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Pat Bowlen: A football legacy, interrupted

Pat Bowlen's memory may be fading, but he will forever be a part of Broncos and NFL history.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

In San Diego, California on January 25, 1998, the Green Bay Packers were 11-point favorites over the Denver Broncos in the most popular American professional sports game of the year. The temperature at kickoff was near 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the skies were clear, and the wind was calm, perfect weather for football. And the game was perfect; exciting, engaging, a nail-biter, the score close up to the final moments. After the two minute warning, Terrell Davis scored a run-in touchdown, despite being literally blinded by his migraine headache in the second quarter. John Elway had waited 14 years and endured three Super Bowl losses before his underdog Broncos won Super Bowl XXXII 31-24 against the Green Bay Packers that night; Davis was the game’s MVP.  For Broncos’ owner Pat Bowlen, this moment was among his best.

Unfortunately, it is a moment others will have to memorialize for him.

Bowlen acknowledged the beginning of the memory-loss process in a 2009 interview, "I have short-term memory loss. I know that some of the memories of the Super Bowl championships are fading." Sadly, the memories of his first joyous Super Bowl victory will soon vanish forever. Bowlen suffers from Alzheimer's disease, a ravaging disease that will likely keep him from attending his own Ring of Fame induction ceremony this weekend, and caused Bowlen to step down from day-to-day operations in 2014.

"This one's for John"

"This one’s for John!" Bowlen exclaimed as he accepted the Lombardi. Memories, like the one of John Elway hoisting the Lombardi trophy over his head in a sea of confetti, are stored in a part of the brain called the hippocampus.

When the brain forms a memory, neurons in the hippocampus rapidly fire signals to each other, called synapses. They are forming a sort of code stored in other parts of the brain; when the memory is recalled through a nostalgic moment, the same neurons fire rapidly at each other, finding the pieces of the code, reassembling a scene, scent, or sound of the moment. On the night of January 25, 1998, Pat Bowlen’s neurons were rapidly firing, he was committing a moment in time to memory, a moment that made him feel invincible.

Unfortunately for Mr. Bowlen, in the coming years his brain will be unable to reassemble the code for long-term memory; Alzheimer’s disease intercepts the signals in the hippocampus and the code can’t be put back together; like Tom Brady testing Champ Bailey in his prime, the football can’t get to the receiver, Bailey is watching, waiting to intercept the quarterback-receiver connection.

Pat Bowlen: The beginning

Pat Bowlen was born on February 18, 1944 in Wisconsin, just before leap day as World War II was in full force.  His father, Paul Bowlen, founded a Canadian oil business, which began their families’ wealth and commitment to charity. Pat has business and law degrees, and made his own wealth as a lawyer in Alberta.  As Pat learned all of the skills needed to become a successful lawyer, his brain was changing and developing new neural pathways, committing law and business fundamentals to long-term memory storage in the occipital lobe of the brain.

In 1984, Pat Bowlen and his siblings purchased the Denver Broncos from Edgar Kaiser to save them from bankruptcy. Pat served as at CEO of the team, which came with high levels of stress and reward.

1984 was the year after the Broncos traded for the number one draft pick, John Elway. They call the 80s and 90s the "Elway Era." In 1986, Elway took the Broncos to their first Super Bowl with Dan Reeves as head coach, which they lost to Phil Simms’ Giants (setting the Broncos up for his biased, ear-wrenching commentary ever since). The following year they made it again, losing this time to Washington, and just two years later they suffered the worst loss in Super Bowl history to Joe Montana and his 49ers.

New research has shown that leaders display unique brain traits. Their brain synapses are more efficient than average. People who are more adaptable to change are more likely to be leaders. They handle stress better than those who struggle with leadership. Although this can be trained, Pat seems to have inherited this trait. His brain was able to make tough decisions, parsing out logic and emotion. Those decision-making abilities led him to some of the best memories of his life.

Super Bowl champions and beyond

Following the Super Bowl losses, Dan Reeves and Elway were feuding over play calling problems stemming from the firing of then offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan. Pat Bowlen had to make the tough decision to fire Dan Reeves in 1992, replacing him with then (and now) defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Unfortunately, in 1994 Bowlen, again, had to fire a dear friend after a mediocre 1994 season, testing his leadership abilities under tough circumstances.

