By Janie McCauley
AP Sports Writer
SAN FRANCISCO — As of one recent count, Edward DeBartolo Jr. had rewritten his Hall of Fame speech some 14 times.
After such a long wait to be enshrined in Canton, alongside the most accomplished NFL contributors, it’s no surprise he wants his every word to be just right.
“I’m a basket case, a nervous wreck. Wasn’t this bad before Super Bowls!” he wrote in an email from his sprawling Montana ranch, which offers 3,000 acres and a peaceful place to perfect his words for Saturday’s ceremony at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his home state of Ohio.
He walks his dogs in the wee hours of the morning and was joined by his two executive assistants in the lead-up to a long-awaited trip to Canton, where his daughter, Lisa, will present him. She was an “easy choice.” Deciding between all of his former players would have been painstakingly difficult, but if late Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh were still alive he would have been the one to do it, of course.
“God rest his soul, if Bill would have been alive, I probably would have asked Bill to do it,” DeBartolo said. “As a coach, he came in and brought great credentials. More than that, he just brought a whole new way of doing things.”
So did DeBartolo, an owner known for caring as much about those in every capacity around him as he did winning football games and hoisting Lombardi trophies. Hiring Walsh in 1979 was among DeBartolo’s biggest successes in launching a storied franchise that won five Super Bowl titles during his tenure.
San Francisco became the first franchise to win five championships.
“Other coaches study coaches, players study players,” said former coach Steve Mariucci, hired by DeBartolo. “I think owners study the way he did things, not only football but other sports. He kind of paved the way for a lot of owners, this is how you build an organization from top to bottom.”
“Mr. D.” is how he is best known, a show of respect from those who played or worked for him during his two-decade run leading the 49ers.
Lisa DeBartolo shared how her father is always there for others, friends and acquaintances alike. He would call every veterinarian around if he knew someone had an ill pet.
“He just goes over and above what a normal person would do,” she said. “He would give the shirt off his back when somebody needed it.”
His former players so appreciate what DeBartolo did for them when they were playing or once they retired — and still would do if ever they needed a boost, help or a hug.
“He wins, treats everyone with respect and admiration, and whatever he touches, he betters it,” said Deion Sanders, who won a Super Bowl during his lone season with San Francisco in 1994.
More than all of the accomplishments, thrilling, history-making wins and hardware he collected along the way, DeBartolo’s ownership legacy includes that compassion and care for people throughout the organization — at every level — and the league.
Hall of Famer Steve Young credits DeBartolo for working to build strong relationships between players and owners from the start.
“He and his players were family — to this day. If you need something from Eddie, anybody who ever played for the team could call him personally and he would figure out a way to help you,” Young said. “That fundamental change in how owners looked at players and how they related to each other, I think changed the dynamic for how the CBA was negotiated 15 years later, and players are now truly partners with the owners.”
The 69-year-old DeBartolo, who owned shopping malls, doesn’t pretend to have had a perfect path to finally reaching Canton. He was embroiled in the corruption case against former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards and suspended by the NFL for the 1999 season after being found guilty of failing to report a bribe, a felony. After the suspension, DeBartolo gave control of the team to his sister.
“I just am so happy for him. Now, everything that he has done for his football career is really now validated because of this,” daughter Lisa said. “He has had so many hardships with friends, with family. It just was time. I think now it’s kind of like a weight off of his shoulders. We’re just very proud of him.”
DeBartolo acknowledges the “growing pains” from his early days beginning in 1977 to the pride he takes in having developed the “family” atmosphere around the 49ers — “It was more of a philosophy,” he said — that helped him and so many others thrive in the Bay Area.
He still can’t believe the elite company he will soon join in Canton.
“Just to think that I’m going to have a bust and a jacket where you have George Halas or Mr. Rooney or the people who made this game what it is, is kind of unnerving to me,” DeBartolo said. “It’s so humbling. I think humbling is putting it mildly. … Just being mentioned in the same capacity is overwhelming.”