Just returned from a reception for Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., and I have to say my pupils are still dilated. Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, Roger Craig, Merton Hanks, Joe Montana – the stars were out in full force to toast their beloved Eddie D. at the Campton Place Hotel in San Francisco on the eve of his induction into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame. The ceremony is Monday night in San Francisco.
I don’t have to explain to 49ers fans how fond people around these parts are of DeBartolo. Each of his former players went on and on about how generous he was when he owned the 49ers, how he would comfort employees during family tragedies, the special perks he would give his players, how well his competitive fire meshed with that of an NFL locker room. And it’s a testimony to their love of him that they would assemble for his big day. The event – billed as a cocktail reception – also drew former Mayor Willie Brown, one-time coach Steve Mariucci and various Bay Area luminaries.
The player who spoke the most passionately was Lott. DeBartolo is not a large man. I’d peg him at 5-6 or 5-7. But Lott said his competitive nature was so apparent and his passion so fierce that his players related to him. To hear Lott describe it, it was as if DeBartolo was their father figure, and the players hated to let him down. Lott remembers that after a loss, DeBartolo would walk up to players, including him, and demand better. “You don’t find very many people who will challenge you in your toughest moment. … He challenged you to get the most out of yourself.” Lott was asked what separated DeBartolo from other owners. His answer: “Incredible passion that starts at the top and that permeates the organization.”
All of the players also noted that getting into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame was a wonderful honor but that DeBartolo deserved to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (He’ll actually be there this August when he gives the introduction for Fred Dean). The players all pointed out that in the last quarter century, DeBartolo was to the NFL what the Rooney family in Pittsburgh was a generation earlier. They also noted that the paragon of the league these days, the New England Patriots and the Kraft family, modeled their ownership on DeBartolo and the 49ers. Quipped Rice: “But they’ve got issues going on right now. And we didn’t have issues.”
Asked about the Pro Football Hall of Fame, DeBartolo was modest, saying he 'd love to get in but didn’t know if he would. He also spoke a lot about Bill Walsh, recalling the meeting in the Fairmont Hotel in 1979 that led to Walsh’s hiring. “None of this happens – I wouldn’t be here now – none of this happens if Bill Walsh doesn’t get hired,” he said. Mostly, DeBartolo spoke about the great memories he had in San Francisco. “I was born in Youngstown, Ohio,” he said, “but really and truly, I was born 31 years ago.” The DeBartolos, of course, bought the 49ers in 1977.
DeBartolo is still involved in the NFL. Last year he began a sports representation business, and on Saturday a number of DeBartolo Sports and Entertainment clients will be taken in the NFL draft. The two that have the best chance to go in the first round are Cal receiver DeSean Jackson and BC tackle Gosder Cherilus. It’s no coincidence that Rice has been mentoring Jackson. He did the same last year for former USC receiver Steve Smith. Several former 49ers who played for DeBartolo have similar roles with the agency. For the record, DeBartolo also represents San Diego quarterback Josh Johnson and a number of Virginia Tech products, including receiver Eddie Royal.
-- Matt Barrows