For Pat Bowlen, household, associates and journey in Hawaii represented “good way of life”
HONOLULU – Pat Bowlen was part thrill-seeker, part risk-taker.
He crashed into a tree while skiing. He toppled over multiple car hoods while bike-riding. And he gashed his head on a stop sign while jogging.
“Dad had a lot of close calls,” said Johnny Bowlen, one of Pat’s seven children, with a laugh. “There were some good ones over the years.”
But there is a best one, one that symbolized Bowlen’s zest for adventure and challenges in general and particularly in his beloved Hawaii, his primary second home for more than four decades.
An experienced canoe surfer in the early 2000s, Bowlen, who will enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame next weekend to recognize his Broncos ownership tenure, and close friends John Finney and Fred Hemmings, all in their 60s, were the only ones a mile from shore in the Pacific Ocean.
The waves looked rugged from their view outside the Outrigger Canoe Club. Watermen half their age weren’t interested in dueling with the undefeated ocean.
“Nobody wanted to go out,” Finney said.
“Nobody wanted to say no,” he added.
So out Bowlen, Finney and Hemmings went, paddling like crazy in their canoe to get to the break to catch a huge wave. And they did – – Finney would estimate years later that it was 15-18 feet high, a towering power of water. Bowlen sat up front, Finney in the middle and Hemmings in the back.
“I thought, ‘We may make this,’ but then I look back and Fred was gone,” Finney said. “Pat was up there paddling away — he had no idea there was no Fred. I thought, ‘This is not going to end well. This is going to be bad.’
“You couldn’t drown Fred; he was like a duck, and I swam well. But I was worried Pat wasn’t going to make it because we had gotten in over our heads.”
They had. The wave won. The men almost lost. Minus Hemmings, the boat tumbled multiple times down the face of the wave. Lifeguards came out in their Ski-Doo’s to pick up the men.
Bowlen had survived. Again.
“That was when they called it quits on going out on waves that big,” said Beth Bowlen Wallace, one of Pat’s five daughters.
Bowlen kept on keeping on for the next several years until Alzheimer’s robbed him of his life’s fourth quarter. He died on June 13 at age 75. Next weekend in Canton, Ohio, will be a time to remember the man who bought the Broncos in 1984, was a three-time Super Bowl champion and an integral part of the NFL’s massive financial growth.
Any Bowlen retrospective must feature Hawaii. It must include Finney, Hemmings and Tim Guard, guys of like-minded athletic prowess who met Bowlen in the early 1970s. Bowlen loved Alberta, Oklahoma and Colorado, but Hawaii was his top spot. And the feeling was mutual.
“The term ‘Local Boy,’ has great meaning in Hawaii,” Hemmings said. “It means you’re rooted in Hawaii, you’re part of Hawaii. I was born and raised here so that’s natural for me. But Pat, even though he didn’t grow up here, was a local boy. He ran the trails. He surfed the surf. He rode the waves. Pat Bowlen was a local boy from our perspective in Hawaii.”
Said Johnny Bowlen: “My dad loved Hawaii and Hawaii loved him. The people were genuine and that allowed him to be himself in a unique way and he could create friendships that maybe he couldn’t elsewhere. It was very special for him to go back there and have those relationships to rely on and make epic memories.”
Epic memories and epic stories.
During interviews with The Denver Post in Hawaii last month and subsequent in-person and telephone conversations, friends and family members described why the islands meant so much to Bowlen.
The Associated Press
Broncos majority owner Pat Bowlen, center, is flanked by minority owners John Adams, left, of Steamboat Springs, and Tim Borden, right, a Denver attorney, at their introductory news conference in 1984.
The Buying The Broncos Story …
The idea of buying an NFL team was a primary topic of conversation for Bowlen and his friends in Hawaii. Bowlen was interested in purchasing the Los Angeles Rams and then passed on an option in 1981 to buy the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes. Nelson Skalbania connected Bowlen to Broncos owner Edgar Kaiser. Bowlen’s deal to buy 60 percent of the Broncos for $70 million was announced in March 1984 in Honolulu.
Finney: “I knew Skalbania from the Young Presidents (Organization) and he put the deal together because he knew Ed Kaiser. I knew Kaiser from Stanford. But I always thought Ed was kind of a chump and turned out he was. Pat made an unbelievable deal to buy the team. Pat was made to be a team owner.”
Bowlen was in his late 20s when he first visited Hawaii in 1970, shortly after marrying Sally Parker.
Parker’s father, Wallace Edwards, now 95 and living in Ponca City, Okla., was stationed in Hawaii during World War II and wanted Sally to attend college on the island. Parker opted to stay in-state and attend Oklahoma, but visited Hawaii for a summer school program.
