"This one's for John!"
Pat Bowlen's proclamation moments after his Denver Broncos finally won the Super Bowl on their fourth try following the 1997 season isn't just a famous phrase around Denver, it's known by football fans everywhere. After the Broncos' 31-24 victory against the Green Bay Packers exorcised previous Super Bowl losses -- blowouts, in reality -- to the New York Giants, Washington and San Francisco, Bowlen selflessly passed the gleaming Lombardi Trophy to his beloved quarterback and favorite son, John Elway. This one's for John.
Now, 18 years later and with the tick of an unpredictable clock growing unbearably loud, Elway is in position to return the gesture. Everyone knows the reality. Bowlen is ill. He has Alzheimer's disease. No longer can Bowlen inspire his players with his relentlessness on the elliptical machine, always the best athlete in the room. No longer can he breeze through the locker room and be as comfortable among his players as he was at the negotiating table. No longer can he run the franchise he bought in 1984 and built into one of the most stable, classy and revered organizations in the National Football League.
Bowlen stepped away from the day-to-day operation of his team in July 2014, and he hasn't been able to attend a game in more than a year. He didn't attend his own Broncos Ring of Fame ceremony in November, and his condition is such that he won't even be in Santa Clara, California, for Super Bowl 50, the Broncos' seventh under Bowlen. But his ideals, spirit and approach to winning remain omnipresent within the organization, and his absence has driven the Broncos players, coaches and staff.
Their motivation is simple and sincere: Mr. B deserves one more.
The first time Mike Shanahan met Bowlen was in the Broncos' weight room. Shanahan had been an assistant for the team for a month, maybe two, and had heard the new owner was personable. But he was an elite athlete? Shanahan wasn't so sure.
Then he saw Bowlen spend an hour on the Stairmaster, followed by a 10-mile run. Bowlen was training for a triathlon.
"That was why coaches got to know Pat very well, as well as players," Shanahan said. "He was always around in their environment where they were working out. They'd see him relaxed and could be themselves. Most of these owners you see before and after games, and that's it. That's what separated him."
Bowlen liked to be around. A Wisconsin native who earned law and business degrees at the University of Oklahoma and made his money through the oil, gas and real estate industries, Bowlen led from the Broncos headquarters. He had a singular purpose, and everyone knew it.
"Pat had one goal and one goal alone -- that was to win the Super Bowl," said Shanahan, who worked for Bowlen for 21 years, the last 14 as Denver's head coach. "That's what it's about. We knew from day one he was going to try to give you every opportunity you could to win the Super Bowl. It wasn't about making money, even though everyone wants to make money. It was about what was going to give us a best opportunity to win."
If that meant paying assistant coaches more than the going rate, Bowlen did it. If it meant spending on free agents, he did that, too. If it meant building a new stadium, even though the taxpayers initially were against it, Bowlen did that, too, recruiting former Broncos stars to canvass the community and convince the people to chip in.
The results show Bowlen has done plenty right. In the 32 years that he's owned the team, the Broncos have been to more Super Bowls (seven) than they've had losing seasons (five). They've won more than 300 regular-season games and 13 division titles, including the past five in a row.
After Denver won its first Super Bowl, Shanahan wanted to reward running back Terrell Davis with a contract extension. Davis had had a monster regular season, rushing for 1,750 yards -- second only to the great Barry Sanders, who rushed for 2,053 yards -- and a league-high 15 touchdowns. In four playoff games, Davis averaged 145.3 yards per game, and he was the Super Bowl's Most Valuable Player.
Shanahan went to Bowlen's office with a proposed contract extension for Davis for north of $30 million. He said he told Bowlen, "I want you to take a look at this. I've restructured TD's contract because I think he deserves it. I want you to take a look at it."
According to Shanahan, Bowlen replied: "Mike, what do you think I hired you for?" Shanahan replied, "I appreciate that, but when you're dealing with a $30-40 million contract, I think you'd like to look it over."
Bowlen responded, "Hey, if you believe he deserves that contract then you should give it to him."
And that was that. Bowlen didn't even glance at the contract.
"That told me at an early time he had complete confidence in me to do things the right way and for the right reasons," Shanahan said. "You don't get that often, and at the same time you don't want to disappoint him."
Everyone has a story.
For former Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer, that came in 2004. He was feuding with the league office over his desire to wear a No. 40 sticker on his helmet to honor Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals safety who quit the NFL and became a U.S. Army Ranger only to be killed in Afghanistan. Tillman was one of Plummer's closest friends. They played together at Arizona State and then with the Cardinals. Tillman had phoned just days before his last deployment to Afghanistan to check on Plummer, who had called off his wedding at the wire.
