DENVER — They came in formal dresses and coat and ties. They came in Broncos’ costumes and team jerseys.
And they came by the thousands, moving slowly step by step to pay their final respects to Pat Bowlen, the three-and-a-half decade owner of the Denver Broncos and offer comfort to his children.
"It doesn’t surprise me one bit," said rookie guard Dalton Risner, who grew up as a Broncos fan down the country roads outside Denver in Wiggins. "You walk through and you have fans packed in here. We’re just trying to pass through and see Pat’s memorabilia. It’s also refreshing to see how much support we have for this Broncos football team and this Broncos organization because I don’t think it would be like this everywhere."
The open-house tribute for Bowlen, who died late Thursday night at home with his seven children and his wife Annabel at his side, was held on the third-floor club level at Broncos Stadium at Mile High.
The long lines of fans – the estimates were more than 5,000 – began on the second level where soon after entering the stadium they were greeted by Broncos president Joe Ellis. The fans were then moved up to the third floor, where a spectacular flower arrangement that spelled “MR. B” began the exhibit of more than 300 pieces of memorabilia that Bowlen accumulated over the years.
Then the line moved slowly but steadily outside where a video montage of Bowlen played on the stadium’s jumbo screen before the people were moved into a room where a museum-like collection of the owner’s artifacts awaited.
There were his game balls, photos, a gold jacket with NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame alumni patch in a display case, his famous (or infamous) fur coat, his favorite suit with orange tie … wait a minute.
Gold Jacket? Turns out it was a replica presented to him years ago by Broncos Hall of Famers John Elway and Gary Zimmerman with Floyd Little, Shannon Sharpe and Terrell Davis later autographing it.
There is hope that because Bowlen was alive when he was elected into the Hall of Fame in February that the HOF will deviate from policy and present his family with his own Gold Jacket and HOF ring even though he passed away before his induction in August. In the past, the Hall of Fame has not delivered the Gold Jacket or ring to deceased inductees but Bowlen is the first who was alive when elected.
The exhibit also included the three Lombardi Trophies behind glass display with all three captured during Bowlen’s ownership. There was his well-crafted desk with chewing gum, reading glasses, stationary and pen and pencil/time clock set.
There were also his Super Bowl rings, cowboy boots and aviator sunglasses. All in all an over-the-top display for such a humble man.
"We were just talking about it – he would shut this down," said Rod Smith, Bowlen’s all-time favorite receiver. "He wouldn’t want all this fanfare about him. He was always giving to everybody else. But one thing the Broncos have always been about is being No. 1. … This tribute, I was like, how did they pull this together that fast? It’s a tribute to the organization that he built."
Bowlen often referred to Smith as his second-favorite player. Bowlen used to also say that about Gary Zimmerman, Terrell Davis and Shannon Sharpe.
We all know who was Mr. B’s favorite player.
"Probably John, the guy he gave the job to," Smith said referring to Elway who Bowlen hired as the team’s general manager in 2011. "If you could be anywhere in the discussion that’s a good thing."
Smith went through the procession that ended with a receiving line of Bowlen family members, followed by an enlarged portrait photo of Pat Bowlen that sat in a dazzling triple-king sized bed of light yellow flowers.
Two hours into the open house, the Broncos paused the line so the Bowlen children could address the media and communicate their gratitude.
"It’s been very comforting," said Beth Bowlen Wallace. "It’s been an overwhelming time emotionally for all of us, but to see the fans and to see the players and the staff that have come through has brought great comfort because we realize, which we already did, it just solidifies how much my father meant to this community. It’s mirrored back to them how much this community meant to my father."
Brittany Bowlen was asked what her father would have thought about the open-house tribute.
"He’d be incredibly overwhelmed by all of the support and love," she said. "And there would definitely be a small part of him that would be like, ‘What the heck?’ It’s pretty astonishing to see all of these artifacts and things that were important to him in life and meet all of these people that truly loved him. I think he’d be really incredibly overwhelmed by the support. I think it would be moving for him."
Past and present players who attended the open-house included the Broncos rookies, who were bussed in from team headquarters, Smith, Elway, Peyton Manning, Randy Gradishar, Brandon Stokley, Daniel Graham, Nick Ferguson and Chris Brewer, a former George Washington High School standout who in 1984 was drafted by Bowlen’s Broncos.
"This is family," said Brewer, who continues to call Denver home. "And Mr. Bowlen – Mr. B. It’s hard for me to call him Mr. B.
"Mr. Bowlen’s first year was my first year and being drafted by the Broncos and living that part of my dream was just amazing. But he was just a great man. This is some tribute."
His favorite Bowlen memory?
"He took us to Hawaii one year – Sammy Winder’s Pro Bowl year," Brewer said. "We spent about $18,000 worth of champagne. And he didn’t get too upset … he was a little. But he’s always been generous and he’s always taken care of the alumni. Always. I’ve also played for the Bears and I don’t want to say anything bad about anybody else but there’s no doubt the Broncos and Mr. Bowlen take care of the alumni better than any other franchise and everybody says that."
A large group of kids from the Boys & Girls Club of Metro Denver were bussed in. That organization became dear to Bowlen and the Broncos after young cornerback Darrent Williams was killed the morning of New Year’s Day, 2007.
Fans included the Mile High Prophet, the Broncnator and the Mile High Salute duo of Bronco Limo Driver and Orange Vader. And there was newly elected Mayor Michael Hancock, who once worked as a Broncos mascot.
The outpouring of support for Bowlen and his family from Broncos Country may have been unprecedented but it was also predictable. The tribute was supposed to conclude at 3 p.m. but it was extended nearly two hours to accomodate the hundreds in line.
"My dad always said we have the best fans in the NFL," said Christianna, the youngest of Pat Bowlen’s seven children. "And this is what he would want to do for them."
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