DENVER (CBS4) – Through Super Bowl wins, football victories and heartbreaks, Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen has been a fixture on the sidelines for more than 30 years. But last July, he stepped down at age 70 amidst the announcement that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.
For the first time, his daughter shared with CBS4’s Brooke Rogers her journey and her hope to make the Alzheimer’s fight part of a new kind of winning strategy.
Looking at photographs, they could be any father and daughter captured in a snapshot of a happy memory.
“Growing up with my dad was like any other family,” said Beth Bowlen Wallace. “Just spending time at the beach, loving on him, getting in trouble every now and then, frustrating him as a teenager.”
But for Pat Bowlen, the memories have faded too soon. He has loomed larger than life in the Rocky Mountains for the past three decades at the helm of his beloved Denver Broncos. His disappearance from the sidelines in recent years has been like losing the first father of football to fans. But to Bowlen Wallace, “Mr. B” is just Dad.
“A daredevil when it came to surfing big waves in Hawaii, someone who competed in the Ironman Triathlon, someone that was absolutely willing to negotiate some of the hardest contracts that the NFL deals with,” she said.
She recalled his competitive spirit, his endurance, his intelligence — and her journey in watching Alzheimer’s disease atrophy those traits.
“Seeing a disease start taking those things from someone who has been at the height of their career and in such a public way, I wanted to be very protective of my father,” she said.
She says her father kept his disease private even from those closest to him at first. For her, there was fear.
“There was a lot of fear involved,” she said, “Seeing him afraid made me afraid, and I think that fear really can come from a lack of knowledge. Knowledge is power, and not a lot of people know a lot about this disease.”
So after the Bowlen family’s announcement last July that he was battling the disease and would be relinquishing the reins of his team, his daughter decided to attack Alzheimer’s in her own way. She has become an advocate for fundraising and research.
“We’re all on the same team, those of us that have a loved one afflicted with this disease,” she said. “My dad’s a dad. He may be a public figure in Pat Bowlen, but he’s a father, a grandfather.”
She and other family members formed Team Super Bowlen last year and gave the Alzheimer’s Association‘s annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s its biggest year yet. She champions the groundbreaking research being conducted at the Rocky Mountain Alzheimer’s Disease Center at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. They in turn call the Bowlen family’s involvement in the cause a game changer, particularly in reducing the stigma of the disease.
“It’s been immeasurably helpful,” said Dr. Huntington Potter, Director of Alzheimer’s Disease Programs. “People know who Pat Bowlen is. Just because he can now say he has Alzheimer’s means that everyone who has Alzheimer’s disease can say, ‘I have a solidarity with someone like that.’ ”
For Bowlen Wallace, it is that solidarity and hope that fuel her newfound role.
“Really just to let people know we have something in common and that my story is your story and your story is my story,” she said. “You can be Pat Bowlen — athletic, bright. It can catch up with you. The disease does not discriminate.”
For her support system, she said she relies in great part on faith.
“My faith has been my foundation in getting through difficult times in my life, and I’ve called upon my faith probably more now than I ever have in my life.”
She relishes the time she spends with her father these days.
“It’s different from the dad of 20, 10 years ago, but it’s very fulfilling and very sweet the time we share together,” she said.
And she hopes that her voice helps others find the words to speak out, to ask for help, and to make this lonely disease a little less so.
“If you can have impact on one person, we’ve accomplished something, and then something positive has come out of what is a very negative experience,” she said, “The touchdown for all of us is to be inspired by the hope of finding a cure and removing the stigma.”