At several points during the Pro Bowl’s record 34-year stay at Aloha Stadium, NFL owners sought to move the game to other locations.
But, for more than three decades, the league’s annual all-star game remained rooted in Halawa, in large part due to the steadfast support of Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen.
“I would ask him, ‘How do you do it?’,” then-state Sen. Fred Hemmings recalled.
The answer, Hemmings said he was slyly told, was in seeing the item placed near the end of the agenda at owner’s meetings. “He was smart, because that’s when everybody was tired after hours and hours of negotiations and discussions.”
Bowlen, who died Thursday at age 75 after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease, began coming to Hawaii as a youngster in a snowbird Canadian family. It would be the start of an enduring part-time residency and love affair during which he actively explored all corners of the state.
Bowlen competed in the Ironman Triathlon, ran on Hawaii island, hiked Haleakala, paddled a canoe on rivers and the Molokai shoreline.
“The best way to describe Pat from a Hawaii perspective was that he was a local boy at heart,” said Hemmings, a running partner who joined in many of the adventures. “He’s been to places even people who have lived here all their lives haven’t seen.”
Bowlen, a businessman with interests in gas, oil and real estate in the U.S. and Canada, was among several suitors for an NFL franchise in the 1980s. When league owners agreed to take up the sale of the Broncos on the agenda of their spring 1984 owners’ meetings, Bowlen took it as a fortuitous sign that the session was to take place in Honolulu.
The owners approved Bowlen’s purchase of the controlling 60% interest in the team from Edgar Kaiser for $70 million.
Over the next 35 years, Bowlen became a key figure in the NFL structure, the only owner so intimately involved in all four areas of league growth during the late 1980s and early 1990s — TV, labor, stadiums and international play — the league said. He served on 15 committees, third-most of any owner all-time.
“He was a mover and shaker, and through Pat I was able to meet and deal with the decision makers because of his introductions and credibility,” said Mufi Hannemann, who negotiated on behalf of the state and city.
“I can tell you, unequivocally, that Pat was the most instrumental person in keeping the Pro Bowl in Hawaii for the years it was here,” Hemmings said. “And he very adroitly handled that issue at league meetings to keep it here that number of years.”
“There is no question in my mind that without Pat Bowlen’s involvement we would not have had the Pro Bowl as long as we did,” Hannemann said.
When some owners or officials suggested the league could do better financially by moving the game to mainland sites that required less travel, Bowlen won important backing from the NFL players, selling the Pro Bowl as a vacation for players and their families after the demands and frequent separation of a long season.
“He was able to articulate to the NFL that they would benefit immensely by having this association,” Hannemann said. “Therefore, when it came time to make my presentation, it flowed a lot easier and was received a lot better because he paved the way.”
Players from the Broncos got an added bonus because Bowlen was known to comp them at restaurants here in which he shared an ownership. With restaurateur Randy Schoch, Bowlen held an interest in Nick’s Fishmarket in Waikiki and Black Orchid in Kakaako for a time.
A decade ago, when the state first began considering a replacement for Aloha Stadium, Bowlen opened doors for legislators to study NFL stadiums and development, state Sen. Donna Kim said. “He was very generous.”
Had Bowlen not been forced to take a reduced role in later years due to health, “I think the Pro Bowl would have been extended here,” Hannemann said. “It wouldn’t have left for Orlando (Fla.), that’s my humble feeling.”
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