ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As the Walton-Penner Family Ownership Group approaches the first anniversary of its purchase of the Denver Broncos, Owner Dr. Condoleezza Rice sat down for a question-and-answer conversation moderated by fellow Broncos Owner Carrie Walton Penner with team staff members on Thursday.
Over the course of the nearly hour-long discussion, Dr. Rice delved into a wide array of topics, from sports to lessons learned throughout her years in government and academia. With that experience, Dr. Rice was able to speak on characteristics that drive strong cultures, her background in different fields, her memories as a Broncos fan and much more.
"You've done so many amazing things in leadership positions," Walton Penner said. "… There are very few [people] who go by a single name and everyone knows who you're talking about."
Here are just a few of the memorable moments from the former U.S. secretary of state's visit to Centura Health Training Center:
PASSION TO PROFESSION
A central reason Dr. Rice chose to dive into the world of football after spending much of her life working the worlds of foreign policy and academic administration is that her father cultivated a love for the sport and a knowledge of the game to back it up.
"He taught me everything about the sport," Dr. Rice said. "Honestly, my fondest memories with my dad are around football. Watching the great Jim Brown and the Cleveland Browns [or] when we moved here, sitting in the south stands [of Mile High Stadium] with my parents. We would watch football every Sunday. My dad was also a Presbyterian minister, so he would end service when the NFL was on just a little early so we could get home in time for the kickoff.
"… He really wanted me to know the X's and O's of football. So he would say, when I was 7 years old, 'Condoleezza, what are they doing?' 'Daddy, that's a trap block.' 'So what are they doing now?' 'They're setting up a screen, Daddy.' So it was really about the game. I just loved it, have always loved it."
Previously, Dr. Rice was a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee, helping to select the teams that would compete in the four-team tournament from 2014-16.
"[It] was probably the best committee I've ever been on," Dr. Rice said. "… On a Saturday, I would watch 12 football games. On Sunday, I'd watch coaches cutups. We'd go to Dallas on Monday, we'd deliberate and we'd release the rankings on Tuesday and start all over again on the following Monday. I was living and breathing football and loving it. This gives me another chance to do something a little bit different."
ORANGE CRUSH ROOTS
Dr. Rice is not new to Broncos fandom, as she and her family moved to Denver in 1967, when she was about 13. She later attended the University of Denver, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1974 and a Ph.D in 1981.
Over those years in Denver, Dr. Rice became a diehard Broncos fan.
"I did grow up in Denver, and this team to this town is a completely symbiotic relationship, and this town lives and dies with the Broncos," Dr. Rice said. "… I have a sense of responsibility to return to this town a Broncos franchise that is worthy of the energy and the trust and the psychic energy that this fan base puts into it. I believe we can do that. And by the way, it's not just this town, as you mentioned. This is a regional team. People in Wyoming and Utah, they love the Broncos.
"During the Broncos' 'Orange Crush' days, Denver had been, as a friend who played for the Broncos said, kind of the doormat of the NFL for a long time. And then in 1977 all of a sudden we got — it was a largely [young] group. It was Rubin Carter, it was Louis Wright, Rick Upchurch, that was the era. And they were amazing. They went, I think, 12-2 and made the Super Bowl that year. You would go into restaurants or grocery stores, and there would be incredible stacks of Orange Crush cans with Broncos looking over them, and that team was led by the defense, so it was like this. And the whole town was abuzz about the Broncos. Everybody owned and wore orange. That kind of energy would be great to bring back."
AN EMPHASIS ON MENTAL HEALTH FOR ATHLETES
In reflecting on their roles helping lead a team, Walton Penner and Dr. Rice also discussed how mental health factors into the development of young players both on the field and off it.
"I think that was my biggest surprise in the last year coming in and being on the inside and really understanding what these young men are expected to do and what they're expected to understand and really trying to figure out," Walton Penner said. "All my kids are in the same age group. So the biggest thing I learned this year has just been how much pressure there is week to week, how fast everything goes during the season. I'm glad that you mentioned the player development, because it is something that we've been focusing on during the offseason. …, They have so many other things around them week to week that they're dealing with and working through. If we can be best organization in supporting them off the field, I think that really helps them be the best on the field."
Dr. Rice, who has additional perspective on this subject matter because of her work at Stanford University, agreed.
"It's so important," Dr. Rice said. "And I don't know about you, but I'm really glad I didn't grow up in an era of social media. … Because the kind of daily pressures of what's being said about you, it's tough. We are both really interested in mental health, as well, and we're seeing a lot whether it's at work at Stanford … or what you see in professional and amateur sports these days, the pressures are causing significant stress. So when somebody comes to the field for training camp, for practice or for a game, they're bringing a lot with them. So I think recognizing that, and you've been great on that, Carrie. I think you've really set a standard in the NFL for caring about the whole player, and I'm very grateful to you for that."
HOW TO BUILD A STRONG CULTURE
Given Dr. Rice's experience in various areas — including government, education and sports — she also carries a unique ability to speak to how organizations build strong cultures.
"The first word that I would use is one [from] George Schultz, the former secretary of state who died at 100 years old and was a great mentor of mine: trust," Dr. Rice said. "If you don't have trust in an organization, in the team, you can't move forward."
"… Trust has to be one in which people know you have integrity as a leader and in which they have that integrity. But there is also … whether it's in performance arts or we're talking about Taylor Swift or whether we're talking about performance on the football field, trust is built by hard work where every single person is working hard and every single person knows that every single person is working hard."