By Tom Williams
Pride and relief are what Eddie DeBartolo’s sister and nephew felt last February when he was announced as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2016.
“We were on pins and needles until the very end because you never know,” said Denise DeBartolo York, of Canfield. who co-owns the San Francisco 49ers with her husband, John.
During the three previous Super Bowl weekends, DeBartolo was a finalist but not selected.
“You hear all those stories, a long time has passed,” she said. “There are [voters] who didn’t know him, weren’t there in that era.”
Jed York, her oldest son who is the 49ers CEO, feels his uncle should not have been waiting as long as he did. DeBartolo, who owned the NFL team from 1977-2000, has five Super Bowl rings.
“I’ve always thought that Eddie should have gone into the Hall of Fame the first time he was up for it,” York said. “He revolutionized what owners do and I think he’s the best that’s ever done it.”
Saturday in Canton, DeBartolo, the only NFL owner to win five Super Bowls, will join the NFL’s other legends when he is enshrined. (The Pittsburgh Steelers have six Super Bowl championships, but founder Art Rooney was alive only for four of them.)
The Yorks are happy the wait is over.
Denise found out Eddie was selected during the NFL Honors ceremony on the eve of the Super Bowl when Jed received a call. “Mom, Uncle Eddie is in,” she recalled being told.
“I thought I was going to start crying, we were so excited,” she said, noting they were in San Francisco. “I do think it was karma.
“Bygones are bygones, whatever transgressions they feel he did,” Denise said. “By and large he revolutionized the way that professional football players were treated.”
About 10 days before he was selected, DeBartolo admitted he was having trouble sleeping.
“I’ve been getting up a lot and I can’t blame it on my three dogs,” DeBartolo said. “I’m sure it’s playing on my mind.”
Jed said his initial reaction to the announcement was joy.
“Second, it was more [relief],” he said. “I knew how stressful it had been for any [candidate] that goes through this. It can be very, very difficult on you and on your family to get dragged through that long, drawn-out process several years in a row.”
As a result, the Yorks are getting ready for another major celebration after the 49ers were the host for Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Tonight, the family will host a celebration at the Glenmoor Country Club in Canton for hundreds of guests.
“It’s all very emotional,” Denise said of her brother’s enshrinement. “We have a close family. A lot of us have dispersed to different parts of country but everybody is coming in.”
Like all families, she said she and her brother have had their ups-and-downs since the team changed hands.
In 1998, Eddie pleaded guilty for failing to report an extortion attempt. Over the next two years, DeBartolo turned the 49ers over to his sister in exchange for the Yorks’ share of the DeBartolo Corporation’s business interests.
“Every family has [issues],” Denise said. “But we have a long, strong family history together and we really definitely had caring loving hands-on parents and we should cherish that always.
“I hear from him constantly — sometimes to discuss business, sometimes for reassurance. And I feel the same way about him.”
As a youngster, Jed said he was aware that growing up in a family with NFL ties was not typical.
“It was always very special to be able to go to the 49ers games whether it was going to a game in San Francisco which was a pretty far trip for us from Youngstown,” he said.
“We went to a lot more road games growing up just because they were closer,” he said. “And [I] saw how he brought the family together, brought so much pride to the family. Such a rare thing to be a part of but I still knew how special it was.”
His memories include “a lot of winning, a lot of celebration.”
One memory that stands out has nothing to do with Super Bowls.
“When we lost the division championship round game against the Minnesota Vikings n 1987, I remember how upset my uncle was,” Jed said. “He had built a team that everyone thought was going to win the Super Bowl. They were a powerhouse and we end up losing to the Vikings. I remember how upset he was.
“It wasn’t just the moment but it’s what happened from that [loss], how he transformed,” Jed said. “He [channeled] defeat into back-to-back Super Bowl [wins in 1988 and 1989] and came one play away in the [NFC] Championship Game against the Giants from going to the Super Bowl for a third [consecutive] time.
“That’s what I learned the most from him, the resilience, how much he hated to lose but how you can pick yourself up back off the mat and you go after it again and again and again.”
Denise said there are sides to her brother few see.
“Several years ago, [former wide receiver] Freddie Solomon was dying of cancer,” she said. “I can remember Eddie sitting at his bedside for weeks. There were a lot of things [he did] besides [spending] money.
“He put in the time and made the effort.”
Saturday night at Tom Benson Stadium, the 49ers will celebrate once again.