A Bittersweet Goodbye

With a new head coach, and the Denver Broncos offically for sale, the Bowlen family takes in one final game as owners
Broncos

Portraits by Jensen Sutta

ON A CHILLY JANUARY DAY, the Bowlen family walked together into Empower Field at Mile High for the final home game of the 2021/2022 season and the final home game as owners of one of the most storied NFL teams in franchise history. The game between the Denver Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs is a rivalry that predates the 38 years of Bowlen ownership, but on this day, the outcome wasn’t the focus—at least not for the Bowlens.

“Today is bittersweet for the family,” says Marybeth Jagger, sister of the late Pat Bowlen. “We are extremely proud of what we accomplished as owners,” says Pat’s brother Bill Bowlen, “and we are sad at where the team is today.”

Pat and his siblings, John, Bill and Marybeth, bought the team in 1984. Pat served as controlling owner and CEO from the time they purchased the team until he stepped down in 2014, due to the progression of Alzheimer’s. Bill and Marybeth sold their interests, and John remains a minority interest holder.

The Denver Broncos had an amazing run under Pat Bowlen’s leadership, and his legacy is legendary. They won three Super Bowls and claimed seven AFC championships. Bowlen was the only owner in NFL history to have 300 wins in his first 30 years of ownership. There are eight Denver Broncos in the Hall of Fame, including Pat Bowlen, who was inducted in 2019, two months after his death.

Pat’s two oldest daughters, Beth and Amie, walked side by side into the stadium for the final game. “It has been the ride of a lifetime,” says Beth, who was just 14 when her dad took over as the owner. There are so many highlights, but that first Super Bowl victory in 1997-98 was an undisputed high for the Bowlen family. Brother John laughs when thinking about that day: “You have to peck with the chickens before you can soar with the eagles,” he says, talking about the four Super Bowl losses before winning back-to-back championships. All of Colorado shared in the high after that first win against the defending champion Green Bay Packers. Beth Bowlen Wallace remembers being in her dad’s hotel suite after a night of parties and dancing. She and her father opened the Vince Lombardi trophy that was sitting in its case in Bowlen’s room. The two sat holding the trophy, giggling well into the night.

“Today is also about remembering our dad,” says Bowlen Wallace. “We are extremely proud to be here with the fans. We will always bleed orange and blue.” Pat’s sister Marybeth says going to the game was always a highlight for her. “We all love football,” adds Marybeth. “Our dad used to take us to games starting when we were very little. He would bundle us up and take us in any weather.”

Each Bowlen family member has different memories and highlights of their time as NFL owners, but they all agree on a few things. The team under Pat Bowlen’s leadership was second to none, and the Denver Broncos fans were and still are the best in the NFL. It is hard to reminisce about Broncos fans without mentioning Barrel-Man, the superfan who attended every home game wearing cowboy boots, a cowboy hat and an orange barrel that covered his torso. He was the first Broncos fan inducted into the Visa Hall of Fans at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Barrel Man, whose real name was Tim McKernan, died in 2009.

Mr. “B,” as most called Pat Bowlen, was the consummate businessman and leader. “My brother believed that if you were a part of the Denver Broncos, then you were also a part of his family,” says Bill. Pat Bowlen was also an accomplished athlete, competing in the Ironman Triathlon in the 80s.

Bill remembers the first day of training camp in Greeley after taking ownership. He and the others drove the 60 miles to Greeley from Denver, and Pat rode his bike. “He was a true athlete, and the players respected him for that,” he says.

“Pat had a big personality, but he didn’t always like the spotlight,” says John Bowlen, the youngest sibling. Pat was sometimes uncomfortable with the attention. He felt that every person involved in the franchise deserved recognition. “Pat was a humble guy—he was not a limelight guy,” says John. And while a lot of credit goes to Pat Bowlen for the success of the Denver Broncos, Beth Bowlen Wallace adds that her dad firmly believed the fans were what made the team so successful.

Now, several years after Pat Bowlen’s death, one question looms: What is next for the Denver Broncos? Pat Bowlen stepped down in 2014, and Joe Ellis has served as president of the team for the past 11 seasons. At the be- ginning of the 2021 season, and with pressure from the NFL, Ellis said there would be a transfer of ownership at the end of the season.

Bill Bowlen took a long sigh before explaining his emotions during the last game. “Pat wanted the team to stay in the family but knew that without a unanimous agreement for one controlling owner, the team would have to be sold.”

The franchise, which is estimated at almost $4 billion, has a bright future, according to all the Bowlen siblings. There is no doubt the team and the new owners can turn this around, emphasizes Bill. “The team needs a strong leader, and my advice for the new owners is to bring it back to family.”

On this last game in January, there were some notable missing family members. Pat’s wife, Annabel, hasn’t been able to attend the games due to illness. John and his wife Kerry reminisced by phone from their home in Canada because of COVID-19 restrictions. Some of Pat’s adult children were out of town, but everyone was there in spirit. It was a day where family dynamics and the well-documented disputes were put aside. The Bowlens are united in wanting a successful future for the Denver Broncos. “My dad was all about putting a good product on the field for the fans,” says Amie.

When the Bowlens walked out of Empower Field at Mile High for their last time as owners, it was with a hard loss against Kansas City. The season had been a challenging one for the Denver Broncos, which ended with a 7-10 record. “It is time for new leadership,” Beth and Amie agree. “It has not been the same since our dad stepped down, and the fans deserve more.” Pat Bowlen was a competitor. He was the captain of the ship. “It is time to find a new captain and regain our competitive edge,” concludes Amie.

The Denver Broncos and the Bowlen family are forever linked. As they exited the stadium, the Bowlens all looked toward the larger-than-life statue of Pat Bowlen that stands on the south side of the stadium. Bowlen’s arms are crossed, and he looks out on the fans as they pass by. He stands confidently—as if to say, “We got this. Good things happen in Broncos Country.”

Lindsey Schwartz is a Denver-based writer and an editorial producer for ABC News, 20/20.

Categories: Community/Society, Features