He was the stranger from Youngstown, the little guy who had to earn his spurs and, more importantly after some missteps owning the 49ers — “This team is not a toy,” he grumbled at the media so critical of his mismanagement — earn the cheers. They were there at Super Bowls in past years. And they were there Saturday night, when Eddie DeBartolo was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
So timely. So appropriate that DeBartolo, now 69 and far away in time and distance, having moved to Tampa, Fla., would be one of the chosen few when the Super Bowl, the Half-Century Super Bowl, No. 50, would be played in the area where he built a champion in the 1980s and early 1990s.
And where the people, fans, journalists, know so well how he took a franchise that couldn’t win the big one — out of desperation in his third year as owner, 1979, hired the great Bill Walsh as coach — and together, people named Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Dwight Clark, Steve Young, George Seifert and numerous others won big one after big one.
Outside the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium — right across from San Francisco City Hall, where on the night before Super Bowl 50 numerous honors would be announced, including the most cherished, election to the Hall — fans stood and chanted, “Eddie, Eddie, Eddie.” As they did in an earlier decade at now demolished Candlestick Park.
It was a huge evening for the Bay Area. Eddie D. was elected. Ken Stabler, the late quarterback of the Oakland Raiders, was elected. Dick Stanfel, the late assistant coach of several teams including the 49ers and Cal, a San Francisco native who played for University of San Francisco, was elected. Defensive lineman Kevin Greene and defensive back Tony Dungy, both with the Niners briefly, were elected, and current Niners receiver Anquan Boldin was given the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for his foundation, which provides meals and scholarships to those in need.
Others elected to the Hall were the great Brett Favre, offensive tackle Orlando Pace of the Rams and receiver Marvin Harrison, Peyton Manning’s favorite receiver with the Colts.
DeBartolo had been a finalist three times before. This time, the voting panel took into account what he meant to pro football and the manner he had dealt with people at every level, from star players to office workers.
He said he was worried whether he indeed, on what was his last chance, would make it. The worries are over. In August, with the other inductees or the families representing those who are deceased, such as Stabler’s grandsons, Justin and Jack, who were present Saturday night, he will be inducted in the Hall at Canton, Ohio. Nothing could be better for a man who came from Ohio.
“First of all,” said DeBartolo about his honor, “I’m in a state of shock. It means a culmination of a lifetime of blood, sweat, tears, love for a city, love for players, relationships with media — some good, some bad.”
He laughed, thinking of those early days when, so young, in his 30s, Eddie D, unaware of how much the Niners meant to The City — the team originated in San Francisco in 1946 — acted as if they were just another department of the corporation owned by his multi-millionaire father. “The Little Twerp” was one of the descriptions found in the press.
Then it became the little idol. Five Super Bowls victories in 14 seasons.
“We had our times,” DeBartolo said. “It means so much. Just think about it, to be in Canton with these icons for what you’ve tried to do with your life in the great sport of football is just beyond comprehension. I’m honored and humbled and I don’t even know what more I can say.”
What most of us who watched Eddie as much as we watched his players — noting his acts of kindness, along with his insistence on perfection in an imperfect world — would say is, it’s about time.
Stabler, known as “The Snake,” for a looping run when he played Alabama, died last summer at 69 of colon cancer. In the last few days, it was disclosed he had the degenerative brain disorder, CTE. He won a Super Bowl for the Raiders; like DeBartolo, his selection to the Hall was overdue. But late is better than never.
And for DeBartolo, the decision being made in San Francisco is, well, here’s what he said:
“It’s unbelievable. It’s almost like the script was written, having Super Bowl 50 here in the Bay Area after all these years that we battled and played here is something that I don’t know anybody could ever write a better script. I’ve spent so much time with all the guys, not just this week, but in past weeks, talking and getting together with them.
“It’s just a dream come true, I guess, if it’s going to happen and I’m lucky enough to be with this elite group here and with these icons in Canton, no better place to do it than where it all started.”