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Reviewing 'A Football Life: Eddie DeBartolo' and the San Francisco 49ers

We review the NFL Network documentary 'A Football Life: Eddie DeBartolo' and his impact on the San Francisco 49ers.

Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE

"I'd walk through fire for Eddie" -Randy Cross

"He not only made me a better player but he made me a better man" - Keena Turner

The documentary opened at the memorial service of former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Freddie Solomon. Edward J. DeBartolo Jr. was speaking about his relationship with Solomon, and the value of friendship. Solomon was just one of many 49ers players that DeBartolo encountered in his 23-year tenure with the team.

But when he spoke about Solomon, it was as if they were family.

At age 30, Eddie DeBartolo became the NFL's youngest owner when he took over the San Francisco 49ers in 1977. DeBartolo owned the team for over two decades, until he stepped down 2000. The team won five Super Bowl championships under his watch.

The documentary revealed how DeBartolo was the first member of his family to try their hand at sports. Even though he came from a family that had great success in business, he had no point of reference when it came to owning a professional sports franchise.

So interestingly enough, the documentary showed the early years when DeBartolo went through his trial and error period - he had to learn by doing. Within a week of his arrival, the team dismissed then head coach Monty Clark, but he was only the first of many.

The team burned through multiple coaches and general managers. They actually changed coaches fives times in 2 years, and even executed a trade for O.J. Simpson that eventually flopped.

Down but not out, the young, wealthy businessman from Youngstown, Ohio eventually crossed paths with Bill Walsh. The two met and DeBartolo saw something in Walsh and knew that was the guy to lead his team. He hired the 47-year-old Walsh, who was considered by many to be too old.

The hour-long program then briefly dives into the politics, crime and murder in the Bay Area - an assassination rocked the city. And in a dark time in San Francisco, the 49ers began to emerge.

In 1981, the 49ers went on a miraculous run, putting together a 13-3 record. The notable moment that season came in the NFC Championship vs. Dallas. This was a significant game in that it was symbolic of the power shift in the NFL: The end of the Cowboys and the beginning of the 49ers.

DeBartolo's story about "The Catch" was pretty entertaining, as he couldn't see anything. At field level, a policeman on horseback obstructed DeBartolo's vision. Joe Montana laughed about the play, claiming he didn't see it either.

The 49ers went on to win Super Bowl XVI that year, as the first ever championship for San Francisco.

The victory united the city and was described as a "healing time" for the people of San Francisco. The victory parade was enormous; the streets were flooded with people wearing red and gold. And I have to admit; Dwight Clark's over-the-top beige fur coat was a riot.

The program later moved in the direction of family.

It seemed the 49ers had their own entourage. Eddie DeBartolo, Dwight Clark, Joe Montana and Freddie Solomon were just four good buddies, who hung out and grabbed dinners - not as colleagues, but as friends. It was a very close-knit group of guys.

The theme later evolved into "first-class."

DeBartolo was described as a gracious owner, and one who really took care of his players and staff. The way the players traveled, where they stayed, where they practiced, was all DeBartolo's unique touch. His contributions helped the team establish an identity and made them feel important.

Everything they did was first-rate, whether it was the players each having their own hotel rooms or traveling on larger planes. And DeBartolo's contributions showed up in the standings and in the record books. During a three-year span, San Francisco won an NFL record 18 consecutive road games.

"The way we traveled is the way we played," said Ronnie Lott.

It made the players feel like comfortable and at home, and that was important to DeBartolo. He wanted to project a family environment.

Something he did consistently was greeting players at the locker room door after games. That is something you'll now see current owner Jed York do in any one of the "Who's Got It Better Than Us?" videos.

What was most telling of the person DeBartolo is when he took action after a 49ers player suffered a horrific on-the-field injury. DeBartolo setup an annuity for safety Jeff Fuller after he lost the use of his arm on a vicious collision.

It showed his heart, character and business acumen all in one decision.

But nobody's perfect. Everyone knew that "Eddie D" had a temper. DeBartolo was known to throw stuff, and even once kicked and shattered a glass coke machine. He was feisty and hated to lose, but it's that passionate, competitive nature that was so important to the 49ers identity.

"Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser," said DeBartolo.

Walsh and DeBartolo also had their fights. The documentary discussed some of their most extreme blowouts, as it was said that on 7 or 8 accounts, DeBartolo ordered the firing of Walsh.

But it was a strong relationship, described by DeBartolo as a marriage.

DeBartolo got into his worst moment as an owner, when he and George Seiftert sat down with Joe Montana to announce his trade to Kansas City.

It marked the transition to Steve Young and an introduction to a whole new cast of 49ers that included the likes of Deion Sanders and Brent Jones. In the wake of Eddie DeBartolo Sr.'s death, that team went on to win the franchise's 5th Super Bowl in '94 versus the Chargers.

It was the end of a golden era.

An indictment of DeBartolo followed later on, when he was charged with failure to report an extortion attempt by a public official. Former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards and the sum of $400K left an ugly blemish on DeBartolo's immaculate background. He pled guilty to the charges and commissioner Paul Tagliabue suspended him for a year.

Naturally, a falling out between Eddie DeBartolo and sister Denise York ensued after the scandal. The weird part was when both parties settled to separate their financial interests, DeBartolo opted out of keeping the team, thinking it was time to step away.

And as we know, DeBartolo's nephew Jed York is now owner/CEO of the 49ers.

At the end of the documentary, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Redskins owner Daniel Snyder both endorsed his return to football, saying it would be great for the game. Though flattered, DeBartolo claims he is satisfied with his life.

"What I was doing, I was doing from my heart. I just wanted to be a part of it," Eddie DeBartolo Jr. on owning the 49ers.

Follow @DeSimone80