In 1995 Mike Shanahan was hired as the head coach. In 1996, the Broncos were 13-3 and won the top seed in the playoffs. They lost to the Jaguars in an emotional upset. The next season, 1995 draft pick, Terrell Davis, and John Elway led the Broncos to the Super Bowl; they stunned the Green Bay Packers and the nation. The following season, they easily made their way to, and won, the Super Bowl against the Atlanta Falcons. These are some of the best memories Pat ever had of the Broncos, and surely we would all hold onto them forever if we had the chance.

New research suggests leaders display unique brain traits. Their brain synapses are more efficient than average, making their owners more adaptable to change.

Stress is both necessary and detrimental to learning. Although stress is necessary to motivate learning, too much of it inhibits neural connections. It shrinks brain networks and can even kill brain cells.

There are also memories we would all rather forget, and Pat had his fair share of stress to adapt to. The "Post-Elway era" had its ups and downs for the Broncos. Brian Griese never followed closely enough to Elway’s footsteps, and then Jake Plummer had some ups. Jay Cutler had some downs. In 2008 Pat Bowlen had to make the difficult decision to fire Mike Shanahan after 14 years and two Super Bowl victories, stating he wanted the team to go in a new direction. He hired Josh McDaniels two weeks later. Kyle Orton had his down moments, and Tim Tebow took us on an exciting rollercoaster.

In 2009, McDaniels sent Jay Cutler packing to Chicago in exchange for Kyle Orton. The Broncos finished 8-8 in the 2009 season and 4-12 in the 2010 season, their worst franchise record in history, under Josh McDaniels. That was a season not worth remembering. 2009 was the same year Pat Bowlen publicly stated he was beginning to have short-term memory loss.

Alzheimer’s disease gradually onsets, and occurs when two abnormal proteins in the brain build up. These are called plaques and tangles, and they begin accumulating as the brain gets older in some people. Plaques and tangles intercept messages between cells and begin destroying the hippocampus, the region of the brain where short-term memory is stored.

Bowlen steps down

In 2010, Pat Bowlen hired John Elway as Vice President of Football Operations. Rumors were that he had wanted a less visible role because of his memory loss. He was beginning to lose details from his two Super Bowl victories with John Elway, memories that were committed from the hippocampus into the frontal lobe.

When Alzheimer’s disease begins to advance, the plaques and tangles move to other regions of the brain, interrupting signals for other necessary functions. It moves from the hippocampus into frontal and left lobes, where memory and language is processed. Alzheimer’s patients begin to lose the ability recall the correct word or name. Logical thought is the next victim, and the plaques and tangles begin to inhibit the ability to solve problems and make plans. Next, the amygdala is invaded, which regulates emotions, so the patient can’t control his or her moods and feelings. It then begins to limit the ability of the patient to process information, making it hard for them to understand what is happening around them, sometimes resulting in hallucinations.

In 2014, Bowlen officially stepped down, and gave control of the team to Joe Ellis, Alzheimer’s disease prevented him from continuing his historic leadership.

The occipital lobe stores the oldest and most precious memories to a person, and is one of the last regions invaded. This is the reason that oftentimes people with Alzheimer’s mistake their children and grandchildren for their siblings and spouses. In the last stages of Alzheimer’s disease, the cerebellum and brain stem are invaded, so the brain can no longer regulate involuntary movement like breathing and the circulation of blood.

This video illustrates the process that is occurring: Understand Alzheimer's Disease in 3 Minutes .

Legacy of a sportsman

Pat Bowlen positively impacted the lives of millions of players and fans. On Sunday night, he will forever be enshrined in Broncos history, something that can’t be erased by a ruthless and devastating disease. Fittingly this will come against the Green Bay Packers, the home team of his birthplace, and the same team that the Broncos defeated to give Pat one of the best moments of his life. Whether or not he remembers the details, his legacy will forever remain a part of the Broncos and the city of Denver. 1984-2015 will be considered "The Bowlen Era" in my book. His leadership still largely responsible for the success the Broncos have had in recent years.

Football can't beat Alzheimer's. Alzheimer’s disease is incurable and prominent; every 1 in 10 people over 65 will get it. But sportsmanship, leadership, and teamwork can build a legacy that endures beyond any one person's physical memory. Pat Bowlen has shown us that.

Although research has been promising recently, reducing the stigma and creating awareness for Alzheimer's will help victims and their families prepare and cope with the emotional battle it forces on them. Please consider supporting the Alzheimer’s Association and other awareness efforts to fight the disease, and make it any less painful than it can be on those that it affects.

This one’s for Pat.