At the open-house tribute to Broncos Owner Pat Bowlen on Tuesday, fans, former and current Broncos and other dignitaries paid their respects to him, met with his family and saw many of Bowlen's treasured trophies and other honors from his storied career.
DENVER — They were the pieces of a life made in football.
Not just the three Lombardi trophies or seven Lamar Hunt trophies. Not just the numerous game balls commemorating some of the biggest wins in Broncos history.
The tribute to Broncos Owner Pat Bowlen at Broncos Stadium at Mile High included so much more than that. There was the autographed knee brace that John Elway gave him after his final game. Photographs with US presidents. His collection of Sports Illustrated covers that featured Broncos players.
Some of these items had been previously kept in the trophy case at the team's headquarters at UCHealth Training Center, but many more were private keepsakes.
But after Bowlen passed away late Thursday night after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer's disease, the family decided to do something that perhaps had no precedent: They'd make all those mementos available for viewing to the public as a part of an open-house tribute to honor Bowlen's life and his accomplishments.
"I've never seen a lot of the stuff that was here," said fan Rick Martinez, who met Bowlen after a game in 2005, "but it's just really amazing to see all the things that they acquired and that he's had and just that makes him who he is, who he was as a man."
In his 35 years as the team owner, Bowlen clearly forged a special relationship with those who supported the Broncos. It wasn't just about the football accomplishments for those paying their respects to one of Colorado's most-beloved residents.
"He gave us a lot — thousands ... and millions of people fond memories of football," Martinez said. "But what he did as a person was just amazing. That somebody with such dominance, such stature is still small when it comes to giving back to the community and sharing with others. That means a lot to me. When people have a lot, that's one thing. But when they share, that puts them in a whole different ballgame."
Fans, Broncos staff members, former players and other NFL colleagues lined up to show their appreciation and meet the family throughout the day. John Elway, Peyton Manning, ESPN reporter Adam Schefter, longtime Broncos athletic trainer and current Director of Sports Medicine Steve "Greek" Antonopulos and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock were among those to visit the children and grandchildren representing the family.
But so many more people whom Bowlen and his family had never met wanted to make sure they expressed how much they loved the man who for decades had been a driving force behind the Broncos' success.
"He'd be incredibly overwhelmed by all of the support and love," daughter Brittany Bowlen said. "… It's pretty astonishing to see all of these artifacts and things that were important to him in life and meet all of these people that truly loved him."
And on a difficult day, all the support they got from so many people made a big impact.
"It's been very comforting," said daughter Beth Bowlen Wallace. "It's been an overwhelming time emotionally for all of us, but to see the fans and to see the players and the staff that have come through has brought great comfort because we realize, which we already did, it just solidifies [it] — how much my father meant to this community. It's mirrored back to them how much this community meant to my father."
It didn't take until Tuesday for that to be evident, though. Many admirers visited Bowlen's statue on the south side of the stadium since Friday to express their gratitude for his devotion, leadership and passion for their favorite team, often leaving flowers, photos, notes or other small items.
On Friday, someone left their tie — a Broncos-themed Looney Tunes design — that Bowlen had autographed at a chance meeting years earlier.
"I happened to be wearing this tie one day when I ran into Mr. B in a convenience store," the accompanying note read. "We had a nice conversation and he graciously signed the tie stating[,] 'I love Looney Tunes!' A great man! Colorado and all of Broncos country are lucky to have known him!"
By Tuesday, that tie had been added to the tribute. The final display included a wall of family photographs and corkboards where fans could post their own messages to the family.
Pat Bowlen may be gone, but his connection to Broncos fans will endure — and the treasures that he made possible will continue to grow.
ADDITIONAL STATEMENTS BY THE BOWLEN FAMILY
On why it was important to have today's tribute open for fans
Christianna Bowlen: "Because my dad always said we have the best fans in the NFL, and this is what he would want to do for them."
On what they are hearing from fans and friends
Annabel Bowlen:"We're hearing stories about their memories of our dad and how he would sit quietly or stand quietly on the sidelines, and then as soon as we had a win or a touchdown, he would be jumping up and down. That always made them smile."
On seeing fans and the children from the Denver Broncos Boys & Girls Club and Club Director Rich Barrows
Johnny Bowlen:"Special to see all of the kids and how they interact with the family, and also kind of just what's going on outside of here in the museum and see how excited they are to see my dad. I think that's very special."
Brittany Bowlen: "It was emotional to see Rich. My dad loved Rich so much and he's been with Boys and Girls Club since my dad decided to put in the teen addition (Darrent Williams Memorial Teen Center). He really carries some of the values that were most important to my dad, so it was really great to see them."
Annabel Bowlen:"We'd like to thank the Denver community for coming out and showing their support. This really means so much to us and it would mean a lot to my father. Thank you."
Patrick Bowlen: "Thank you guys so much."
Beth Bowlen Wallace: "And this one is definitely for you all."
Brittany Bowlen: "Thank you."