DENVER — A little less than a year ago, Chris Tripucka got a call from his mother.
She asked if he’d be willing to attend the unveiling of the Ring of Fame Plaza at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. An 8-foot steel bust of Chris’ father, Frank Tripucka, the first quarterback in Denver Broncos history, was set to be one of 24 included in the new monument.
When he got the call, the dirt underneath Chris’ fingernails from burying his dad was barely a week old.
The request would have been too much for some to bear. But for the son of the man who went from assistant coach to starting quarterback during his franchise’s very first contest, who broke one of his thumbs in a game and kept playing, who damn near cut his other thumb off with an electric trimmer but still finished the hedge, finding the answer wasn’t a challenge.
“Why are you asking?” Chris remembers saying. “Of course I’ll go.”
That was the first time Chris met Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. He looked into the eyes of the man who brought two Super Bowls to Denver, and he saw his dad.
Not just the greatness, but the haze.
And so Chris did what he had spent the last five years getting all too comfortable doing. He made sure to look the man he — like so many others — calls “Mr. Bowlen” in the eye, he thoroughly explained who he was, and then he asked a simple question.
“I asked, ‘Do you remember my dad?'” Chris remembers. “Mr. Bowlen, being the first-class sort of person he is, told me, ‘Sure I do!'”
It was the sort of information Chris’ father was always apt to remember, even on the most difficult of days — the same sort that may lie ahead for Bowlen.
On Wednesday, the Broncos announced that Bowlen would be relinquishing control of the team due to an ongoing battle with Alzheimer’s disease — the same disease that took Frank Tripucka’s life at the age of 85.
Bowlen is only 70 years old. For Chris, that’s as tragic as it is promising.
“It’s just so young,” Chris said, recalling his father was around 80 when the disease set in. “But if there’s a silver lining, it’s that we keep reading about the medication. Some of it seems to be working. I just hope that for Mr. Bowlen, they’ve caught it early enough to make a difference.”
But for as much optimism as there is in Chris’ voice, there’s a sense of realism. For those who have stared Alzheimer’s in the face, watched it pull a veil over the mind of someone they’ve loved, it can’t help but be the case.
Thankfully for Chris, his father provided enough stories to help him through those dark times.
“Even when his short term memory was shot, my dad could reach back into the 1970s and tell you a story from his playing days like it had happened yesterday,” Chris said.
Those stories were never lost on Chris, who went on to play college football at Boston College himself.
But being the youngest of seven kids, Chris never got to see his dad don those disgusting brown and mustard-yellow uniforms the Broncos first borrowed from a local college, he never got to experience his dad playing at the Old Polo Grounds in New York, he never got to hear his dad bark out audibles to his favorite wide receiver Lionel Taylor.
The one thing Chris was able to watch, however, was his dad’s second wind as a member of the Broncos organization. He has Bowlen to thank for that.
Having bought the team in 1984, Bowlen began running the Broncos over 20 years after Frank retired. And yet the two came to know each other well.
Specifically, Chris recalled Bowlen personally flying his dad and all the members of the original 1960 AFL Broncos out to Denver for a game and a golf outing every year.
“Mr. Bowlen embraced the history my dad helped create,” Chris said. “He went out of his way to make sure people knew about my dad and how he helped get the franchise off the ground. He always made sure the invites kept coming, even after my dad was physically unable to get out to Denver.”
The same way Bowlen had always thought of Frank, Chris had Bowlen’s wife, Annabell, and his seven kids on his mind when he heard the news Wednesday.
He remembered how aggravated his dad got when the end drew near. He remembered how frustrated some of his brothers got watching his dad sturggle. He remembered the tears his own son, now a punter at Texas A&M, shed for his grandfather in the midst of his first collegiate game.
Then he remembered the handshake he had shared with Mr. Bowlen and the question he had asked.
“That’s what you have to do, no matter how hard it gets,” Chris said. “Always answer their questions.”
And for the days when that just doesn’t seem like it’s enough? Don’t lose perspective, Chris said. In fact, that’s exactly what Chris did as he wandered through the newly minted Ring of Fame a little less than a year ago.
“People from the Broncos organization kept coming up to me and asking about my dad,” Chris said, fighting back tears. “It was just first-class, and it was like you could see a little bit of Mr. Bowlen in all of them.”