ATLANTA — It wasn’t just years of fitness training that left Pat Bowlen with his athletically thin frame.
Boarding school’s starch-filled daily menu caused Bowlen to swear off potatoes the rest of his life. Discipline of a triathlon athlete made desserts forbidden to him and his children.
Shy, reserved, serious and even aloof were familiar descriptions of Mr. B during his 35 years as the Broncos’ owner. So were the words successful, powerful, intelligent, giving and caring.
But to get a transparent peak inside the window of what a man is really like, ask his kids.
At a downtown hotel conference room here late Saturday morning, hours before the Pro Football Hall of Fame voting committee would elect Bowlen into the class of 2019 as a contributor, 9NEWS was given incredible access to six of Bowlen’s seven children (Johnny stayed back in the Denver-area to be with mom and dad, who are both battling with Alzheimer’s disease).
Did you know Pat Bowlen became one of the best owners in all of sports despite dealing with dyslexia? Or the Bowlens, like most Americans, had a once-a-week family dinner that began with grace, even if it didn’t end with dessert?
Or that he once, in his younger days, accepted a dare and streaked around a laid-back, but pricey surf-n-turf restaurant? This was still early in his courtship with his wife Annabel, several years before he took ownership of the Denver Broncos. Look at that! Look at that!
Arranged by Broncos’ public relations boss Patrick Smyth -- who worked exhaustively behind the scenes the past five years to raise awareness of Pat Bowlen’s viability as a Hall of Fame candidate -- many of the Bowlen kids were sitting down for a formal interview with a media outlet for the first time Saturday. Bowlen’s children all spoke of their father not only in loving terms, but reverence. A piece of them lives to make their father proud.
Like most children, they longed for their father’s affection. Unlike most children, they grew up with the pressures of living up to the standards that comes with having a famous parent.
Regrettably but without complaint, the five youngest Bowlen children must carry on with independence as both of their parents have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s – dad since 2014 and mom since last summer.
Yet, each one displays a positive outlook and a determined spirit to make a difference. And while they may have grown up more privileged than most, they have not wasted their advantages.
Here are some of the topics about their father 9News addressed with them.
Bowlen family dinner night
Bowlen was usually busy on Sundays, game day for his Broncos. And he worked late at the office Monday through Friday. So there was one night Mr. B set aside for his family.
“Saturday night," said Annabel, the sixth oldest of Bowlen’s seven children. “I would look forward to it. I knew it was coming and we would all sit down as a family. He always would make everybody laugh at the dinner table. And he had tricks, too."
“Like, he used to take the knife and pick up another knife or a fork and attach it and hang it from it. That was pretty cool. I don’t know, he just always had tricks up his sleeve."
Sometimes the family dinner was at home. Sometimes it was at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse.
“If we were eating at home we would have a roast chicken," said Brittany, the fifth of seven children. “He loved roast chicken, but he hated potatoes. He used to say he ate too many of them in boarding school."
The boarding school was Campion Jesuit Catholic High School in Prairie du Chien, Wis. George Wendt – “Norm” of Cheers – was among the distinguished alumni of the school that has long since been torn down.
There were family dinner traditions to observe. Starting with grace.
“Oh yeah," said Patrick III, Pat’s oldest son and third oldest child. “He’s a family man, first. But he’s also a business man. He was caring about his family, and caring about his business, and caring about everyone around him. It really showed a lot about him."
There was roasted chicken at home, usually seafood or steak at the restaurant. But he had some pet peeves the rest of his family had to observe.
“You could never have two drinks at the table," Brittany said. “So you either had a glass of wine, or a cocktail. You could never have both. That was a very important rule."
Probably not a bad rule. Neither was the next one.
“It was funny because we’d go to dinner with dad, and we were never allowed to order dessert," said Amie Klemmer, the oldest Bowlen child. “I think it was because he really wanted it, but he knew if we ordered dessert he’d have to get one, too. He didn’t want to break the weakness."
As time went on, Brittany said dad amended his dessert rule slightly.
“You couldn’t order dessert unless he was ordering dessert," Brittany said. “But if he ordered dessert he would be like, maybe we should get the whole menu of desserts. Because we would only get dessert once a year. He was very serious about it. I think it was because he didn’t want to give us a bunch of sugar before bed."
Pat Bowlen the father
Bowlen had two families. He met his first wife, Sally Parker, while they were attending the University of Oklahoma in the 1960s. After he earned his law degree from OU in 1968, he and Sally moved to Edmonton, Alberta, where Pat became a wealthy lawyer while also helping to run his father Paul’s oil business.
He and Sally had two children, Amie and Beth, but the marriage split when the daughters were 3 and 2 years old. At that point, Sally and her two daughters moved to Hawaii. Dad soon followed and bought a second home nearby. It was roughly another 13 years or so before Pat and his second wife Annabel started their family with Patrick, followed by Johnny and three more daughters.
But for both families, Hawaii and all the islands and ocean offers was a huge part of the children’s upbringing.
“He was a young dad, but very hands-on," Amie said. “He co-parented. I remember he would pick us up on the weekends and we went to his house. My parents got along very well. It was like having two houses. We had two Easter egg hunts, two Christmases. We had a lot of fun with him."
