Pat Bowlen, who purchased the Denver Broncos in 1984 and oversaw what became one of the NFL’s most successful franchises, passed away late Thursday night after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 75.
“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,” the Bowlen family wrote in a statement released by the Broncos.
“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.”
Apart from a brief spurt of success in the late 1970s, the Broncos that Bowlen acquired in March 1984 had a mostly dour history, with losing seasons in 14 of their 24 years of existence. But with Dan Reeves as coach and John Elway at quarterback, the Broncos would finish first or second in their division in each of Bowlen’s first six seasons, appearing in three Super Bowls, all losses. Denver would finally break through in Elway’s final two seasons, winning consecutive Super Bowls after the 1997 and 1998 seasons, the former memorably punctuated by Bowlen’s postgame declaration, “This one’s for John.”
After acquiring Peyton Manning during the tail end of his career, the Broncos advanced to two more Super Bowls following the 2013 and 2015 seasons, losing the first but winning the second.
Since Bowlen took over in 1984, the Broncos have had as many Super Bowl appearances as losing seasons: seven. They also had the most winning seasons in the NFL (21) and second-most playoff appearances (18) over that span.
“You saw him every day,” Elway, now the Broncos’ president of football operations and general manager, told ESPN. “He cared about you as a person, he cared about you as a player, and he gave you everything he had to help you succeed, but you always knew you were expected to care as much as he did.”
Bowlen also became one of the NFL’s most powerful owners during his tenure. He was co-chair of the NFL management council executive committee from 2010 to 2011 and, as head of the NFL’s broadcast committee, helped create the NFL Network, secure the league’s massively lucrative television contracts and push for the creation of the “Sunday Night Football” franchise, which has become a constant ratings winner for NBC and the home of the league’s marquee game each week. Bowlen will be inducted posthumously into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 3.
“Our league is also better because of Pat’s extraordinary contributions,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “As co-chair of the NFL Management Council Executive Committee and the chair of the NFL Broadcasting Committee, Pat played an instrumental role in many facets of our League that benefited fans, players and clubs.”
“Pat personified all that’s right about the NFL and is extremely deserving of this summer’s recognition as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
Bowlen was not on hand to see his team win its third championship at Super Bowl 50 in February 2016. He first publicly admitted to short-term memory loss in 2009, saying his recollections of the Broncos’ two earlier titles were fading, and had turned over control of the team to a family trust in 2014 because of his worsening condition. But Elway offered a fitting tribute after receiving the Lombardi Trophy.
“This one’s for Pat,” he said.
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