During spring break of her senior year, Parker and friends went on a skiing trip to Aspen, where she met Bowlen, then in his final year of law school at Oklahoma. They were married in September 1968. Two years later, the Bowlen (Pat, his parents and his three siblings) and Edwards (Sally, her parents and her three siblings) families plus newborn Amie traveled to Hawaii for a six-week vacation.
Parker, with daughters Amie and Beth, moved to Hawaii in 1972 amid her divorce from Bowlen. In the decade preceding his purchase of the Broncos in 1984, Bowlen split his time between Alberta (where he worked for his father’s oil company and later the real estate business) and Hawaii. When on the island, he lived 15 minutes away from his daughters. Over the next four decades, Bowlen both rented and bought-and-sold multiple homes.
“He just absolutely loved the culture,” said Beth Bowlen Wallace, who was born in Edmonton while her parents were married. “He enjoyed coming to parent, but he also came for himself, to live in that environment and have that break. Amie and I were very fortunate.”
Said Amie Klemmer, who lives in Honolulu: “He was very hands-on when we were younger. Typical birthday parties. Slumber parties. And we had this big Cadillac – – we called it the ‘Bat Mobile.’ You couldn’t do it nowadays because everybody needs a seat belt, but we could pack 10 kids into the back and my dad would drive up and down Waikiki.”
Parker was already a member at the Outrigger when Bowlen began visiting Hawaii. At the club, he met three men of a similar age and fitness level who became like brothers.
Provided by the Denver Broncos
Pat Bowlen and Broncos general manager John Beake talk in August 1984.
The Stolen Car Story …
Sally Parker’s first visit to her ex-husband’s restaurant, Nick’s Fishmarket, was eventful.
Parker: “Did they tell you about my car being stolen at Nick’s? I finally talked my (second) husband (Monte Goldman) into going to Nick’s with some friends and Pat was there that night. And my car was stolen from valet and never returned. I go in and tell Pat hoping he would help me. And he started laughing so hard, he nearly fell out of his chair. He thought it was the funniest thing he had ever heard. (Laughing). He didn’t even get me a cab home! I loved it when he would laugh at himself or at situations. He had a great, great sense of humor.”
The Outrigger Canoe Club, founded in 1908, is easy to miss.
Located on Kalakaua Avenue, its sign is small and low to the ground. But one walk through the club confirms why it became a second Hawaiian home for Bowlen. Views of the water. A great beach. Open dining areas, inside (if the customer is wearing pants) and outside (for those wearing shorts). At the club, Bowlen met Hemmings, Finney and Guard. They quickly became close friends.
Parker introduced Bowlen to Hemmings, a Hawaii native who was a professional surfer and state politician. When Bowlen bought the Broncos, he added him to his board of directors.
“I think the basis of our relationship is we were cut from the same competitive slice of bread,” Hemmings said over coffee last month at the OCC, the morning breeze rolling on-shore. “We did some pretty amazing things and Pat was extremely competitive so we would end up going on a jog somewhere and it always ended up being a race.”
Ryan O’Halloran, The Denver Post
Picture out front of the Outrigger Canoe Club in Honolulu, where Pat Bowlen was a member for more than 40 years.
Finney met Bowlen at the OCC in 1973. A native Oklahoman who attended Oklahoma State and Stanford Law School, Finney began making real estate deals soon after leaving the Marine Corps. He had the Burger King contract for Honolulu and his current venture is having the Subway restaurant rights for all of Russia. Finney delivered the eulogy at Bowlen’s funeral in Denver last month.
“It was a natural connection,” Finney said during a two-hour lunch at the OCC, which was followed by a driving tour for his visitor around Diamond Head. “We got to be very close friends and like brothers in my mind.”
Guard was born and raised in Hawaii. Following a tour in Vietnam as commander of a swift boat in the Mekong Delta, he returned home and is currently a senior advisor to the management which runs McCabe, Hamilton and Renny, which operates shipping ports in Honolulu. Guard said he met Bowlen in 1974.
“I had been at work that day and one of the beach attendants called and said, ‘Hey, there’s this skinny guy who wants to go out in a canoe,’” Guard said. “My reaction was, ‘I hope he can swim.’ I got to the Outrigger and we took a surfing canoe and caught about a half-a-dozen waves and Pat was just ecstatic. He had never been out on a surfing canoe before and it was one of those things that cemented his love for Hawaii and love for the ocean and love for the people here.”
The first surfing canoe lesson was a success and opened up an entirely new world of adventure for Bowlen.
Provided by John Finney
Pat Bowlen, John Finney and Fred Hemmings at an event in the 1990s. Provided by John Finney
The Never Miss A Game Again Story …
In December 1996, the Broncos started 12-1 and traveled to Green Bay having already clinched the AFC West and home-field advantage in the playoffs. Quarterback John Elway (hamstring) did not play and Bowlen did not attend, choosing to watch from Hawaii. The Packers won 41-6.
