Gold Jacket Spotlight: For Eddie DeBartolo, Football is Family

Gold Jacket Spotlight Published on : 3/13/2022
Formally, he’s Edward J. DeBartolo Jr.

But such formality primarily was maintained only during the real estate deals that created the financial ability for him to buy the San Francisco 49ers in 1977. As owner, he was Eddie, Eddie D, or to many of his former players and team employees, simply “Mr. D.”

Under Eddie’s ownership, the 49ers became the first National Football League team to win five Super Bowls and a model that others in the league tried to emulate.

“Mr. D was the type of person that it was all about family,” Hall of Famer Jerry Rice said in an interview with 49ers team media on the eve of Eddie’s election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016. “The reason why we won so many championships is because it was about family. The organization, it started up top and it just feathered down to the locker room.”

Almost to a person, individuals associated with the 49ers use the word “family” to describe the atmosphere Eddie developed around the organization, particularly in the 1980s, when the 49ers won four Vince Lombardi Trophies.

“Mr. D, he taught me what family is all about. The sacrifices, commitment. He was a man of his word,” Hall of Famer Charles Haley said of Eddie, who this week steps into the Gold Jacket Spotlight. “He never came in and acted like he was a powerful man. He came in and acted like your brother. That said a lot about the man.”

The NFL today continues to enjoy its long run of labor peace that a generation ago would have seemed unfathomable to owners, players and fans.

Eddie, only 30 when he bought a floundering franchise, changed the attitude from the inside out at a time when acrimony within franchises was commonplace.

Wrote former Hall of Fame Selector Ira Miller just days before Eddie’s election to the Hall: Before DeBartolo, owners owned and players played, and there was frequently a disconnect. He changed that from boss-employee to a true partnership.

“Whether you were a blood relative or you were a player, my dad brought family to football. And that permeated all through the NFL,” Lisa DeBartolo said in presenting her father for enshrinement.

What was unusual across the NFL at the time seemed second nature to Eddie.

“It all boils down to how you live your life and how you treat people,” he told Rich Eisen a few days after his enshrinement in Canton.

Positive results in the DeBartolo Era didn’t come immediately.

Eddie’s 1978 and 1979 teams posted 2-14 records, with the latter coming in the first year under future Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh. A 6-10 record in 1980 created a sense of hope, but even the most optimistic person in the organization – probably Eddie himself – could not have predicted the 13-3 regular-season record in 1981 that preceded playoff victories over the Giants and longtime nemesis Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game.

The magical year concluded with a 26-21 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI. Before the decade of the had ended, the 49ers also won Super Bowls XIX, XXIII and XIV. In 1994, Eddie won his fifth ring as the team prevailed in Super Bowl XXIX.

“He’s the best owner not in terms of winning but in terms of culture and the things he created in his legacy,” 49ers CEO Jed York said on the weekend Eddie was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

That legacy is rekindled this week in the Gold Jacket Spotlight.