He taught most of his kids how to swim and canoe surf. Canoe surfing is like surfing in that you ride the waves except in a canoe. There are two to four people in a canoe with the key person being the steersman.
“I thought he was trying to drown us," Amie said. “We would still be literally in floaties and he would take us out where I thought were tsunamis. We would flip the boat and Beth and I would be floating around like toys out in the ocean and he’d gather us up, put us back in the boat, and we’d go back out and do it again."
Amie said she was 16 or 17 years old when dad bought the Broncos. Beth is 16 months younger than Amie.
“My dad bought the team when I was a teenager, so he wasn’t all consumed through the younger years of my life," Beth said. “He spent half the year in Hawaii which is where I lived so we spent quite a bit of time with him as, if you want to call it, a normal dad.
“When he bought the team, I didn’t notice much of a difference in his parenting. He balanced his life between going to Hawaii and canoe surfing and balanced his achievements in the triathlon and his marathons with his life with his family. But the Broncos were certainly a priority for him."
Patrick III was an infant when his dad bought the Broncos in 1984. The Broncos won their first Super Bowl in 1997, the same year the Bowlen’s youngest child, Christianna was born.
“I was a surprise and then we won the Super Bowl which was also a surprise," Christianna said. “He was the best dad ever. He would give me the most amazing advice. And even when I was getting bullied at school for my dyslexia, he would come to school and make everything better."
That away, Mr. B. Some dads can take care of bullies better than others. But not in the way you might think.
“It made him a little bit mad, but he said, ‘I have dyslexia as well and you have to be a fighter,’’’ Christianna said.
About five years ago, Christianna was diagnosed with a brain tumor that was also related to the severe epileptic seizures she was having.
“My dad had Alzheimer’s, but he was still there for me," she said. “He told me, “You’re a fighter and you can do this.
“I had the brain tumor removed, and I take medication for epilepsy and I’m going to the University of Denver to make my dad proud."
Patrick Dennis Bowlen was the type of dad who liked to dispense advice. Each kid more or less received the same message.
“The best piece of advice my father gave me was that in order to succeed in this world, you have to stay competitive and you have to be strong," Annabel said.
“The lessons he taught us are guiding principles that we live by every single day," Brittany said. “I was sitting on our couch one night – that was one of our favorite things to do. We’d sit on this big, leather sofa. He’d smoke a cigar and we’d chat about life lessons.
“One day he laid out three for me. He said, Brittany you have to understand. You have to understand the big picture. You have to understand people and where they come from. And you have to understand the business.
“And he said you have to have fun. Enjoy what you do. Live your life in a way that brings you joy.
“And the last one was, Brittany you have to kick ass and take names. I think that shows his competitiveness. He wanted some drive. He wanted us to do what was important to us.
“He raised us with purpose and I’m so blessed to have been raised by a father who did that."
So, Brittany. While sitting on the couch with dad, did he ever say he’d like for you to one day sit in his big chair as the Broncos’ owner?
“I’d like to keep this about him and his career and his contributions," she said. “I think that question is for another day."
If one of his girls fell down and came up bruised and crying, how would he handle it?
“He said, ‘OK. Come on. Pull it together. It’s going to be OK,’’’ Annabel said. “But he also was very understanding and wanted to make sure I was OK. I remember one time I broke my arm in the back yard. Brittany and I were trying to build a treehouse. My dad was somewhere at an away game. And I came up to my mom and I started crying, “All I want is daddy. I want daddy."
So who was dad’s favorite child? Here’s a hint: Gary Zimmerman, Rod Smith, Shannon Sharpe and Terrell Davis all heard Mr. B call them his second favorite player. After John Elway, of course.
Mr. B was sly that way.
“My dad would tell everyone secretly, “You’re my favorite," Annabel said. “You’re my favorite.’ And we all thought, “I’m his favorite.” And then you’d find out Brittany just got told the same thing. Or Christianna was just told the same thing. Or Patrick or Johnny."
Pat Bowlen the man
Each kid was asked to describe what Pat Bowlen the man was like.
Patrick: “He was a very serious man. He was also a real funny guy, too. That was always fun to be around him, to hear his jokes, to see him laugh, to see his big, huge smile."
Amie: “He was very intelligent. He was, in my opinion, humble in the sense he didn’t talk a whole lot. He’d listen. He was very thoughtful, and he wanted to make sure his players had everything possible."
Beth: “For me he was dad. He was strict and intense but fun and loving."
Brittany: “Education was incredibly important to my dad. That’s why he worked with so many children’s entities that had so much to do with education because he believed everyone had a right to education.
“He encouraged me to continue my education. And I was able to do that (by getting her M.B.A.) at Duke. I’m not sure if he knows that I went to Duke. But I think we would have had some great laughs about me going to the football school of the United States, Notre Dame, and then the basketball school (Duke)."
Christianna: “My dad is funny. Emotional."
Wait a minute. Hold on. The Bowlen kids keep saying Pat Bowlen was funny. With all due respect, kids, the rest of us didn’t often see that side of him, if at all.
