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'It was supposed to be a five-year deal': How the Denver Broncos Boys & Girls Club became an enduring community pillar

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos Boys & Girls Club may be temporarily closed, but Rich Barrows can't stay away.

Like local schools and so many other places, the club shut its doors to help safeguard the health of the community as the COVID-19 pandemic made its way to Denver.

In the meantime, Barrows, the club's director, is making use of the empty club by refurbishing it with freshly painted walls inside and out and redone floors.

Along with one of the club's volunteers, Barrows moved all the furniture — including bookcases, pool tables and everything else — into the gym and game room, the two areas not getting new floors. Before the interior walls were painted, they also took down all the photos and decorations.

Seeing all those photos brought memories dating back to the club's 2003 opening rushing back to him.

"I can't even begin to describe it," Barrows says. "We were moving furniture and taking [down] some of our old pictures and some of the different experiences, [like] girls playing on the football field. Brittany is in college now and … we ran a play for her when she was 10 years old. She was still reminding me two weeks ago of [it]: 'Remember I scored a touchdown on the Broncos field?'

"We saw so many pictures and all that stuff. We just couldn't believe that we've been part of this. And not just myself, but over half my staff have been involved for a long time in one way or another with this mission. And it's not a job for my folks, it really is a mission."

Nearly 17 years ago, before any of that happened, Barrows was put in charge of this place.

A former club kid himself from Rapid City, South Dakota, Barrows had taken his experience and made it his life's work. He had 25 years of experience working with clubs across the country and the state of Colorado before they told him he'd be the leader of a new club in northeast Denver that was being sponsored by the Broncos.

"They handed me the keys to the old Montbello rec center two-and-a-half weeks before it was scheduled to open and said, 'Hey, old man, get this place ready to go,'" Barrows says. "… I had no idea of the commitment, how they were involved. I was like, 'Hey, we get to paint the place — let's paint it white, blue and orange since the Broncos are sponsoring [it]!'"

But he quickly understood that this partnership wouldn't be like any he had seen before during his years at other clubs.

"In all those years, we never had the commitment that the Broncos have provided for our Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver. Ever," Barrows says. "They started off with a grant, they tied it to inflation, [and] they've covered the operating costs. It was supposed to be a five-year deal. And we're in the 17th year of that."

As the only professional sports team in the country that fully funds a Boys & Girls Clubs branch, the Broncos have a unique role with the organization. The Broncos were recognized Wednesday as a finalist for ESPN's Sports Humanitarian Team of the Year Award, in part for their work with Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver.

"Truly there is not a partnership of any NFL team across the United States that is as strong or powerful or has as strong of a philanthropic commitment as the Denver Broncos have made in the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver," says Erin Porteous, CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver.

Since that connection was formed, the team has provided more than just the financial backing the club needs to function. It has also provided a number of unique experiences, like providing travel and tickets for select members to go to the Super Bowl. Members of the club's youth football team also get to participate in an annual game of football against various team mascots during halftime of a Broncos game.

"Opportunity is the currency of the Boys & Girls Club," Barrows says. "And it's only $2 a year to be a member, but you're exceptional. And if you make exceptional choices, you'll get to do things that other kids can't even dream of. And that's basically the center tenet that we've operated that club and that partnership on for almost 17 years now."

The Denver Broncos Boys & Girls Club has been one of the Broncos' most important community partnerships since its inception in 2003.

Shortly after the new club — locally known simply as the "Broncos club" — opened in Montbello, it received one of its first player visits.

A day earlier, Trevor Pryce helped lead the Broncos to 31-10 trouncing of the hated Raiders on "Monday Night Football." When the two-time Super Bowl champion and four-time Pro Bowler arrived, he was more or less mobbed, and not just by the kids.

"People were coming in from outside when they're not supposed to, other guys are waiting in the parking lot with a $10,000 proposal for a record contract for him," Barrows recalls. "He never even got to go all the way through our club."

At the next evening's announcements in the gym, almost 200 children sat down to listen to Barrows, who wanted the children's help deciding how they would welcome players going forward.

"I don't think it's right to be called the Denver Broncos Boys & Girls Club and the players [are] not able to come here and be treated like they're family," Barrows told them. "What are we going to do to change that?"

A solution came quickly from the crowd.

"The kids said, 'No autographs! We shouldn't be bugging them,'" Barrows recalls. "… It was almost unanimous among almost 200 kids."

In the years since, the kids have held one another to that policy to foster a warm, friendly environment. New club guests are often led by hand on tours of the facility, and it's not uncommon for players to form long-lasting bonds with the kids. Barrows says a few former Broncos have even practically adopted some of the children, and one student who graduated this year still is friends with former Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.

"Some of the most important relationships for kids, especially those who come from unstable homes, are those mentor relationships that they receive in their adolescence," Porteous says. "… These become the big brothers and big sisters, the aunties and uncles, sometimes the full-blown kind of motherhood or fatherhood figure. So to have that influence on a child really means a lot. And the fact that the Broncos so graciously allow players and coaching staff to play that mentor role to young people speaks volumes again beyond just the philanthropic support."

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There are plenty of ways to measure the club's success.

Senior members at the club graduate from high school at a rate 20 percent higher than the Denver Public Schools average. More than three-quarters of Broncos club kids earn mostly A's and B's in school. Four out of every five children there exercise for at least 60 minutes twice a week.

Barrows is proud of those achievements, but what he values more than anything is how the club has become such a pillar in the community.

"You know what is so cool is I've been in it long enough, I'm kind of like a grandfather of the Broncos Boys & Girls Club," Barrows says. "Now I have kids bringing their kids. Someone stopped me on the street yesterday outside the club and said, 'Rich, I'm bringing my son when he's turning 6, because I know what kind of opportunities you get here.'"

That all goes back to Aug. 28, 2003 when the club first opened. The club has never had to find a new director, and several of its current staff members were there that day 17 years ago.

"That consistency in that neighborhood has been so important," Barrows says. "We might not have all the answers, but they know we care about them. They know we're going to be there. My assistant director, Mrs. [Lisa] Ford, started as a volunteer the first week I opened the club. My reading coordinator was at the grand opening, the ground-breaking with Mr. B [Pat Bowlen]. My front desk person has been there 12 years. Our kids know we care about them, and that consistency of managing behavior, knowing we love them, discipline and giving them an opportunity and education, I don't know if we can duplicate that anywhere else."

Soon enough, Barrows will put the club's memories back up on the walls. The pool table will return to its usual place. Hopefully, shortly after that, so too will the club's kids.

When they do, they'll know Barrows and the Broncos club will be there for them.

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