CANTON, OHIO — Splashes of orange dotted George Halas Drive three hours before the ceremony. Frustration vanished. Smiles widened.
Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and cornerback Champ Bailey took their rightful place among the all-time greats Saturday, enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The league began its 100th season on Thursday with the Broncos exhibition game. Only 326 men have earned the sport's highest honor during this time.
The latest Broncos stand tall among this group. Bowlen created the standard of excellence for the Broncos, a road map the franchise continues to follow after two difficult seasons. In Bowlen's time in charge, the Broncos posted 18 playoff berths, claimed 13 division titles won three Super Bowls in 1996-1997 and 2015.
"He demanded the best, but it was never about him," said Broncos longtime athletic trainer Steve "Greek" Antonopulos. "He was driven but humble. Just a great man."
It was a difficult night for the Bowlen children. They were fighting back tears as they walked onto the stage.
"Obviously his kids would have loved to have him here," said kicker Brandon McManus, who attended the ceremony with Von Miller and Chris Harris Jr. before returning for Sunday's morning practice. "One of the coolest things in my life is being a father. It's about leaving a legacy. And Mr. B left an incredible legacy for his kids, and it was great to see the smiles on their faces."
No one drew closer to Bowlen than Antonopulos. The two formed a strong friendship formed over Bowlen's morning conversations in the trainer's room. Greek treated Bowlen, a world-class triathlete, after he separated his shoulder while biking from Denver to training camp in Greeley. It was Greek who talked with Bowlen's kids and remained a regular visitor as Bowlen fought his years-long battle with Alzheimer's before passing on June 13.
As such, Antonopulos became an easy choice when Bowlen's seven children searched for a presenter on Saturday. Antonopulos admitted it was "unfortunate Pat couldn't be here, but I am sure he's looking down with a smile on his face." The presentation featured messages from Bowlen's children, including daughters Brittany Bowlen and Beth Bowlen Wallace, who have expressed their separate desire to own the team. The children insist the Broncos' future is secure -- Patrick predicted multiple Super Bowls for the franchise -- but Saturday marked a long-overdue celebration of past accomplishments.
"Mr. B," Antonopulos said on the video, pointing to the sky, "This one is for you."
Bowlen's reach expanded beyond Denver. He was a critical figure in league circles.
"There is not a better enshrinee in my opinion," said commissioner Roger Goodell, who worked closely with Bowlen, who left his imprint on the league's current TV and labor deals, while helping expand the sport globally through international games. "He's just an extraordinary man and an extraordinary contributor to the success of the NFL."
It was quite a week for Bowlen. The appreciation of him reflected his impact on and off the field. It began with a players donation to the Hall of Fame in his name -- something that has never happened before -- a bench dedication at a local Boys & Girls Club -- Bowlen was a longtime champion of the organization -- and finished with the presentation of his gold jacket and the unveiling of his bust at Tom Benson Stadium.
"Given his accomplishments, this was long overdue," Broncos legend Tom Jackson told Denver7 from the stadium floor. "Pat was not just an owner, he was a friend. I went on a vacation with Pat, played golf with him. Pat would come to the locker room and get to know us. He cared. He was the genuine article."
Bailey is an ideal companion to join Bowlen in many ways. He mirrored Bowlen's relentless pursuit of success. As Chris Harris Jr. told me, "the way Champ prepared created his success. He was so consistent. It rubbed off on other players." Agent Jack Reale, who helped engineer Bailey's trade from Washington to Denver in 2004, presented Bailey. Nerves engulfed Bailey as he prepared his speech. It lasted 30 minutes.
He struck all the right chords with Broncos fans.
"I want to thank God for Broncos country," Bailey said. "The best thing in my career happened in 2004 -- when I was traded to the Denver Broncos. ... I will always consider Denver my home."
Bailey earned 12 Pro Bowl berths, the most ever by a cornerback. Any conversation about the greatest Broncos defender begins with him. He possessed unique athleticism and a grinder's work ethic. Bailey insists his career came full circle on Saturday. For him, his Hall of Fame journey began in Canton at this stadium as he played his first game with the Broncos. He helped lead the Broncos to five straight postseason berths. He posted 18 interceptions over the 2005 and 2006 seasons and finished with 52.
"This is huge. Absolutely it was important. I know Champ wanted me here, so there was no way I was missing this," Harris said. "This was special."
Bailey wondered aloud if he belonged in Canton among the players he followed growing up. He shares his humility with Bowlen. His candidacy was never in question, stamped by his selection on the NFL's All-Decade Team of the 2000s. Bailey's election, the hope is, will create a run on Broncos defenders, including linebackers Randy Gradishar and Karl Mecklenburg, who was in attendance, and cornerback Louis Wright. Bailey halted at times, holding back tears. He praised his family and children and discussed race and living as a black man.
"Understand this, things that make us great on the field — our size and aggression — can get us killed off it," Bailey said.
On this unseasonably cool night, the respect for the Broncos was tangible. Fans roared for Bowlen and Bailey. The pair never sought the spotlight, never pursued the Hall of Fame. In doing so, their consistent excellence led them to Canton on an unforgettable summer night in Ohio.
"We all know the impact Mr. Bowlen and Champ had," Miller said. "To be here for this was a beautiful experience."