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Miller: DeBartolo's legacy has far reaching impact on NFL

The SportsXchange

Preliminary ballots for the Pro Football Hall of Fame are in the mail, and we are left to ponder whether the committee finally will enshrine the most obvious candidate on the list.

That would be Eddie DeBartolo, the former owner of the San Francisco 49ers.

You can argue forever about who is the best at a particular task. Whether Joe Montana or John Elway or Tom Brady was the best recent-era quarterback, or whether Barry Sanders or Walter Payton was the best running back, or whether Joe Greene or Reggie White was the best defensive lineman of the modern age.

But you can't argue who was the best owner of the NFL's modern era.

Randy Cross, in a segment of NFL Network's "A Football Life" (which debuts Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET), put it this way: "He belongs in the Hall of Fame right next to the other owners who have won five Super Bowl championships." (Wry smile, pause) "That would be none."

Defining DeBartolo's career by championships, however, would be an injustice, kind of like saying, well, Joe DiMaggio had a nice streak that one year in 1941.

Continuing the baseball analogy, DeBartolo was the Babe Ruth of modern owners. He set the standard for those who followed.

One of them was Jerry Jones, who said DeBartolo "was a great owner, not a good owner, a great one, and what he did really helped the NFL be what it is today."

One of them was Bob Kraft, who has molded the New England organization into a not-as-successful version of DeBartolo's 49ers. Where did Kraft get his ideas on putting the organization together? One of his first acts after buying the franchise was to fly to San Francisco to see how the 49ers did it.

The NFL Films piece, and this shouldn't surprise anyone remotely familiar with that brilliant operation, is a well-done portrayal, and it plays it straight down the middle. DeBartolo acknowledges it was stupid to pay a bribe to former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, which led, eventually, to the end of DeBartolo's NFL career.

"I should have just walked away," DeBartolo said. "I was old enough to know better."

In the NFL films piece, former 49ers president Carmen Policy says that DeBartolo, who had a famous temper, told him "seven or eight times" to fire Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh.

Yet what also came through was that DeBartolo and Walsh were so good for each other, and that's what fueled the 49ers' dynasty. And if DeBartolo's end was fueled by a stupid act, he's hardly unique among football greats. Paul Hornung was suspended for a year for gambling, and that goes straight to the integrity of the sport. Al Davis sued the NFL and sided with the league's opposition in another lawsuit. Even Pete Rozelle had brainlock once and permitted the league to play three weeks of games with scab players. George Preston Marshall would not integrate the Washington Redskins. O.J. Simpson, well, we know how he spent his retirement years.

But they are all in the Hall of Fame.

You don't define a career by one act. When I take my seat around the Hall of Fame selection committee, the first question I ask about any candidate is a simple one: Can you write the history of the game without that person?

You surely can't write it without DeBartolo. Just like you couldn't write it without Walsh, the West Coast offense innovator who is less known for starting a minority coaching fellowship with the 49ers that has greatly helped to grow the number of black coaches in the NFL.

Of course, Walsh could not have created that program by himself. He had to work with his team's owner. Fellow named DeBartolo.

With DeBartolo, his players always came first, and the love they returned comes through repeatedly in the NFL Films program. Watching it, you might think this was a setup for DeBartolo but in fact, he is the last person you would expect to allow a film crew to follow him around. The idea originated with NFL Films, and DeBartolo, who notoriously hates public appearances, had to be talked into doing it after initially refusing the idea.

"Kicking and screaming," according to one aide, and he did not even know they would be filming him giving a eulogy for former 49ers wide receiver Freddie Solomon, yet the show opens with shots at the funeral.

"I'm in my niche here," said DeBartolo, who now lives in Tampa. "I think you go through a different phase in your life as you get older ... Now, I enjoy watching the games. I root for (the 49ers). I talk to (nephew) Jed (York, the team president) frequently. But I think the most fulfilling thing is the absolute time that I have on my hands to be able to do what I want to do with my family.

"I just kind of keep to myself. I'm not out there looking for publicity."

As an aside, I can relate to that. During one of the 49ers' Super Bowls in the '80s, DeBartolo was nowhere to be found one day when I wanted to talk to him about the team's success. Most owners, even the modest ones, like to be out front at the Super Bowl. Not DeBartolo. I finally tracked him down on a golf course, playing with his buddies.

Even that incident, however, brings up a sore point with critics, that DeBartolo was somehow a "detached" owner who did nothing but sign checks and turned the heavy lifting over to Walsh and club president Carmen Policy.

Yeah, right.

Tell the players how detached he was the day he kicked in a soda machine or berated Walsh in front of them all, or all the many days he stood inside the locker room -- not outside where he could be seen publicly, but inside, in private -- handing out towels as the players came off the field and hugging the sweaty hulks, staining his fancy suits.

In fact, DeBartolo's critics even use his largesse against him, saying the NFL instituted the salary cap just as a weapon against his spending. On that one, we have the testimony of no less than the former commissioner.

"I don't think Eddie's spending or the 49ers' spending had anything to do with the salary cap," said Paul Tagliabue. "Eddie and the 49ers were very strong supporters of that labor settlement and of the salary cap and the revenue sharing that went into the salary cap in the early '90s."

Nonetheless, DeBartolo's legacy is what he did for the team and its players, not for the league (although his stewardship of the 49ers virtually created the FOX television network and all the billions that put into the NFL's pocket).

He sent his private jet to pick up Joe Montana at a New York hospital after a playoff injury. He spent endless hours in a hospital comforting Jeff Fuller after Fuller suffered a career-ending injury in a 1989 game, and then created a lifetime annuity for Fuller that now serves as a league template for injured players.

"He made sure that I was okay and my family was okay," Fuller said.

Perhaps of even more lasting significance, however, was what DeBartolo did for San Francisco.

You have to remember the time. It was the '70s, and it was different. A cult leader named the Rev. Jim Jones slaughtered 900 people in a murder-suicide pact in Guyana after a Bay Area congressman, Rep. Leo Ryan, arrived to investigate. Jones had Ryan murdered, too. Just a couple weeks later, George Moscone, the San Francisco mayor, and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay city official, were assassinated by a former supervisor, Dan White.

San Francisco was up in arms.

And then DeBartolo turned the 49ers into a different kind of cult, bringing that diverse city together. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who succeeded Moscone as mayor, said the 49ers united the city. They were the one thing everyone agreed upon in San Francisco, regardless of political leaning or sexual orientation. DeBartolo's 49ers brought a Camelot to the NFL, and kept it going for nearly two decades.

When DeBartolo left the NFL, control of the 49ers passed to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York. Their families were estranged at the time but the wounds have healed. DeBartolo's nephew, Jed York, now runs the franchise, and one of his early acts was to make his uncle the very first enshrinee in the team's Hall of Fame. Eddie and Jed, and Eddie and Denise talk frequently now.

Periodically, there have been rumors that DeBartolo wanted to get back into the NFL, perhaps with the backing of his friends who own the Outback steakhouse chain. Don't think the idea hasn't crossed his mind because it has, but DeBartolo says, "It doesn't make any sense."

He's happy with his life now, spending time with his family including his grandchildren, and "I don't know if I'd want to go through that daily grind for 12 months" again.

Nonetheless, and despite that old Louisiana escapade, Commissioner Roger Goodell and others have said DeBartolo would be welcomed back with open arms.

"We'd love to have him back in the NFL. He's someone that football misses," said Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder.

The Hall of Fame misses him, too. It's time to get it right.

Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than three decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.
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