Finney: “Pat never, ever, ever came out here (to Hawaii) until after the season, but this one time, he said, ‘I’ll go to Hawaii and come back for the rest.’ And they (bleeping) lost. He said, ‘I’ll never do that again. Ever. I’ll stay with the Broncos until business is done.’ And he did. From then on, if the Broncos were playing football, he was not here.”
On the roads and trails and certainly in the water when Bowlen was in Hawaii, everything was a race, a competition, a duel, a game. And he wanted to win. Always.
“He was an awesome runner and good on the bike,” Finney said. “If you ran with him, you could hang with him for five miles and then he would punish you.”
Finney and Bowlen would bicycle throughout the island and Hemmings would jog with Bowlen late in the afternoon. They knew the route by heart and feel. Eight miles from the Outrigger Canoe Club to the Arco service station. The intersection of Kahala Avenue and Black Point Road was the first mile and they had to get there in 7 minutes, 50 seconds or “we were running slow,” said Hemmings, whose running career ended with a knee replacement.
One morning, Hemmings and Bowlen were dropped off at the top of Haleakala Crater, Maui’s largest volcano. The men ran down the sides to the floor (some 10,000 feet down) before taking a trail up to 8,000 feet.
Bowlen learned how to bike at a competitive level so he could compete in the Ironman Triathlon, which is a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run. In 1984, he finished 135th out of 1,100 competitors.
When he wasn’t on the move, Bowlen’s routine was rigid. Brittany Bowlen, Pat’s daughter, said his first stop was Russell’s, a convenience store next door to the OCC to get his newspapers. And then, “lunch, watch the surf and talk to the guys,” she said.
Bowlen wasn’t a board-surfer — he preferred riding the waves in a canoe and Guard said he became a “very astute waterman. Nobody is the master of the ocean, but Pat came pretty close.”
Bowlen saw Hawaii as an opportunity for adventure but as a business one, too. He bought Nick’s Fishmarket, three miles up the road from the Outrigger. In July 1988, Bowlen and a group of partners that included actor Tom Selleck opened The Black Orchid near downtown Honolulu. He cashed out in June 1992.
The Black Orchid became a primary dinner spot for Bowlen and his friends.
“Saturday nights, it was automatic we would go to The Black Orchid because that’s where our buddies hung out,” Guard said. “It was a gathering place for so many people that Pat deeply cared about.”
Provided by the Denver Broncos
Pat Bowlen watches from the sideline during a November 1985 game.
The ‘Don’t Call Me Grandpa,’ Story …
In 1997, Amie Klemmer was pregnant and would have a daughter, Lillie, who currently plays volleyball at Colorado. Bowlen was not keen on being called “Grandpa.” Klemmer said her father looked “a bit mortified.”
Wallace: “I was sitting in his office talking about Amie and he looked across the desk and said, ‘Do you think they can call me Uncle Pat?’ We came up with a much more special name for him. We got a hat with a Disney character and ‘Grumps’ across it. And all of the grandchildren called him, ‘Grumps,’ but not because he was grumpy with them.”
Bowlen’s funeral service was June 24 in Denver. Later that week, his family traveled to Hawaii for a final tribute. Two days of rain in Honolulu was followed by what residents call a “malie day,” calm surf with no trade winds.
Two six-person canoes were connected to form a double hull for the paddle out to the spot — known as “Castles” — where Bowlen caught the aforementioned big wave with Finney and Hemmings years before.
From left are Tim Guard, Fred Hemmings and John Finney at Mile High for the unveiling of the Pat Bowlen statue.
On the right canoe, the urn with Bowlen’s ashes was placed in the first seat and Guard was in the second seat. On the left side, Finney was in the first seat. Hemmings and his son, Heath, served as the steersmen. Bowlen’s children occupied the other seats and his grandchildren followed in other canoes.
Johnny and Patrick Bowlen entered the water to drop their father’s urn on the ocean floor, following his wishes.
“Amazing,” Wallace said. “The ceremony was beautiful and intimate and had all of the touches my dad would have wanted.”
In the eyes of his friends and family, Pat Bowlen was home, close to his friends of nearly 50 years. They knew him before he bought the Broncos, supported him through three Super Bowl losses, celebrated with him in San Diego after the title win over Green Bay, competed with him on the roads, trails and volcanoes and aided him when Alzheimer’s rapidly took his memory.
“We can all take great, great comfort and solace knowing Pat is exactly where he wants to be — out in the beautiful ocean,” Guard said. “I remember asking Pat, ‘Why do you love Hawaii?’ And he said, ‘Tim, I come here and have complete peace of mind. I have a small circle of friends. I love the ocean. I love going out on a canoe and catching a bunch of waves, I love our dinners at night. To me, Hawaii represents the perfect lifestyle.’”