Broncos' Hall of Fame owner Pat Bowlen led with humility

Under Pat Bowlen's guidance the Broncos won three Super Bowls, but he did it without being too big for the people in his organization. John Leyba/The Denver Post

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Now that Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen has been selected for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, his bust might stand as a testament to humility in a profession that doesn't often celebrate such things.

And perhaps that is Bowlen's legacy now that he will be among just 15 franchise owners who have been enshrined in Canton, Ohio. Bowlen's substantial list of accomplishments with the Broncos and his work at the league level -- on everything from labor negotiations to broadcast rights to international play -- were celebrated this past weekend in Atlanta around the swirl of Super Bowl LIII.

Bowlen and former Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey were among the eight chosen for enshrinement by the Hall's Board of Selectors on Saturday. They join Gil Brandt, Johnny Robinson, Ed Reed, Tony Gonzalez, Kevin Mawae and Ty Law.

"I always go back to one of our first conversations," Bailey, who played for a decade with the Broncos after coming over from the Washington Redskins in a 2004 trade, said of Bowlen. "The way he welcomed me to his home: 'If you want something to eat, you're always welcomed to my house.' He would say that, 'You're always welcomed to my house.' And just that hospitality in itself. There would be a lot of laughter."

Bowlen, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, formally stepped away from the team's day-to-day operations in 2014. His selection for the Hall of Fame has served as a reminder of all of the things he wouldn't mention about himself even if someone asked.

His signature moment as Broncos owner might have come just minutes after the Broncos secured their first championship with a win over the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII in 1998. After so many Super Bowl disappointments, Bowlen was handed the Vince Lombardi Trophy, and he immediately handed it to someone else. His "this one's for John" declaration when speaking about Elway will serve as the snapshot that describes all that came before and after for the Broncos.

Bowlen created the infrastructure that built a franchise that has as many Super Bowl trips as losing seasons (seven each) since he purchased the team. He is the only owner to have hired four different head coaches who led the team to a Super Bowl. He is the only owner since 1984 whose team is among the top five franchises in wins before as well as after the advent of free agency. He has been on the winning side of the Super Bowl three times. And he has done it with humility.

Peyton Manning said Bowlen was a "big reason why I ended up coming to Denver." Team president and CEO Joe Ellis said he will always "think of Pat's humility even as he made sure we strived to be the best at what we were doing, but that you could do that with humility and an awareness of how you treated people and making sure you treated them right."

For decades, Broncos players have told of Bowlen's daily routine beyond executive-level meetings. Bowlen stands out for talking with the Broncos' trainer Steve Antonopulos each morning or workouts in the team's weight room, where players would challenge the former Ironman competitor to any contest of endurance. He has pushed a laundry cart through the locker room to hand out holiday turkeys and asked about family members. He has helped others in the toughest of times, including in the weeks and months after Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams was murdered on New Year's Day in 2007.

"You hear other guys talk about certain relationships they had with their owners," Bailey said. "But it really doesn't happen much, because owners usually do their thing and players usually play. It's usually a middle ground with the people in the middle, like the coaches that you have to deal with more than anybody. Just the fact that he was always around and wanted to be a part of most of the things that we did. It was amazing."

Former players and coaches hope Bowlen's selection to the Hall of Fame will help smooth out the current ownership dispute. The Bowlen Family Trust, which Bowlen put in place before he stepped away from the team's operations and includes Ellis, is being challenged by some members of the family, including Pat's brother Bill and daughter Beth Bowlen Wallace.

But six of Bowlen's children were in Atlanta this weekend for Bowlen's selection, and the children participated together in the events with the other members of the Hall's Class of 2019. And even though Pat Bowlen could not travel to Atlanta, the kids talked to their father via FaceTime.

"His spirit lives on in all of our hearts," daughter Brittany Bowlen said. "So he'll celebrate it with us."