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Pat Bowlen’s championship legacy in Denver began in Canada with his father’s influence

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When we’ve talked about Hall-of-Fame owner Pat Bowlen, it’s always been in the context of his 35 years in football. But his success story really began long before that.

Kids of Paul and Arvella Bowlen on vacation in the Bahamas in 1964. From left: John, 9; Pat, 19; Mary Beth, 17; cousin Tom Fagan; Bill, 14.

When Paul Bowlen would go to work every morning - a multimillion-dollar drilling company he started in 1942 after borrowing $50,000 from his mother - he would always go in through the back door of the machine shop rather than in the front door of the office.

“He wanted to say hi to everybody,” says son Bill Bowlen, younger brother to Broncos’ former owner Pat Bowlen. “He knew them all by name, their wives, their families. And they all called him Paul.”

If that leadership style sounds familiar, it’s because Paul’s oldest son Pat adopted the same philosophy when he and his siblings bought the Denver Broncos in 1984.

To Pat Bowlen it made no difference if an employee was a long-time executive, a 20-something-year-old player just trying to make the team or even a custodian. They were all people Pat wanted to spend time getting to know, and they all deserved his attention because they were all part of an organization he loved.

“Pat learned that from my dad,” Bill Bowlen said last week in an exclusive interview with Mile High Report. “My dad held us to a higher standard. It’s just the way he was. He would say, ‘You’re a Bowlen’ - and you didn’t want to let him down.”

When Pat Bowlen was inducted into the Hall of Fame earlier this month, Bill and the entire Bowlen clan were in Canton to witness their father/brother/husband/uncle finally getting his well-deserved recognition for the pivotal role he played not just building the Broncos into a championship franchise but also bringing the NFL to pro sports prominence.

They appreciated the moving tribute video made in Pat’s honor since the beloved owner died after a long battle with Alzheimer’s just two months earlier and could not attend the ceremony.

Nevermind that Pat Bowlen should have been inducted two years ago when he would have been alive and capable of appreciating the induction. But that’s a tired story and not one that can change the outcome, so the family has remained focused on the positive - “Mr. B” is a Hall-of-Famer.

If there’s one regret, though, Bill Bowlen would like Broncos Country to know more about his brother’s early life - the one that molded him into the kind of iconic owner he was in Denver for more than 35 years.

“Pat’s style was really a product of his upbringing,” Bill Bowlen said.

The oldest child of Paul and Arvella Bowlen, Pat was actually born in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, because the Bowlens’ hometown of Vermilion in Alberta, Canada, barely had indoor plumbing.

“It was the middle of February in a tiny town in Canada,” Bill said with a chuckle, recalling that his mother had no intention of having a child in such a remote place ( though she did deliver Pat’s younger sister in Vermilion two years later).

The family moved to Edmonton where Bill was born in 1949 and later John in 1954.

All three boys were sent to Campion High School in Prairie du Chien, an all-boys boarding school.

“Pat was a hellion,” Bill says, recalling that his older brother nearly got kicked out of Campion during his first year.

But Paul Bowlen had a talk with his eldest son and reminded him that being sent home was not an option he wanted to entertain - “You don’t want that to happen,” he told Pat.

And Pat made sure it didn’t happen.

Pat Bowlen Ring of Fame plaza at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, Colorado. Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

“He turned it around pretty quick,” Bill recalls, though he likes to tell a story about a time Pat was home for the holidays and went to a local dance hall with his girlfriend. When Pat saw his girlfriend dancing with another guy, he went over, took her hand and said “we’re leaving.” The other young man took exception to it and gave Pat “one right in the chops!”

Despite a few “instances,” all three sons would graduate from Campion, and all three would also play football for the prep school - because they loved the American sport.

Although the Bowlen boys grew up in Canada, their father had always loved American football and the family watched NFL games every Sunday after Mass - usually rooting for Green Bay.

That sparked something in Pat early on who went on to the University of Oklahoma - where he would earn his business degree in 1965 and law degree in 1968.

But he chose the school because his father had gone there - and because he wanted to go out for the football team.

“Pat was tenacious as hell,” his younger brother says, acknowledging that Pat was too short and too slow to be any more than a walk on. “Finally the coaching staff just said, ‘Pat, your attitude and will is there. But you don’t have size and you don’t have talent, so you’re not going to make the team.’ Pat was good but not good enough.”

That love of football combined with his ingrained tenacity was probably the driving force for Pat in 1984 when he pursued buying the Denver Broncos.

But he couldn’t do it alone, and again it was the elder Bowlen who stepped in to help his son. Despite being a self-made millionaire in the oil business by now, Paul talked his three younger kids into helping their oldest brother buy the team.

“He got us together one at a time and said, ‘don’t throw your brother to the wolves. Support him,’” Bill recalled. “If the three of us hadn’t helped, Pat wouldn’t have been able to buy the team. But it was our dad who made that happen.”

Broncos practice at Dove Valley Photo by John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Of course, that sibling partnership is partially at the center of the current ownership dispute for the franchise. After Pat announced publicly in 2014 his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, team ownership was placed in a trust and managed by three trustees, including current Broncos’ president Joe Ellis.

It was Pat Bowlen’s desire to have one of his seven children become the future controlling owner of the Broncos.

Currently two daughters - one from each of Pat’s two marriages - have expressed interest, but the trustees have clearly put their weight behind Brittany Bowlen, 28-year-old daughter of Pat and his second wife Anabel.

Beth Bowlen Wallace, daughter of Pat and his first wife Sally Parker, announced in May 2018 that she was going to pursue the path to ownership but was quickly denied by the trustees who argued she was not qualified. Although Brittany has not yet fulfilled the requirements either, trustees maintain she is working toward those goals to become the eventual controlling owner.

Bill Bowlen had filed a 21-page petition last October asking a judge to remove the trustees for failing to follow his brother’s wishes when it comes to future ownership, but that has been a back-and-forth court battle for nearly a year.

Trustees tried to get the suit dismissed in July after Pat Bowlen’s death June 13, but the matter is still awaiting a judge’s ruling after Bill Bowlen filed an objection and trustees filed a reply brief.

Although Bill cannot talk about the details with the legal battles, he does hope the matter will be resolved in the courts soon.

Until then he’s trying to honor his brother’s legacy by also highlighting their father’s influence.

“He learned a lot from my dad’s management style. First, once he hired somebody, he would step back and let them do their jobs,” Bill says. “Second, he treated players and employees like friends first, and they really respected him for that.”

One favorite story about his brother’s style was from a training camp at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. Instead of driving to camp, Pat rode his bicycle 60 miles to join the team.

“He rides his bike onto the practice field and the players were like, ‘holy shit, where’d you come from?’ And he said ‘from the office,’” Bill recalls, adding that Pat’s interest in staying in shape and working hard alongside the players was motivating. “They wouldn’t complain about practicing in the heat when their owner just pedaled 60 miles to camp in 85 degrees. That’s the kind of owner he was - just like our dad.”