ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – John Elway sat down to talk about Pat Bowlen, and after a few opening words there was silence.
Elway looked down, trying to compose himself. After a long pause he finally exhaled loudly. It never got easier.
On Wednesday the Broncos announced that Bowlen, the team's owner for 30 years, is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He has stepped down completely from running the team. The sadness at the Broncos' facility, as players reported for training camp, was palpable. Nobody in the organization was hit harder by the news than Elway.
Not long after Elway, the team's general manager, continued to speak about Bowlen, following his long pause, he started crying. It was as emotional as he has been in public since his retirement media conference in 1999.
"This place will never be the same," he said.
The news about Bowlen might not have had an enormous effect around the country because Bowlen wasn't a celebrity owner. And that's what made him so popular in Denver.
Bowlen was a fixture at Broncos practice (coach John Fox told a story about Bowlen being at every practice during Super Bowl week last season, bad New Jersey weather be damned), but almost never stopped to talk to the media about the team. That wasn't his style. He's a quiet person by nature, and he let his coaches and executives do their jobs. He had no interest in the spotlight or being involved with player acquisition, just winning football games.
Bowlen had one memorable public moment, and of course it was with Elway. When the Broncos won Super Bowl XXXII, the team's first title, Bowlen raised the Lombardi Trophy and proclaimed, "This one's for John!" Elway said he had no idea it was coming.
"It was probably the most humbling, thrilled feeling I’ve ever had in my life," Elway said.
Elway was in his second year with the Broncos when Bowlen bought the team. He has basically been working for Bowlen ever since. Not long after retirement, Elway ran the Arena Football League's Colorado Crush, a team that Bowlen shared ownership of. Elway said that when the Broncos hired him in 2011 to run the team's football operations, it was because Bowlen's instincts told him Elway was ready. And he was right.
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Elway talked about being a general manager under Bowlen. If something was wrong, Bowlen would want to know why. It was "gentle, subtle pressure," as Elway put it. But Bowlen never meddled. Elway built the Broncos as he saw fit, and Bowlen trusted him. The team has been the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs each of the last two years.
Nobody has meant more to the Denver Broncos than Elway, and in many ways nobody meant more to Elway than Bowlen.
"I wouldn't be anywhere close to where I am today if it wasn't for Pat Bowlen," Elway said.
The Broncos' message was that everything remains on course. Bowlen had plans in place to put the team into a trust, and the plan is for ownership to stay in the family. Joe Ellis, the team's president and CEO, will assume day-to-day business operations – but he had been doing that for a while as Bowlen's health deteriorated. Elway will continue to run the front office. Ellis said the plan is for one of Bowlen's seven children will "earn the right" to one day run the team. But it's mostly business as usual for the Broncos right now. It's just that they already miss Bowlen being around.
"He didn't step through the door this morning," said Ellis, who had many tears of his own as he spoke to the media. "That's hard. That's really hard."
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