He says he doesn’t “want to get crazy about this,” but clearly, Eddie DeBartolo Jr. is crazy about this. He isn’t sleeping much, awakening at 2:45 a.m. every night in the deadening cold of a Montana winter.
“If you want to call this anxiety … I can’t blame it on the three dogs because they get up at midnight,” he said Thursday from his 3,000-acre ranch. “I get up, work out, have a little coffee. I guess psychology — I’m sure it’s weighing on my mind, as this gets closer and closer.”
By “this,” he means the vote on Super Bowl eve that will determine whether the former 49ers owner is elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame or rejected for a fourth time in five years. His accomplishments as maybe the player-friendliest owner in sports history, which fostered the culture that produced five Super Bowl championships between 1981 and 1995, would merit overwhelming induction if not for what he calls “the bad I did in the past.” That would be the $400,000 he gave to Edwin Edwards, then the governor of Louisiana, in what was described by the FBI as an extortion attempt to win a riverboat gambling license.
His guilty plea to a reduced charge, failing to report a felony, led to a one-year NFL suspension issued by then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue. The scandal cost DeBartolo control of the 49ers in 2000, when he ceded ownership to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York. And the franchise hasn’t been the same since, with Denise and her husband, John York, failing at the helm and then transferring CEO duties to their son, the embattled and ridiculed Jed York. In career totality, what Eddie did was build an American sports dynasty, broker a deal with the devil, then burn down his creation by handing power to underqualified family members.
The question that awaits the 46-person selection committee eight days from now in a downtown meeting room: Should his triumphant deeds trump his sins?
Yes, they should, at long last.
Unlike baseball juicers and gambling fools who’ve been snubbed for Halls of Fame, DeBartolo didn’t directly impugn his sport’s integrity with his payoff episode. Oh, he damaged his reputation, disgraced the Bay Area and wrecked the 49ers as we knew them, but the NFL and pro football didn’t suffer. The league banned him from activities for one year in 1999 and fined him $1 million, then said he could return to the 49ers if he wanted. That was 16 years ago, folks.
Bob Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, likely will make the Hall despite Spygate, Deflategate and a long history of organizational deception. Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, likely will make the Hall despite his unsavory moments. DeBartolo has paid his steep price and should be remembered as the model cause-and-effect owner: He treated his players and their families like members of his big family, and the love-in led to one of the NFL’s glorious runs. To win admittance in the “contributor” category, he needs 80 percent of the vote. The early buzz has the balloting too close to call, which might explain why he agreed to a rare conference call with Bay Area media.
“There’s nothing I can do. Whatever happens — whatever good I did in the past, whatever bad I did in the past — it all goes together,” DeBartolo said. “It’s like making a loaf of bread. When it comes out of the oven, people say he deserves it or doesn’t.
“It’s an emotional thing. You’re talking about something like the Hall of Fame, it’s hard to get out of your mind. The people in that Hall, those men are immortals. They’ll be there forever in Canton, Ohio. It would be the culmination of everything that’s good and everything that happened over my lifetime as an owner. I’ll just have to sit back and hope and pray something good happens. If it doesn’t, I have to go on with my life and just live. Life is too important to not take each day as it comes.”
The NFL has nothing to do with the electoral process. The 46 voters are seasoned football reporters — 32 representing the league’s cities, plus 14 at-large members — and ESPN.com’s Jim Trotter will present DeBartolo’s case in the meeting before the vote. But if the voters are considering the NFL’s traditional stance against gambling associations, it’s time they notice a loosening of standards about sports wagering. As reported Thursday by ESPN, the NFL is among the leagues furiously partnering with data providers who also do business with, say, offshore sportsbooks. Sure, DeBartolo copped to bribing a governor for a casino license. But the same league that banned him now is in bed with betting companies. None of this is healthy for sports’ future, which is a topic for another day. Point is, zero tolerance is gone in this case.
“We’re all praying and crossing fingers and hoping people truly understand how great he was as an owner, and in my opinion, the best of all time,” Jed York told TV host Rich Eisen. “I hope he gets his nod. It certainly would be great for him to get the nod in San Francisco in front of all the great 49ers fans and really be able to honor him in a way that would be very special to him.”
It was interesting to hear DeBartolo remind his media audience that he wasn’t forced to relinquish control of the 49ers. It was his decision, which gives us pause: Had he chosen to stay instead of running the family’s real-estate division, the team wouldn’t have suffered eight straight non-winning seasons in the 2000s — and probably wouldn’t be stuck with Jed’s inept reign.
“Truthfully, the team wasn’t really taken away from me,” DeBartolo said. “This has been a misnomer for many, many years. Commissioner Tagliabue did obviously suspend me, but as I was going through negotiations with my family — and with lawyers and a judge in Akron, Ohio — it didn’t come to that team being taken. It came down to a decision to be made, whether I wanted the 49ers or whether I wanted to take the other part of the company.
“I figured there was more to do with my life. At that time, I had succeeded and done a lot with the 49ers. It meant the world to me. I figured with my daughters and them getting older — and all of us getting older and having grandchildren — that it would be best for me to be a grandfather, a good husband and dad and do what I wanted to do: maybe travel or spend more time with my family.”
If you thought DeBartolo would publicly spank Jed, his nephew and godson, family blood is thick. “I didn’t give him my opinion as to what he should do, because it’s not my place to discuss the current team,” DeBartolo said. “I had my time. Now it’s Jed’s time. I talked to him. I was a sounding board. I am his uncle, and I am his godfather. He’s got to make these decisions himself. He made the decision with Chip Kelly, and hopefully it will turn out to be a great decision.”
Still an avid reader, DeBartolo noticed that Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is picking up the tab to fly families of players and organization members to the Bay Area. He laughed. “We did that in 1981,” he said of the memorable frozen weekend in suburban Detroit that launched the dynasty.
No sports owner ever shared the wealth — literally — more than Eddie DeBartolo Jr.. Somewhere in history, his philosophy must be permanenly noted. “I guess that’s the way I operated, and it will be the way I operate until the day I die,” he said. “I consider every single person, no matter who he was or what he did for the organization, as part of my family.
“If my credentials say I belong — and if people believe like I do that I did the best I could do to run a franchise, win five Super Bowls and earn the love of the players and fans — and do what I thought was best for the city of San Francisco and for that franchise and the NFL, that decision will have to be made by those in that room.”
He excused himself from the conference call to resume living with his anxiety. Soon enough, it would be 2:45 a.m. again.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.