"He called me prior to going to Afghanistan to check on me, when realistically I should've been calling him," Plummer said of Tillman. "That's the kind of friend he was."
In Week 2 of the 2004 season, the NFL honored Tillman by having every player in the league wear a helmet decal with his number. Plummer wanted to wear it all season. The league said no. A few weeks later, Plummer defied the league and wore it anyway, incurring a fine.
Since his friend never backed down from anything, Plummer decided he'd continue to wear the decal, the money be damned. Bowlen finally told Plummer it was in his best interest to take the sticker off and just play. What Bowlen didn't tell Plummer is he had a large No. 40 logo installed next to one of the play clocks inside the Broncos' stadium. When Plummer took the field for pregame warmups a few days later, he saw it and was nearly moved to tears.
"It was just for me," Plummer said, "and it made me feel really good, like 'OK, I can move on. I can honor Pat and don't have to fight the NFL.' I just told Mr. Bowlen, 'Thank you. That was nice.' Sometimes the things like that he didn't even want a 'thank you' for. He wanted us to focus on what our job was and that was to play football and play our position and win games, not worry about fines."
For Mark Schlereth, the story is about a practical joke. One day in the mid-1990s, Schlereth rolled through the weight room and noticed that Barney Chavous, the team's assistant offensive line and strength coach, had closed his office door. Schlereth, a lineman, assumed Chavous was taking a power nap before practice.
So Schlereth stuck seven or eight pennies in the crack between Chavous' door and the frame, locking Chavous in. Then Schlereth called Bowlen.
"I said, 'Hey, this is Mark downstairs,'" Schlereth said. "He said, 'Yeah, what can I do for you?' I said, 'Listen, I've got Barney pennied in his office. Call him and say you've got to see him immediately.' He said, 'I can't wait.'"
Bowlen called Chavous, who leapt up not wanting to keep the owner waiting, and then realized he was locked in. Chavous then started "dog-cussing us," Schlereth said.
"And Mr. Bowlen comes sprinting down just to be a part of the festivities, because he thinks it's the funniest thing ever," Schlereth said. "He couldn't wait to call, couldn't wait to hang up and then he's sprinting down these stairs to be part of the shenanigans. He liked to have fun."
For Billy Thompson, there isn't one defining story. There are hundreds. Thompson was a defensive back on Denver's Orange Crush defense in the late 1970s. He never played for Bowlen -- "I wish I had," he said --- but a few years after retiring from football in 1981, Thompson got a call from Bowlen.
"He said, 'I want you to come back,'" Thompson said. "I said, 'As what?' And he said, 'I don't care. Just come back.'"
So Thompson was a scout for several years and then Bowlen asked him to be the Broncos' alumni coordinator, a role he's still in. Thompson reveres Bowlen but also counts him as a close friend. The two used to have lunch together all the time.
"He always just kind of pushed that owner thing aside," Thompson said. "He said, 'I'm talking to you, I want you to tell me what to think.' I'd go, 'I'm going to tell you what to think, so if you don't want to know the truth, don't ask.' He'd say, 'Okay, that's what I want.' I can't say enough good things about him. He's just a special guy."
And then there's Elway. It took some time, but five years ago, Bowlen finally coaxed Elway back to the franchise as its executive vice president of football operations and general manager. Shanahan liked the hire.
"John has a philosophy of what it takes to win, and one thing John Elway does is he wins," Shanahan said. "He doesn't lose in many things, whether he's playing golf, gin, a business deal, a football organization. He knows how to win, and he knows what it takes to win a Super Bowl."
Bowlen had seen that firsthand. And he knew how excruciating some of the losses had been. The Super Bowls were rough, yes, but so too was the 30-27 loss to Jacksonville after the 1996 regular season, when the Broncos had home-field advantage through the playoffs and the Jaguars were in their second year of existence. For years on end, Elway had to hear about how he'd never won the big one, and might not ever.
"A lot of guys give up," Shanahan said, "and John never did."
And Elway is not giving up for Bowlen. That's why after a fourth consecutive division crown and a 13-3 record last season, he fired John Fox following a playoff flameout and hired Gary Kubiak as his head coach. Good is not enough when great is the goal and the clock is ticking.
"The only reason John is where he is now is because of Pat," Thompson said. "And it goes without saying that Pat, he loved John and what John did for the team, and he wanted to keep him a part of it. He had tried for a long time to get John to come and things finally worked out where he could come. I think it made Pat happy and I think it made John happy, because he knows what Pat wants. And with Kubiak, that's a close, close relationship and they know what Pat wants, what the goals are, and it's easy.
"John loves Pat. That relationship is really, really close. That's why I can easily envision him saying, 'This one's for Pat.' Wow. It gives me chills when I think about it."