During a relentlessly weird NFL season fraught with COVID-19 danger, Broncos president Joe Ellis got the virus for his birthday. Scary stuff. So what does a 63-year-old football executive do with the worst B-day present ever?
“You steer clear of a wife that’s sick of you and hunker down, because she will never forgive you if you give her this virus,” Ellis told me, cracking a joke at his own expense.
After being decked by the coronavirus three weeks ago, Ellis now laughs because he can. It’s good to be alive. One of the more powerful men in Colorado sports feels humbled and blessed to be back on his feet in a year that has seen more than 250,000 Americans die in the pandemic.
“It’s grim. You can throw out all the statistics about strong recovery rates or low death rates, but you have to take this thing seriously. This virus is the real deal,” Ellis said Friday, during a telephone interview with The Denver Post.
“It has been a rough year in so many ways for so many people. I feel fortunate to see another day, with a chance to improve in so many different ways.”
Although still fatigued from wrestling with the ‘Rona, a struggling football team’s chief executive officer will return to Empower Field at Mile High on Sunday for the first time in a month, as Ellis watches quarterback Drew Lock and the 3-6 Broncos try to get back on track against Miami.
With case numbers and hospitalizations spiking throughout the state, and Gov. Jared Polis warning Coloradans “not to play Russian roulette over Thanksgiving,” this will be the final home game of the season in which 5,700 fans will be allowed inside the stadium.
“I feel bad for our fans. Maybe you can poke fun and say, ‘Who the hell would want to go see this team play?’ But our fans are very loyal and supportive, We never take that for granted,” said Ellis, already casting a hopeful eye toward a vaccine that will allow the Broncos to resume their legendary run of home sellouts in 2021.
“All the COVID data and the trajectory tells us: Not allowing anyone in the stadium, even a handful of friends and family of the team, is the right thing to do. There was never a financial aspect to the decision, because 5,700 fans did not move the revenue needle. We have to be good partners in this fight against a virus that has affected so many people and businesses.”
A nefarious, invisible foe with the ‘Rona’s wicked punch can cause any of us — mothers, grandsons and business operators alike — anxiety that rudely comes calling in the middle of the night.
Although the virus has touched only a handful of Broncos players and staffers, from guard Graham Glasgow to defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, every case has been taken very personally by Ellis. He has regularly awakened at 3:30 a.m. during the season to check updates on test results from head athletic trainer Steve “Greek” Antonopulos.
“I don’t sleep much anway,” said Ellis, chuckling. “So I have nothing better to do at 3:30 in the morning than to get on a text chain with Greek to find out if everybody’s OK.”
On Halloween weekend, however, he awoke in the cold sweat of the paranoia induced by 2020. “This is not normal,” thought Ellis, sitting up in bed, every fiber in his body exhausted, but unable to sleep.
Despite no sign of the virus in his test results, he skipped Denver’s rousing 31-30 comeback victory Nov. 1 against the Chargers out of an abundance of caution, missing a game for the first time in two decades.
Hours before dawn on Election Day, Ellis recalls reaching for his cell phone and seeing “the dreaded words from Greek: You need to give me a call. I turned to my wife; we exchanged some unpleasantries, and prepared for bad news.”
It wasn’t good. Ellis had COVID. So did John Elway. The top business and football executive in the organization, battling the virus at the same time.
“At the beginning, John had it worse than I did,” Ellis said. “But he recovered a lot faster than I did.”
Its unpredictability makes this virus a particularly untrustworthy enemy. Ellis never ran a fever or suffered from brain fog. His cough? Dry. . But, he added, “My body felt like it was shutting down.” Night after night, through his birthday Nov. 16, the virus refused to let him rest.
“Bizarre,” is the only way Ellis can describe it. He knows the virus can have adverse long-term effects on the heart, the lungs, the brain. Dealing with that uncertainty gives him “the same anxiety thousands have suffered,” he said.
So Ellis will treat this NFL game day as a gift. Happy birthday, after all.
Yes, tough issues and hard decisions await the Broncos, with the fate of coach Vic Fangio to be debated by fans and a dispute among late franchise owner Pat Bowlen’s heirs to be heard in court.
“We’re all frustrated by this season. But I give our players, coaches and staff credit for the way they’ve conducted themselves, followed the protocols, improvising and adjusting to keep each other safe,” Ellis said.
“The truth is, we feel fortunate to still be playing games.”
In 2020, every act of survival, big or small, counts as a victory.
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