When Lamar Hunt died in December 2006, tributes to his legacy rang out from all corners of the National Football League, as it was his vision, his investment and his family’s cash flow that helped the American Football League find stability, credibility and ultimately success to permanently transform the landscape of pro football.
But as much as the entire collection of original American Football League teams owes to Hunt, so too do the Broncos owe to Bob Howsam (lower left in the picture), who along with his father Earl and brother Lee had the idea of supplementing Denver’s flourishing minor-league and college-based sports scene of the late 1950s with an investment in the fledgling AFL.
Monday night, Howsam died in Sun City, Ariz., where he had been spending his retirement years. He was 89 years old.
“Bob Howsam played a very important part in the founding of this great franchise, at the very beginning of the American Football League,” President/CEO Pat Bowlen said in a statement. “He put together the very first Denver Broncos team and brought pro football to Denver. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Howsam family at this difficult time.”
Howsam’s involvement with the Broncos was relatively brief, lasting just two years from the club’s founding in 1959 — one year before it and the other original AFL franchises began play — until 1961. Other owners would be afforded greater renown in Broncos annals; Bowlen’s stewardship has witnessed five conference titles and two world championships, while the management of brothers Allen and Gerald Phipps saw the team evolve from underfunded league stragglers to conference champions, consistent winners and — most importantly — the object of fervent fan devotion throughout the Mountain Time Zone.
But the Howsams’ original investment in the AFL laid the groundwork for an organization whose presence would forever alter the landscape of the region — from other sports franchises that followed to the businesses which relocated to and flourished in the Denver area in part due to the region’s vibrancy that was in part made possible by the presence of professional sports.
“Here in Denver we had a stadium,” Howsam later told NFL Films, referring to Bears Stadium, which would a few renovations later more than double in size to a 76,000-seat palace of sound called Mile High Stadium. “We were hoping to enlarge it because we were talking about (starting) the Continental Baseball League at that time, so it fit right in.
“I wanted a football team here for the fans, because I thought we had great fans. I needed 35,000 seats to first, enter baseball, and secondly, we thought we could draw that many for football in time.”
He was right, although that time didn’t come for half a decade.
Nationally, Howsam is best remembered as being the architect of “The Big Red Machine,” the nickname given to the overpowering Cincinnati Reds teams of the 1970s that won back-to-back World Series in 1975 and 1976 and claimed six National League West crowns.
When Howsam arrived in Cincinnati in 1967, the Reds already had future all-time hits leader Pete Rose and eventual Hall of Famer Tony Perez in their dugout. By the end of that season, Johnny Bench had made his Major League debut. In 1970, Sparky Anderson became manager. In 1971, Howsam acquired George Foster and executed one of the most lopsided trades in baseball annals, acquiring Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, Jack Billingham and Dennis Menke for Lee May, Tommy Helms and Jimmy Stewart. Two years later, Ken Griffey Sr., was brought aboard.
The results — eight 90-win seasons in the 1970s and an average of 95 wins per season — are the legacy for which many around the nation will remember Howsam.
But in Denver, what he leaves behind might be of deeper root — a franchise that forever changed the face and identity of a region.
Howsam might not have been an active component of the franchise’s success. But there might not have been any franchise at all without Howsam’s foresight.