“No, you guys didn’t see funny," Christianna said. “He has the best sense of humor in the world. He always was joking around with us and making us laugh. He once told us this story about when he was very young, my mother and him had first met. And they went to a place called Buzz’s Steakhouse in Hawaii. And he got dared to streak around the entire restaurant. So he did.
“He loves that story to this day."
Where’s social media when you need it?
How Pat Bowlen is doing
In a response to a lawsuit filed by Bill Bowlen, Pat’s younger brother, against the trustees of the Pat Bowlen Trust, the trustees stated the Broncos’ owner was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the final months of 2013, or going on six years ago.
How he’s doing depends on perspective.
“He’s doing pretty great given the circumstances," Annabel said. “My dad is a fighter. Whenever someone tells him you might not be able to do this, or this is too hard for you, he shows them wrong. He’s always fighting. He’s strong. I am always inspired by that."
“He’s OK," Beth said. “He’s transitioning through Alzheimer’s which is a very difficult disease. There is no cure. There is no treatment. I speak out about that so that we can bring more awareness to this disease and find a cure and find a treatment."
As the youngest, Christianna has lived with his father and now her mom’s battle with Alzheimer’s more than the others.
“I understand really well how to be a caretaker," she said. “My dad has his lucid moments where he knows exactly who I am. He says, we’re at (home address) aren’t we? And I say yeah, daddy, we are."
The fur coat
You have to understand, when it was 19 degrees in Denver on Tuesday morning before sunset, it was -38 degrees in Edmonton.
Pat Bowlen came from Canada, where a fur coat there was as useful as a parka here. Still, Bowlen got so much guff from local radio hosts and newspaper columnists, he finally shed the fur coat in the late-1980s.
“I remember one game he gave it to me," Amie said. “He said, you need to hold my coat. It was so heavy. So I put it on and I swear there was a head and the coat was down to … yeah. Dad definitely had some fashion faux paus at times (laughed). But we loved him for it. I’ll tell ya, if anybody could rock the fur, he could."
Growing up a child of Pat Bowlen
Patrick Bowlen has worked the past 15 years with the Broncos and currently serves as facilities coordinator at the stadium. He is often seen hustling from one task to another.
“I do my best," he said. “I just want to make my dad proud. Whether he’s there to see it or not, I know inside I’ll make myself feel better."
Amie Klemmer lives in Hawaii with her husband Howie. She visits the Denver area once a month as she has two kids attending the University of Colorado. Lillie Klemmer is a junior and middle blocker on the Buffs’ volleyball team. Eric Klemmer spent his freshman year as a walk-on tight end for the Buffs, before deciding to concentrate on his studies.
Beth Bowlen Wallace moved from Hawaii to the Denver-area several years ago and lives her husband John Wallace in Parker. She has two sons from her first marriage, Nalu and William, and John has three children from his previous marriage, James, Bevin and Samantha.
“Winning that first Super Bowl is something I’ll never forget," she said. “I sometimes have to apologize to my children because it may outrank the day I gave birth with the joy. But it was really joy for (her dad). Being able to be with him through the losses and seeing how devastated he was, when you get to experience a win like that with someone, it resonates with me forever."
Brittany Bowlen, who turned 29 last month, is engaged and is working at McKinsey & Co., a global business consulting firm.
“He taught me how to ride a bike," she said. “I remember because when riding the bike I was so terrified of the neighbor’s dog. That memory is still very real for me. But the thing we did together was we canoe surfed. He was an incredible canoe surfer.
“And then we’d ski together. And that was probably my favorite activity to do with my dad. I was an early riser, so we’d get out before anyone else and do a couple runs just the two of us. And ride up on the chairlift together.
“He skied up until 2011, 2012. Which, everyone probably thought we were wild, but he was an incredible athlete, as you know. He kept skiing because it brought him so much joy.
“He was a great skier, but my mom’s better. My mom taught skiing in Whistler, Canada. She goes down the mountain in that old-school style – whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. He would never admit she was better, but she was better."
Annabel “Little Bell” Bowlen is attending the University of Colorado-Denver.
“Recently, I went to tell him I was getting really good grades," she said. “Because I kind of struggled for a bit in high school. So I recently told him I’m getting really good grades. He was like, “Um-hmm.’ He didn’t believe me. And once I showed him, he was shocked. He was so proud of me. I always wanted to make him proud. I worked hard, I studied hard."
About her name, Annabel. Many a son has been named after his father. Had anyone heard of a daughter being named after mom until Annabel came along?
“My dad actually had a lot of say in that," she said. “He told my mom, I want to name her Annabel, just like you. He liked the name and he thought it would be good to have someone else named after my mom. I got the nickname, ‘Little Bell.’ From all the players, anyone in the organization, any of my dad’s friends, everybody knows me as Little Bell. I don’t mind that. I like it. No Junior. It was Little Bell. That nickname was really important to me."
Christianna Bowlen has overcome her dyslexia and recovered from her medical setbacks to study at the University of Denver, where she is doing well.
“My entire life my mom and my dad have been telling me, “You’re a Bowlen, you have a lot to live up to,’’ she said. “And at school, I had to represent my family in the best way possible."