Broncos majority owner Pat Bowlen will stand aside from running the team, the Broncos announced today, publicly acknowledging what most have known for a while: he is deep into the serious stages of Alzheimer's disease.
"As many in the Denver community and around the National Football League have speculated, my husband, Pat, has very bravely and quietly battled Alzheimer's disease for the last few years," Annabel Bowlen said in a statement. "He has elected to keep his condition private because he has strongly believed, and often said, 'It's not about me.'
"Pat has always wanted the focus to be solely on the Denver Broncos and the great fans who have supported this team with such passion during his 30 years as owner. My family is deeply saddened that Pat's health no longer allows him to oversee the Broncos, which has led to this public acknowledgment of such a personal health condition."
There is no immediate danger of the team being sold. Bowlen's ownership has been placed into a trust run by non-family members, and Bowlen has long intended that one or some of his seven children take over the Broncos when they are ready. But we've heard that before, often before an owner's kids decide they'd rather split a billion-plus dollars rather than have a slice of an NFL franchise.
Day-to-day operations will officially fall to team executive Joe Ellis (nephew to George H.W. Bush and first cousin to George W. Bush), who has been more or less running things these past few years as Bowlen's condition has worsened. Bowlen had first revealed his short-term memory loss in 2009.
Bowlen, the son of a Canadian oil magnate, purchased the team in 1983 for a then-NFL record $78 million. The Broncos were in dire financial straits at the time, and Bowlen is locally regarded as having saved football in Denver. He helped the Broncos, a laughingstock of both the AFL and NFL until the late '70s, become one of the league's most successful franchises. Under Bowlen's watch, the Broncos racked up 16 playoff appearances, six conference championships, two Super Bowl wins, and Bowlen became the only NFL owner to see his team win 300 games in his first 30 seasons.
Bowlen also played a major role in helping the NFL become the cash-producing behemoth it is today. He co-chaired the league's labor committee for a decade, stepping down after the contentious 2011 lockout that, most observers agree, was won by the owners. He also ran the NFL broadcasting committee, helping to broker a massive $18 billion TV contract that was the largest in sports—until the next NFL deal.
In Denver, Bowlen was known for being hands-on without meddling, a rare balance to strike for an owner. One of his last major decisions may turn out to be his biggest: bringing in John Elway to run the team's football operations in 2011.