For the first time ever, all four Hall of Fame members of the Denver Broncos gathered under one roof – an old hangar at what used to be Lowry Air Force Base – and they were there to honor team owner Pat Bowlen.
With John Elway, Shannon Sharpe, Floyd Little and Gary Zimmerman on hand, the 69-year-old Bowlen received the Mizel Institute’s 2013 Community Enrichment Award for his philanthropic leadership in Colorado and his nearly three-decade long stewardship of the Broncos.
“I’m glad there are four now; we’ve come a long way since ’04,” said Elway, who was the first Bronco to get a bronze bust in Canton, Ohio. “Hopefully, we can get a couple more in there soon.”
Such as Bowlen.
“Hopefully, one day Pat will be in the Hall of Fame himself because he deserves that,” Zimmerman said.
Bowlen is chairman of the board of Denver Broncos Charities, which has donated more than $25 million to charitable organizations over the last 20 years.
“He’s a generous guy; he’s got a big heart,” said Elway, Bowlen’s quarterback-turned-front office chief.
And he’s a demanding, fiercely competitive and behind-the-scenes owner with a reputation for spending whatever it takes to field a winner.
“It’s not easy to win in this league, but he knows how to get the right people in the right spots, and then he gives them the rope to do their jobs,” Elway said. “He has tremendous instincts about people.”
At 292-199-1, Bowlen and New York Giants founder Tim Mara are the only three-decade owners in pro football history to win 60 percent of their games.
The Broncos’ 177 home wins are the most in the NFL since he bought the team in 1984, when Elway was his quarterback, not his front office chief, and the Broncos’ five losing seasons during those 29 years are the fewest in the league over that span.
“I know there are a lot of great owners in the National Football League,” Sharpe said. “Some have won more championships than Mr. Bowlen. I would be hard-pressed to believe that there’s an owner that cares more about his city, about his state, about his players than Mr. Bowlen does.”
When Elway brought Bowlen his first of consecutive championships in the late 1990s, the owner took the Lombardi Trophy in his hand at center stage after an epic win over heavily favored Green Bay and declared, “This one’s for John.”
Elway longs to return the favor.
“Well, that’s my goal,” Elway said. “That would be a special moment. But we still have a lot of work ahead of us.”
“I think there’s a good chance for that,” Zimmerman said. “I think there’s a good chance for more than one. I see a team right now that if things go right ... they’re queued up to be a force for the reckoning.”
Elway said Bowlen’s competitive nature as a triathlete when he was younger translated into his business life “and how he ran the Broncos.”
“Winning starts at the top,” Elway said.
“He’s there every day still. We all know what he wants.”
Another Lombardi Trophy.
Zimmerman said he first realized Bowlen was a different type of owner when he signed up for a turkey his first Thanksgiving in Denver, thinking it was all a joke.
“In Minnesota we always had the turkey scam, and they had the sign-up sheet, and I came in and thought it was all a scam, and then I come into the locker room, and there’s Pat sticking turkeys into our lockers,” Zimmerman said. “That was the first time I really understood what Pat really was about.”
When Peyton Manning kicked off his whirlwind free agency tour in Denver last year, Zimmerman said he knew right then and there that any other teams pursuing the four-time MVP were just wasting their time.
“I knew he’d be a Bronco before he did because once he visited here and met with Mr. Bowlen, I knew there was no way he could go anywhere else,” Zimmerman said.
Sharpe said Manning’s signing shows that Bowlen is as driven for a championship today as he ever was.
“I wish T.D.’s knee and my knee could hold up, we could help the cause,” Sharpe said of former teammate Terrell Davis. “He wants it really bad. I think he deserves it.”
Little played long before Bowlen bought the team, but he has just as deep a respect for the man who retired his jersey and put his name of the team’s Ring of Fame.
“Pat’s been one of the greatest owners in the NFL,” Little said.
The Super Bowl trophies the Broncos won in the late 1990s were transported from the team’s headquarters about 20 miles away and were on display at the Mizel Institute’s gala at the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum where Bowlen was feted.
“This is a great night for Pat Bowlen, and it’s a well-deserved honor,” team president Joe Ellis said. “He’s always trying to put a great team on the field each and every year and then giving back to the community.”
The Denver-based Mizel Institute consists of a Jewish art, culture and history museum and the Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab (The Cell), dedicated to combating the threat of terrorism.