma law school.

But at 25, he took up distance running, which led to triathlons -- he's done 18. He "hates" the swimming part, "loves" biking. Long bike rides give him "the solitude that I don't get very often -- like a form of meditation. I'm driven more psychologically to do it than physically."

Meanwhile, he multiplied his father's millions in business. But he wanted to own a team. He inquired about the Chargers, Rams and Cowboys; he owned 49 percent of the Calgary Flames hockey team for "less than a week," just to help a friend.

When he bought the Broncos in 1984, he "didn't know anything" about owning a team, and kept his "head down" at owners' meetings the first two years. Now he knows Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, a fellow Canadian, "not well at all," and sees himself as similar to Washington's general manager, Bobby Beathard, in terms of age and relationship with players.

Each NFL owner is constantly "looking for what's best for me, which is why we have trouble agreeing even on a Super Bowl site." His allegiance is to his team, which, "when you cut away all the frills and all the hype, is not a hell of a lot different" from other businesses. "You use the same management style."

This just happens to make him as close to being "one of the boys" as a boss can be. "He's not going to give away the candy store," said Ryan, referring to contract talks -- although Bowlen last year signed quarterback John Elway to a six-year contract at more than $1 million a year. Bowlen has a mother's concern, which leads him to the locker room "before the game {to} watch the ankles being taped." And to be close by "Monday afternoon, when they're all beat up."

"He has a personal touch," said punter Mike Horan. "Eighty-five to 90 percent of the time, he's at practice."

"The way he goes about things has helped a lot of us," said safety Tony Lilly. "He's a relaxed type of guy, who doesn't get uptight about a lot of things."

This week, for example, he's setting a relaxed tone for the Broncos. He admits to being "uptight" for last season's Super Bowl. This time he's rented a red Ferrari -- out of character for him, "my one little luxury during Super Bowl week."

Ordinarily, he avoids the rich man's trappings -- as his father did. "He never thought it was right that he should drive a big car or have a chauffeur or get detached from his guys, the guys who made the equipment work. That's not going to work in every style of business -- I've found that out. But it's very germane to the football busines."

Anyway, "Denver's the kind of town where you wouldn't want to drive a Rolls Royce. If you have a limo take you to the office, everybody thinks, 'Who the hell does he think he is?' The same is true of Edmonton and Calgary. It's a conservative, western attitude."

Bowlen took the Broncos' Super Bowl XXI defeat hard. Going into the recent AFC title game with Cleveland, he said he'd rather lose it than lose another Super Bowl. Only a victory over the Redskins would ease his hurt.

"I know what it's like to lose. I hope you can turn that 180 degrees. I hope you can take the emotional letdown of the loss and say that the reverse of that is the win.

"I think the celebration for something like this comes, for me, weeks later. When we play an ordinary game, it's not until I get home, sit down and have a beer and start to think about it that I really get the emotion of the win."

Winning the Super Bowl "changes your life . . . maybe gives you a better feeling about yourself, your ability to say, yeah, I played on the team that won the 22nd Super Bowl -- regardless of what people say about Super Bowls, the hype and the rest of it.

"Everybody wants to be recognized for what they're doing. If you can be good enough over a length of time where you can win five Super Bowls, maybe they're going to say you were the best there ever was. You have to have some goals like that. I don't think that that's necessarily bad.

"It's an extremely significant thing to win the Super Bowl. I don't think it's a boasting kind of thing, just the knowledge that you were part of a team that was good enough to be the best. That travels with you, and I think it has a lot of significance on the future of your life."