ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Brittany and Annabel Bowlen met Kendall Hinton's parents this past summer by some mix of coincidence and calling.
That Wednesday, Aug. 18, was the Broncos' Alzheimer’s Awareness Day at training camp, and Hinton's folks chose that day to come out to see their son at practice. But they had missed the entrance to the family and friends tent and walked up the hill to the main gate near the Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse.
That's where their path crossed with the two sisters, who were collecting donations to the Alzheimer's Association from fans and passing out purple foam fingers. They hadn't met before, but they had an immediately apparent bond.
Like Brittany and Annabel, the Hintons were clad in purple instead of orange and blue to show their support for the cause, and like them, they had parents battling Alzheimer's disease.
Happenstance or not, that they met under those circumstances was more than mere chance. As Brittany said later that day, the unfortunate widespread nature of Alzheimer's means that it's hard to find people without connections to someone fighting or who has fought the disease.
"In Colorado alone, there's more than 76,000 people living with Alzheimer's," Brittany said. "This is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. And that, we're just talking about the United States. This is a worldwide disease. It affects everyone. It has no bounds and that's why we as the Broncos organization are so focused on continuing to fundraise and continue to bring attention to this community."
That's why, as Broncos players and staff members chose causes to represent during the NFL's 2021 My Cause My Cleats campaign, it should come as little surprise that one of the most common choices was the Alzheimer's Association.
When Kendall Hinton first joined the Broncos in 2020, he knew little about the team's deep ties to the Alzheimer's Association.
Like for any person new to an organization, it would take time for him to learn things like that, including how the team's late owner, Pat Bowlen, was forced to step away from day-to-day operations in 2014 as he battled the disease until his death in 2019.
In the eight years since, the Broncos have forged a public partnership with the Alzheimer's Association that has included taking part in the annual Walk to End Alzheimer's or hosting an Alzheimer's Awareness Day at training camp. That yearly element resumed in 2021 as the team reopened camp to fan attendance, encouraging fans to attend practice in purple to show their support. It was there that Hinton, teammates and staff alike could see how important this cause is to the community at large.
"I had no idea about the Alzheimer's awareness out here in Denver," Hinton says. "I first heard about our former owner, Mr. Bowlen, his family [and] what they dealt with in the later years. It was great, I guess, to have somebody that understands, especially a whole organization and fan base that understands what a horrible disease it is and how it can really hurt families, hurt caretakers — everybody that's involved. It's amazing to be around an organization and fan base [where there are ] so many people that understand the disease and support the cause [and] are willing to help out."
Considering Hinton's connections — that his maternal and paternal grandmothers each have Alzheimer's and that his great-grandmother had it — observing that display and taking part in it meant a lot, as did seeing teammates who don't have any major connection to Alzheimer's embracing the cause, like Pat Surtain II, who also chose the organization for My Cause My Cleats.
"That means the world," Hinton says. "… There's so many guys on the team that has shown support, so people who aren't affected directly but still are there to show support, I think that's amazing. Support our brothers and the Alzheimer's cause. It's much respect to Pat and everybody else who supports the cause."
In August, Brittany described the pain of watching her father battle Alzheimer's, as well as her mother, who announced her diagnosis in 2018.
"You lose someone mentally, and then have to lose them physically, so it's almost like you experience two deaths," Brittany said. "And to do that twice, it's hard. But if you have a supportive family and you surround yourself with the right community organizations, with the right friends, you'll find the strength to get through it. I know that Annabel and my siblings and I, we've all supported ourselves and each other, and we've leaned on the Alzheimer's Association Colorado Chapter for lots of resources, and we've found the right people to surround ourselves with, and that's kind of how we came it through. It's really through the other people who are helping us stay strong."
The Hintons have been going through a similar process as two family matriarchs battle the disease.
"It's one of those horrible diseases," Hinton says. "It's actually run in my family for the past few generations at least that I'm familiar with. My grandmother on both sides, actually. My great-grandmothers. My grandmother now actually has early onset, so we're starting to see some signs. And yeah, so it's just getting as much support and understanding of the disease, so that people can understand how horrific [it is]. It's a really bad disease.
"Memories are, you know — that's all you've got."
While the disease is ultimately more debilitating than just the memory loss, it's that part that strikes at the hearts of those who have to watch loved ones go through it gradually.
"Once those start leaving," Hinton says with a deep sigh, "it sucks. Just to show support for every family that's dealing [with it], and all the caretakers as well — that's why I want to bring support."
Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the need for support has never been so urgent. Nursing homes and similar care facilities were hit hard by the novel coronavirus, but the stresses of the pandemic compounded for Alzheimer's disease caregivers.
"Nationwide, there were 42,000 more deaths from Alzheimer's disease and other dementias in 2020 when compared to the average number of deaths over the last five years — a 16% increase, a recent report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds," the New York Daily News' Thomas Tracy wrote in October.
There has been some reason for hope in recent months. In June, the FDA approved a new drug to treat Alzheimer's for the first time since 2003, but it is not a panacea; it does not cure the disease, there's debate in scientific communities over its effectiveness and it's prohibitively expensive for many families. There could be more treatment options to follow, too.
Promising or not, it's not the big step so many families hope for more than anything. With time, funds and effort, hopefully science will reach that point — and that's what Kendall Hinton, Brittany Bowlen, their families, many Broncos players and countless people around the globe are pushing for.
Hinton will wear his purple cleats on Sunday with that in mind, as will Brittany with her custom sneakers for the cause.
"There needs to be more research, and everyone knows it," Brittany said. "In order to make research happen, we need dollars, and that's why fundraising is really important to my family, because we know that those dollars go toward finding a cure. Just this past June … there was a huge breakthrough. Those who are early onset or just experiencing the first stages of Alzheimer's, they're starting to have medications that can help them kind of progress through the disease in a more graceful way.
"But there's still no cure, and there should be."
Flip through photos of dozens of Broncos players' and staff members' custom cleats representing causes close to their hearts for the 2021 My Cause My Cleats campaign.