DeBartolo’s contribution to football immortalized

Eddie DeBartolo Jr. accepted his gold jacket for induction to the Football Hall of Fame on Thursday. (Courtesy 49ers via Instagram)

CANTON, Ohio – He knew the shortcuts. Edward DeBartolo Jr. says he could travel the 65 miles from his home in Youngstown, Ohio, to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in maybe 45 to 50 minutes on the back roads.

The real journey, however, would take years.

“The long wait is over for Mr. D.” Rich Eisen, master of ceremonies for the Gold Jacket presentation told the crowd Thursday night at Memorial Civic Center.

Reminiscent of those 49ers glory days at Candlestick Park, a group began to chant, “Eddie, Eddie, Eddie!”

Yes, Eddie, who along with Bill Walsh, Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott, helped create a pro football dynasty in The City by the Bay, has joined them in the Hall. The little guy who couldn’t make the team at Cardinal Mooney High, now stands as tall as 6-foot-7 Orlando Pace — also an Ohio native and one of his fellow inductees Saturday night.

“Surreal,” was the only thing DeBartolo could sigh.

He is 69 and has been through this many times, but on the other side. He was the presenter or in the audience as Fred Dean, Jerry Rice, Charles Haley and Steve Young were inducted. Also when Montana and Lott were inducted.

Now he’s the man, as he was when Dwight Clark made the catch, when Dan Bunz, Hacksaw Reynolds and Lott made the stop, when Montana hit John Taylor, when Young threw those six touchdown passes. Such memories, such success.

Yet it didn’t come without pain. Those first two years of ownership, 1977 and ’78 — when we didn’t know if it was Eddie’s team or his bankrolling father’s, when a general manager named Joe Thomas alienated a public that had felt a special kinship to a franchise born and nurtured in Northern California — were dreadful.

DeBartolo was an outsider, his team a disaster. The Examiner publisher at the time, a noted newsman, called DeBartolo a little twerp. “I said to myself,” DeBartolo recalled, “I want to sneak back to Youngstown.”

Instead, he hired the Stanford head coach, Walsh, who in his first year, 1979, drafted a quarterback from Notre Dame whose flaw was he couldn’t throw deep. But Montana could throw accurately, very accurately.

John McVay was brought in as general manager; Eddie’s lawyer from Youngstown, Carmen Policy, was brought in as counsel and financial genius. It was a perfect storm of talent.

The team that couldn’t win the big one won big one after big one, becoming the first in the NFL to be a Super Bowl champion five times. And when DeBartolo would climb down from the stands at the end of games, enthralled fans would start their chant, “Eddie, Eddie, Eddie!”

The Niners were less a team to DeBartolo than a family. “I knew the players’ wives’ names,” he said. “Their kids’ names. Sent the wives flowers on their birthdays. I treated them the way my father treated his employees. He grew up in Youngstown and never forgot his background. Family was always important.”

The Niners were the first team to use wide-body jets. Players had two seats apiece. At hotels, single rooms. Money was no object. Before the NFL instituted a salary cap, athletes were lined up to sign with San Francisco.

Walsh’s West Coast offense, George Seifert’s thundering defense, little cable cars that climbed halfway to the stars. It didn’t get any better than that. And probably never will.

Eddie’s nephew, Jed York, is the Niners’ CEO these days — as unpopular in 2016 as his uncle was in 1977 at 30 when he was the youngest chief executive.

“Jed’s had his knocks,” said DeBartolo. “But he had a team in the Super Bowl. I was a little bit different from Jed growing up. I had more of a street sense. I was raised different. But Jed will be fine. I made mistakes along the way. The biggest was trading Charles Haley. We would have won at least one more Super Bowl if we kept him.”

DeBartolo, who lives now in Tampa with a vacation residence in Montana, has been mentioned as a possible buyer when franchises are on the market.

You can’t go home again, it’s been written. It’s never going to be the same for Eddie — who correctly points out he’s too old to give the attention required by a team — or for the rest of us.

So the kid who used to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame has been inducted into the Hall under the category “contributor.”

His contributions to football in San Francisco were unprecedented.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. E-mail him at typoes@aol.com.

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