The iconic image in Colorado sports history caught John Elway off guard. Elway spent his career providing goose bumps, comebacks, face palms and victories. It never dawned on him that he would be remembered for something someone said more than something he did.
On Jan. 25, 1998, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen stood on the podium at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego after his team’s improbable 31-24 victory over the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. In one sentence, Bowlen summed up the improbable, agonizing journey to delirium.
“This one’s for John!”
On Wednesday — a day of heartache at Dove Valley after Bowlen’s step down from his position because of an ongoing battle with Alzheimer’s disease — Elway reflected on the franchise’s defining moment.
“It was a surprise to me when he said that, but it was probably the most humbling, thrilled feeling I’ve ever had in my life when we were finally able to win that championship and Pat handed me that trophy,” Elway said. “So there will never be a more special time because we’d been working on it for 15 years, and Pat had been here for 14 years. That was the highlight of my career.”
Elway hasn’t played since 1999, when he won his second Super Bowl ring. He returned to the Broncos in 2011, knowing of Bowlen’s faith in him and, privately, his friend’s deteriorating health.
Wednesday, the day after Bowlen’s decision was announced, still came too soon. Elway, fighting back tears, sat before the media at the annual training camp barbecue, clobbered by the reality of Bowlen’s absence.
“What a sad day it is around here,” Elway said, before pausing for 26 seconds to compose himself. “This place will never be the same.”
Watch: John Elway talks about Pat Bowlen stepping down
Bowlen ceded much of the daily business to team president Joe Ellis in 2011, while entrusting Elway to rebuild the football operations that same year. Bowlen didn’t meddle, but provided subtle pressure through tough questions after learning the game through conversations with former Broncos assistants Jack Elway and Jerry Frei.
Ellis and Elway reveled in the give-and-take, recognizing that it was the intelligence and vision of “Mr. B” that created the team’s standard for excellence. Bowlen no longer will occupy his days at the team’s Dove Valley headquarters. This was anticipated over the past few months, but the reality shook Elway.
“He has given me so much. It’s going to be hard to walk through those doors and not see him,” Elway said.
Elway said there are no plans for him to own the team. Bowlen, 70, has placed his Broncos’ ownership in the Pat Bowlen Trust. His desire remains for one of his seven children “to earn the right to run the franchise someday,” Ellis said.
John Elway talks about Pat Bowlen at a press conference at Dove Valley, Wednesday afternoon, July 23, 2014. (John Leyba, The Denver Post)
Bowlen’s legacy is secure, his accomplishments beyond the imagination of many sports franchises that aspire only to reach the playoffs. During his 30-year stewardship, the Broncos advanced to six Super Bowls, second only to New England. Their winning percentage ranks behind only the San Francisco 49ers. Denver has only five losing seasons since 1984, when Bowlen purchased the team for $78 million.
“He absolutely belongs in the Hall of Fame,” Elway said, repeating the stance of Ellis and coach John Fox. “And I hope that his bust is next to mine (in Canton).”
Elway and Bowlen have overlapped for two decades with the Broncos, a partnership nearly unrivaled in the NFL. When the Broncos went 4-12 in 2010, Bowlen admitted his mistake in hiring unproven Josh McDaniels and turned to Elway for help. The two worked together in Elway’s successful foray into the Arena Football League. But the former brash quarterback wasn’t convinced he was cut out for a front-office post.
“There’s always a little bit of doubt there, especially when you don’t have any experience. To have the confidence that he had in me to be able to afford me the responsibilities that he afforded me with the Broncos — he was the one who thought I was ready,” Elway said. “That’s one great thing that Pat had. He made decisions and had tremendous instincts. Somehow you don’t know how he got there, but his instincts were tremendous. When he told me, ‘You’re ready and you can handle this job,’ that was the final say and what got me over the hump.”
Bowlen leaves a team built to contend for a championship. His desire to win shaped every decision. He struck a rare balance of power, appointing and empowering his employees. He held them accountable without infringing on their authority. He also rewarded them, no praise more memorable than his eloquent gesture after the Broncos’ victory over the Packers.
“No. I really didn’t see it coming,” Elway said. “Heck, I threw for 130 yards. So, yeah, I didn’t see it.”