By BRIAN DZENIS
For the past few years, Eddie DeBartolo Jr. has sweated out the Super Bowl weekend.
It’s been close to 20 years since the former San Francisco 49ers owner has had any skin in the game. But it was the weekend that the inductees for the Pro Football Hall of Fame are announced. The Youngstown native and Cardinal Mooney grad had been a semifinalist for the Hall in 2009 and had presented four of his ex-players and coach Bill Walsh.
But this time, on Saturday, he gets to wear the gold jacket.
“I never thought that this was going to happen. It’s like it’s coming full circle. I was born and raised in Youngstown. I went to San Francisco. We went on some great runs that can never be duplicated,” Debartolo said. “I’m one of the luckiest people alive to be inducted along side these icons and I come back to Canton, Ohio, which is 40 miles from my hometown and it could never get any greater than that.”
After taking control of the 49ers in 1977, DeBartolo helped engineer one of pro football’s greatest dynasties, winning five Super Bowls between 1982 and 1995. The Joe Montana-to-Jerry Rice era, the advent of the West Coast offense and “The Catch” all happened under his tenure.
As an owner, DeBartolo brought a family-first philosophy to the NFL. He was known to shuttle players around by private jet. He know which player had a sick family member or who was having a child. He’d throw holiday parties and invited all of his employees. In a 1990 profile in Sports Illustrated, his generosity showed by agreeing to pay safety Jeff Fuller $100,000 a year for the rest of his life after he suffered a career-ending neck injury or by sending the wives and girlfriends of players a $500 Nieman-Marcus gift certificate. At the time, it was unheard of for an NFL owner to treat his players that well.
DeBartolo says the philosophy started with his father, Eddie DeBartolo Sr., a Youngstown-based department store magnate.
“That started in Youngstown with our employees there. I think my dad started that years ago. We treated everybody like they were part of the family: wives, girlfriends, children,” DeBartolo said. “Not only in Youngstown. One time we had almost 15,000 employees outside Youngstown and we tried to keep tabs on everybody and make everyone feel like they were important to us and they were.
“They gave their heart and soul for the work that they did,” he said.
DeBartolo refers to his old players, like Montana and Ronnie Lott, as friends and still keeps in touch with them.
Legal issues ended DeBartolo’s time as owner. In 1998, he pleaded guilty to one charge of failing to report a felony after then-governor of Louisiana, Edwin Edwards extorted DeBartolo for $400,000 over a riverboat gambling license. DeBartolo was fined $1 million, sentenced to probation and was suspended by the NFL. He ceded ownership of the 49ers to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, in 2000. His nephew, Jed York, is the team’s CEO.
DeBartolo still follows his former team and occasionally gives pointers to York, although DeBartolo said he doesn’t need it.
“He’s coming around and I think he’s doing a great job. They’re really close to turning it around. It’s so close. It’s probably too close,” DeBartolo said.
His ties to Youngstown are still strong. Denise and her husband John York reside in the area as do other members of the DeBartolo family. In 2014, Eddie and Denise each donated $5 million to Cardinal Mooney.
“It’s home and nothing’s changed, yet everything’s changed. I come home and I go look at where I used to live, the two or three houses where I was brought up,” DeBartolo said. “There’s no place like home. It’s a saying that’s used very often, but it’s true.
“People from Youngstown are a different breed, the work ethic is unbelievable, it is something that probably helped me more than anything, along with my dad obviously,” he added.
Family is also where DeBartolo is looking for his presenter Saturday, choosing his oldest daughter, Lisa DeBartolo. It was a tough call. If Walsh —who passed away in 2007— was still alive, he would have been DeBartolo’s pick. After Walsh, it was too hard for him to choose from among any of his former players.
“Lisa is my oldest, I thought she’d be a natural,” DeBartolo said. “She’s a really talented young lady. She runs our foundation with our youngest daughter. She’s a natural to be my inductee.”
Picking his most memorable moment in the NFL was hard for DeBartolo. He has five Super Bowls to choose from. After some thought, he went with Super Bowl XVI, the 49ers’ 26-21 win against the Cincinnati Bengals in 1982. It was his first title.
After the on-field celebrations, DeBartolo made his way off the field and spotted his wife, Candy, his three daughters, Lisa, Nicole and Tiffanie, his parents and aunt and uncle grouped together. They were all in tears.
“Just going over to them and embracing all them was probably the best moment,” DeBartolo said. “It was the most satisfaction that I can remember, having them all there together at one time.”
On Saturday, he’ll join a few members of his 49ers family in the Hall of Fame.
“I’m going in there with the immortals of the game and it’s almost impossible to put it into words what it means to me,” DeBartolo said. “I’m going to be connected to the icons of the game and I never expected that.”