Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. is finally headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but his path to get there was anything but easy. We take a look at what Mr. D's legacy meant to the San Francisco 49ers then and what it means to professional sports today.
Sixteen playoff appearances. Ten conference title appearances. Five Super Bowl championships.
It's easy to quantify all of his accomplishments on the field. It's a much more difficult task to explain and truly appreciate the significance of those off of it. Yet for all that Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. achieved by the end of his tenure as the owner of the San Francisco 49ers, it's almost absurd to consider how much trepidation he met when it all first began.
The son of a wealthy real estate mogul, born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, DeBartolo acquired the 49ers from the Morabito family in 1977. At 30, he was, by far, the youngest owner in the NFL at the time.
And right away he had so much going against him. For starters, DeBartolo wasn't even from the same coast — prior to his acquisition of the team, he had only previously visited San Francisco as a young boy on a family vacation. It certainly did not help that the family who sold him the team had also founded it back in 1946 and, until DeBartolo, had owned it ever since. And despite having made his wealth as a very successful real estate businessman, what business did he have being in football?
"When I first got out there [to San Francisco], truthfully, I really didn't know if a football was blown up or stuffed," admitted DeBartolo in an interview with Comcast Sportsnet earlier this year.
From the start, DeBartolo was an outsider, and he did not do himself any favors at first to shake that perception among the media, the fans, or the locker room.
He brazenly proclaimed that football was a business first and foremost and he intended to operate the organization as such. He immediately ousted incumbent head coach Monte Clark who was rather well-liked by his players. He later bundled five draft picks to acquire free agent running back and hometown hero O.J. Simpson who turned out to be a colossal disappointment.
In 1977, during his first season as the team's owner, DeBartolo's relationship with the 49ers fanbase had already reached a violent boiling point. At one game, a half-drunk can of beer was slung into his head. At another game, a fan spit "a big ol' hocker" in DeBartolo's face from just three feet away.
"I was so steamed and so frustrated. I didn't know what to do," DeBartolo said in a 1990 interview with Sports Illustrated. "All I could think was, ‘What the hell am I doing here? I could be back in Youngstown playing golf.'"
But it wasn't long before DeBartolo's vision started to come together.
To understand DeBartolo's place in football history, you have to start with the very basic premise of his philosophy: the 49ers were a family.
Sure, in this day and age, the idea of instilling "a family culture" into a business operation isn't such a novel one but you have to consider that, for a professional football organization, in the ‘70s, it was a pioneering concept.
It should come as no surprise that DeBartolo borrowed this idea from his own father's commercial construction business which was responsible for the innovation of the suburban shopping mall. What started off as a humble operation with just five employees on the payroll would eventually grow into a $2 billion company employing 15,000 workers.
"When my father started his company, he always treated people like they were part of the family," said DeBartolo. "Could have been somebody working in the kitchen or it could have been his senior vice president. If anybody had a problem, they could come to him. I wanted to carry that on into the football operation."
It was as simple and as complicated as that. And while building shopping malls isn't exactly the same gig as winning football games, DeBartolo understood that it ultimately doesn't matter what business you're in — as long as you take care of the people behind the operation, everything else will take care of itself. And boy, did DeBartolo take care of his people.
Being on the San Francisco 49ers in the ‘80s and ‘90s was akin to being in Led Zeppelin or The Beatles. Players flew comfortably to away games on a jumbo-sized, wide-bodied plane. Once they arrived to the hotel, each player could expect to check into his own room. After a hard day's practice, the entire team was fed a meal prepared by world-class gourmet chefs. And of course for every game they played (and usually won), they were paid a handsome check.
"We go first class, we can guarantee you that. If there's a club in the league that does anything the right way any more than we do, I'd like to know who the hell it is," head coach Bill Walsh once challenged during a team meeting. "You say the Dallas Cowboys...check their salaries. See what they pay compared to us. It's not even a comparison. You can go right through the league.
"Why? Because we got a super owner. We got people that care."
But any owner with deep pockets can cut a check from a cushy leather office chair before kicking their feet up on the desk and calling it a day. Super owners like DeBartolo did so much more.
Perhaps something that truly endeared DeBartolo to his team was the manner in which he addressed them after every game (again, usually a victory). As players would file into the locker room, quite literally bruised and bloodied, there would be a spirited DeBartolo standing just by the entrance. Imagine his stout 5-foot-7 frame next to those giants. He may have been easy to miss, but he was always there, grinning ear to ear, greeting each and every single player, handing out towels, slapping shoulder pads, shaking hands...
