Gratitude for Pat Bowlen and his special gift of kindness and generosity

by Tom Clark

In the early 90s, Metro Denver voters approved the Metropolitan Stadium District (MSD) as part of an effort to recruit Major League Baseball. The region had spent almost 20 years beseeching baseball’s owners for a team that would fill a fan void in the Rocky Mountain West. Metro voters, suspicious of a “If we build it, they will come strategy,” opted for a “If you come, we will build it.” The Colorado Rockies and Coors Field were the outcome.

The mid-90s was an era of unprecedented economic growth and the one-10th of one percent sales tax approved by voters to pay for Coors Field in 20 years, would be shortened to a mere 10 years thanks to increased tax dollars flowing into the MSD’s coffers.

Simultaneously, Mile High Stadium, the venerable home of “Rocky Mountain Thunder” was crumbling due to deferred maintenance by its owner – the City and County of Denver. The Denver Broncos’ owner Pat Bowlen appeared before government officials asking for a new stadium. His request for a new stadium received a cool reception. But with the MSD’s excess cash, the region saw a possible path to a new football stadium. “Two stadiums for the price of one,” was the new mantra.

When Pat Bowlen took the “D” off the Broncos’ helmets and introduced new, colorful uniforms, there was no doubt that the team was in danger of moving elsewhere. Privately, he said he would not move the Broncos, but given the condition of Mile High, would possibly sell the team to someone else who would be forced to move to another facility that could produce greater profits.

The Denver Metro Chamber’s leadership supported a new stadium and the thought of losing everyone’s favorite NFL team was scary. Chamber leadership began negotiations with Bowlen, which quickly stalled. The Chamber wanted a multipurpose facility with year-round programming – aka a retractable roof over the stadium. Pat Bowlen knew he would be required to provide millions of dollars to the construction of the stadium. He did not want a retractable roof.

Shortly before the Thanksgiving break in 1997, negotiations were at a standstill. Doak Jacoway, who would go on to serve as Chair of the Chamber, asked me if I thought we would win a proposed May 1998 election. I told him we were already two months behind if we wanted to run a successful campaign. Doak tasked me to draft an initial campaign plan in four days. Happy Thanksgiving.

On Monday, I presented it to Jacoway, including a list of things Bowlen should avoid, such as speaking in unstructured social situations. If we were going to win we needed strong messaging and not distractions from anyone. Bowlen quickly agreed to the plan and the campaign began.

We went on to success, winning the election. We overcame objections from only one demographic – women age 35-44. Some focus group respondents in this age group saw the players as spoiled, selfish, rich kids and the Broncos organization as one that did little for the community. The polls also showed John Elway as the most trusted person to speak about the Broncos. Near Election Day the campaign released a TV ad that featured Elway talking, not about football, but about the Broncos’ contribution to Elway’s favorite foundation: the Kemp Foundation for Abused Children. The ad had impact, with voters agreeing that a new stadium would keep the Broncos in Denver.

During the campaign, I got to know Pat Bowlen. He was not the arrogant, distant, rich owner that was often projected to television audiences. He was a shy person, uncomfortable in social situations when not accompanied by his wife, Annabelle. He was passionate about Denver and his team. Lastly he was also a great negotiator, most comfortable when taking on the major television networks.

He was also a man who felt it his obligation for those who helped his cause. Following the election his assistant called me and said Pat wanted to “do something” as a show of gratitude. I explained that any help I had provided was part of my job and there was no need for any gift. But that wasn’t enough. Over the next months, Pat’s assistant pestered me with offers including a flight on the team’s airplane to San Diego with a stay in the team’s hotel and standing on the sidelines during the game. I was touched by Bowlen’s gratitude but demurred. 

“Tom,” his assistant said, “You need to know that Pat will not stop this until you accept some demonstration of his gratitude.” 

On the day of the last game played at Mile High, she called and invited me and my son to sit in the owner’s box. I accepted. It was an historic moment and it was something my son would not forget.

Sitting in Pat Bowlen’s box demonstrated his belief that football not only was played outdoors, but his box was where football was watched with all the windows open. We were cautioned to “dress warmly” and told that there would be no conversation with Mr. Bowlen after the kick-off. Blankets would be provided. The instructions played out. Pat was “working” and after a pleasant welcome, he went silent. And it was cold, really cold, but the blankets helped.

I thought the kind gesture put an end to Bowlen’s desire to “do something.” It didn’t. After the playoffs, the calls came again and again. Finally I agreed to think of something Mr. Bowlen could do. It was difficult for me to accept something that I didn’t feel I deserved. But I did come up with an idea. I called his assistant back and said, “I’ve found something that I think would be very nice. Could I get a football autographed by Pat Bowlen, Mike Shanahan, and John Elway?”

“Done,” was all she said, “I’ll call you when it’s ready.”

I chose the autographs because I knew all three signatures were those of three guaranteed NFL Hall of Fame members. Finally, I was clear of Pat’s generosity. But the ball did not come. Weeks passed, months passed – no ball.

Finally in June the phone rang, “We’ve got your ball. Do you want to come to Dove Valley to pick it up or can someone do it for you?”

“I’ll have Doak Jacoway pick it up for me today,” I said.

“We’re sorry it took so long. We had to wait for Terrell Davis to come back to town. Now you have four Hall of Famer shoo-ins on your ball.”

So that’s the story of the mind of Pat Bowlen. He is a kind and generous man; a passionate competitor and a man who loves this community. And as he told me one day, “I want to win a Super Bowl every year and I do everything I can to make that happen.”

Thanks, Pat. In the spirit of your gift, I will give my football to a charity auction one of these days, or my surviving family members will. So you see, your gift was a “loaner” in my care for just a little while. Your gift will continue to reflect your kindness and generosity to those you have touched.

Tom Clark

Former CEO of Metro Denver Economic Development Council

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