Robert Kraft and Pat Bowlen were rivals on the football field over the past two decades, with the Patriots and Broncos dominating the AFC and reaching nine Super Bowls in that span.
But Kraft has nothing but admiration for Bowlen as an owner who put the league’s interests ahead of his own and helped build the Broncos and the NFL into two powerful businesses in his 30 years leading the team.
Bowlen, who turned 70 this year, announced Wednesday morning that he is relinquishing his ownership stake in the Broncos and resigning as CEO due to his battle with Alzheimer’s. Broncos president Joe Ellis, a Massachusetts native, will take over as CEO for now.
Bowlen, who saved the Broncos from possible bankruptcy in 1984 when he purchased the team from Edgar Kaiser, was the fourth-longest tenured owner in the NFL. Bowlen was influential in shaping the NFL’s television contracts in the 1990s and was considered one of the most influential and respected owners in the league.
“He was always a league guy first,” Kraft said by phone Wednesday morning. “He was a real solid partner, one that I respected and had a lot of fun with. Just a real good guy.”
The Broncos reached six Super Bowls under Bowlen’s leadership, winning two, and sold out every home game under his watch (their sellout streak dates back to 1970).
“I think over the 30 years he’s built an environment up there that I think everyone in the NFL would like to copy,” Kraft said. “He was not someone who drew a lot of attention to himself. He was just a very proud, passionate person.”
Kraft, who came into the NFL in 1994, said he and Bowlen had a competitive but friendly relationship.
“They always had a sign outside the visiting locker room saying, ‘Altitude: 5,473 feet’ or something,” Kraft said. “He always had this little smirk.”
“It was competitive but it was clean. He’s one of the few owners that before we played each other, we always had dinner the night before. We had a sense of we both wanted to win badly, but we had that collegial spirit.”