The message was loud and clear: I might be wearing a suit jacket, tie, and Italian leather loafers, but I'm not holier than thou. I'm not above you. I'm your guy, and you're my guy. We're in this together.
But for DeBartolo, that wasn't enough. He wanted to know his players beyond football.
"My dad knew every player's name. He knew their wives' names, he knew their kids' names," says Lisa DeBartolo, daughter and Executive Vice President of DeBartolo Holdings. "And it wasn't because he wanted to look good. He really wanted them to feel loved and appreciated, and I think they did."
The countless tales of DeBartolo's generosity are very well-documented. Perhaps the most incredible story is that of former 49ers safety Jeff Fuller.
Fuller, in tandem with future-Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott, formed one of the hardest-hitting backfields in the NFL through the ‘80s. Unfortunately for Fuller, his promising career was cut short on a seemingly routine defensive play in a game against the New England Patriots during the 1989 season.
Leading with his helmet, Fuller made the tackle on the Patriots running back near the sideline...but he didn't get up after the play. Though he wasn't aware of it at the time, he had suffered a neck injury that severely damaged nerves controlling the movement of his right arm.
Before any of this was known, as Fuller was being transported to the nearby Stanford hospital, DeBartolo was right behind him following Fuller's ambulance.
"I think that he probably beat me to the Stanford hospital," Fuller jokes.
And for every day that Fuller was at the hospital, he recalled DeBartolo being right there by his side, supporting him, encouraging him. While Fuller eventually recovered well enough to get back on his two feet, he would lose the function of his right arm for the rest of his life. Six years into his professional football career, it all came to an abrupt end. But for Fuller, there was some hope in his life after football.
"He did some things for me that owners don't do and haven't done," Fuller explained. "He made sure that I was OK and my family was OK."
What he was referring to specifically was an annuity that DeBartolo had set up which would pay Fuller $100,000 every year for the rest of his life ensuring that he and his family were taken care of.
Fuller didn't ask for any help. DeBartolo just wanted to.
It was through these incredible acts of generosity that DeBartolo completely redefined what it meant to be a team owner in professional sports. And, again, this is just one remarkable story out of many.
But we know that his tenure was not without controversy.
Heading into the ‘90s, the DeBartolo Corporation had incurred some significant financial losses as a result of the real estate collapse in the few preceding years, forcing their sale of the Pittsburgh Penguins and other holdings.
It would be easy to say he just got mixed in with the wrong people, at the wrong place, at the wrong time but make no mistake: DeBartolo broke the law and would pay the price for it.
In 1998, as a result of the now-infamous riverboat casino scandal, DeBartolo pleaded guilty in front of a federal court to a felony charge of failing to report an extortion attempt by a public official.
In the aftermath, DeBartolo was suspended from the league and, after a falling out with his sister Denise DeBartolo York, agreed to a settlement which transferred to her ownership of the team.
"I think it's hurt more than anything that's ever happened to him in his life other than losing his parents," Joe Montana once shared.
In the decade to come, under York's ownership, the 49ers suffered one of the darkest periods in the franchise's otherwise storied history, stringing together several consecutive losing seasons. The product on the field, while objectively mediocre, just lacked a certain heart and soul.
"Without Eddie, those five Super Bowl wins wouldn't have happened," said Carmen Policy, former 49ers team president and chief executive. "He's the one that held the team together. He's the one who created that culture of winning. And the culture of treating players like family."
Though Denise would eventually cede control of the team to her son Jed York (struggling once more to right the ship), DeBartolo remained on the figurative sideline only able to watch...and wait...
DeBartolo had previously been named a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame on three separate occasions but each time was eliminated upon moving into the very final round which determined the ten inductees.
How appropriate it was then that on the eve of Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, California, the now-home of the 49ers, 46 football writers would vote to finally induct "Mr. D" into the Hall of Fame.
Sixteen playoff appearances. Ten conference title appearances. Five Super Bowl championships.
Every bronze bust in the Hall of Fame has a legacy to be shared and remembered. Sure, Super Bowl titles are nice, but I believe what finally got Mr. D a golden jacket was his seemingly never-ending generosity and the unconditional love that he had for his players.
Once you factor in everything else, there's not a more impressive resume or a candidate more deserving.