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John Elway explains the profound personal impact of Pat Bowlen

Denver Post logo Denver Post 6/17/2019 Kyle Fredrickson
John Elway wearing a suit and tie: John Elway, general manager of the Denver Broncos, talks about the death of team owner Pat Bowlen during a news conference Monday, June 17, 2019, at the NFL team's headquarters in Englewood, Colo. © Provided by MediaNews Group d/b/a Digital First Media John Elway, general manager of the Denver Broncos, talks about the death of team owner Pat Bowlen during a news conference Monday, June 17, 2019, at the NFL team's headquarters in Englewood, Colo.

Ask John Elway about his first memories of Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and he’ll take you back to Jan. 11, 1987, on a snowy afternoon in Cleveland.

You remember “The Drive” — Elway leading the Broncos 98 yards in 15 plays to score a touchdown, force overtime and eventually beat the Browns in the 1986 AFC Championship game.

On Monday, Elway recalled “The Coat” — Bowlen roaming the sidelines wrapped in fur flashy enough for the Hollywood screen. Both images represented a blend of talent and swagger that helped define a generation of Broncos and their fans.

“This is a cool dude as an owner,” Elway said during a news conference at the Broncos’ facility. “We all felt like we were kind of hip because of Pat.”

But the story took a somber tone in the telling. Bowlen, 75, died last Thursday following a long battle with Alzheimer’s. Bowlen’s wife, Annabel, visited her husband’s old office on Friday and president/CEO Joe Ellis said: “She’s doing the best she can. It’s very emotional.”

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The Elway-Bowlen connection isn’t family, but as close as it gets considering John played for Pat through 16 NFL seasons and has worked under him as general manager since 2011. Elway is among many former Broncos who view Bowlen in a fatherly light. It’s a direct reflection of how he operated the franchise, staying close to the players and doing anything he could to help them succeed.

“The one thing I think about Pat was he ran this football team with his heart and not his pocketbook. The players felt that,” Elway said. “… As a player, nothing means more than when your owner and the main boss is at practice every single day. If it’s that important to him, it rubbed off of us as players.”

Elway, who visited Bowlen for the final time last Wednesday, didn’t hesitate when asked to share his favorite football memory with Bowlen.

“Giving him a hug after we won that first Vince Lombardi Trophy,” said Elway, referring to the Super Bowl win over Green Bay. “He had been through those three (Super Bowl) losses and (knew) how much those three losses hurt. I think it hurt him as much as it hurt as players. To finally be able to win that one against Green Bay was a very special time.”

The pair grew close on a personal level during Elway’s trips to Hawaii as part of nine Pro Bowl selections. Bowlen owned restaurants on the island and welcomed players to dine with open arms. Elway also joined Bowlen for open-water recreation that made for great stories.

“We’d get in those canoes and go wave surfing,” Elway said. “That’s when you saw Pat when he was at his best. That was really good. We got a chance to do that until he tipped one and I was still playing. He said, ‘OK, that’s the last time we’re riding waves in an outrigger canoe until you’re done (playing).’ ”

Elway cherished regular Bowlen’s office visits when hired as general manager. He mourned as his condition worsened and their chats stopped. The biggest lesson Elway learned? You get better when you’re listening. You don’t get any better when you’re talking.

Elway said Bowlen would be disappointed with the Broncos’ three consecutive non-playoff seasons and that his absence provides extra motivation to return a championship to Denver. The culture Bowlen established beginning in 1984 remains in place today despite his absence. Elway makes sure of it.

“There is no question that every decision I make is based off what Pat would do and what is the best decision for the Denver Broncos,” Elway said. “… Pat Bowlen has made the Denver Broncos and set that standard, so it’s based off that.”

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