Friday afternoon Terrell Davis sat in an old high school auditorium in Canton, Ohio, to celebrate his moment and week in the spotlight, as one of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s newest members. The former Broncos running back reflected on his journey to the Hall, on his father, on his Super Bowl victories, on a famous preseason hit that launched his NFL career, and on a devastating hit that left him physically scarred and prematurely retired.
“I didn’t expect the owner to call me after I tore my ACL,” Davis said. “You expect the trainers, maybe a teammate, maybe your position coach to call you. Pat (Bowlen) was the first one to call. That little gesture that he did, it meant the world to me. I’d run through a brick wall for that man.
“So I’m hoping he gets in.”
Davis isn’t alone.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s nine-member contributors committee will convene Aug. 25 to select its 2018 finalist. Bowlen is believed to be near the top of the list, and the feeling — the hope — is that if his name is called, he will receive the required 80 percent minimum vote next February so he can join Davis in the Hall of Fame.
“He’s going to get in,” former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said of Bowlen. “There’s no question in my mind that he’s going to get in. The question is, is it going to be next year or the year after that?”
Bowlen’s legacy is wrapped in a rare combination of numbers and reverence, both spoken of often by his current and former players.
No other owner in league history recorded 300 total games in their first 30 seasons at the helm. And no other NFL team has a better winning percentage (.612) since 1984, when Bowlen purchased a majority stake in the Broncos for $78 million. (According to Forbes’ latest valuations, the Broncos are estimated to be worth $2.4 billion.) And no other team has appeared on national television (337 games) more than Denver has.
In his 33 years of ownership, the Broncos have won 13 division titles, seven AFC championships and three Super Bowls. They have sold out every home game for a 387-game streak that stretches back to 1970. And the clincher? The Bowlen-owned Broncos have had more Super Bowl appearances (seven) than losing seasons (five).
“Look at not only the history of the Broncos and the success on the field — Pat Bowlen has run a first-class franchise since way before I got here,” Davis said. “It’s in the stats; just look at the numbers. It’s one of the most successful winning franchises in the NFL.”
But Bowlen’s impact is still felt at the highest level of the NFL too.
A member of nine NFL committees, Bowlen was a catalyst in international expansion, taking the Broncos to London, Mexico City, Tokyo and beyond to compete. As chair of the NFL broadcasting committee in 1998, he brokered the league’s $18 billion TV contract — the most lucrative single-sport contract in history — and was the visionary behind “Sunday Night Football,” the top prime-time program last season with 19.75 million total viewers.
“The fact that Sunday night is now the biggest night — that goes back to Pat. That goes back to him working with Dick Ebersol, who ran NBC Sports at the time,” broadcaster Al Michaels told The Denver Post in 2015. “Sunday night has about a 50 percent larger audience than Monday night does, and you can attribute that to Pat’s vision and the fact that he figured, ‘Hey, you know what, if we can make our big game Sunday night with a flexible schedule and all of that, that would be the best way to maximize the value of the NFL on TV.’ ”
Locally, Bowlen operated quietly, funding a Broncos Boys & Girls Club and contributing more than $30 million to Denver-area organizations through Denver Broncos Charities — and many more anonymously.
“There are so many things he did where he did them and said, ‘You never tell the press about this,’ ” said Jim Saccomano, former Broncos vice president of corporate communications. ” ‘The press never knows.’ ”
Nearly every former Bronco has a story about Bowlen, a moment when they sat in his office and talked about life, or a time they sat side by side on stationary bikes in the team’s weight room, or a time Bowlen promised a player he would arrange for his entire family to attend a game, no questions asks. Rarely do these stories include football.
“I think he just loved having that personal contact with players and former players,” said Jim Schafer, Bowlen’s former assistant and a close friend. “It really meant a lot to him. It was just incredible to see the love that the former players — I’m starting to tear up — had for him.”
Bowlen’s disinterest in the limelight has garnered respect and appreciation from his players and employees, who say their owner was hands-on but not a meddler.
The Broncos hope their owner won’t be able to avoid the limelight any longer.
“Hopefully this is the year,” said general manager John Elway. “As we talked about so many times how much he deserves it, what he’s done for the league, his participation on different committees in the league and the relationships with the commissioners. What Pat has contributed to the NFL has grown it to where it is today. There is no question he deserves to be in there.”