Recap of NFL Network's "A Football Life: Eddie DeBartolo"
By: The Football Girl | Posted: October 25, 2012
Growing up in San Francisco and falling madly in love with football mostly due to the 49erse championship teams of the 80’s and 90’s, it was no-brainer that I would adore “A Football Life: Eddie DeBartolo”. Before I begin my quick recap, though, I am wondering how you all felt about the special that first aired last night on NFL Network (coincidentally, opposite the San Francisco Giants playing in the World Series). Did it interest any non-San Francisco fan out there?
“A Football Life” started out showing a very young DeBartolo assuming ownership of the 49ers in 1977. The Youngstown, Ohio-based DeBartolo family earned their enormous wealth by pioneering shopping malls. They already had experience in professional sports as owners of the Pittsburgh Penguins. That was your primer.
Some elements of “A Football Life” were new and informative, others were simply nostalgic. Some 49ers fans forget that the team existed prior to “The Catch” and subsequent Super Bowl victory of 1981. In fact, when DeBartolo took over a few years beforehand over he was considered in over his head. He hired Joe Thomas as general manager who oversaw one of the darkest periods on Niners football, highlighted by losing, and also signing a past-his-prime running back and future murderer, O.J. Simpson.
But everything changed when DeBartolo hired Bill Walsh in 1979. Apparently Walsh, aged 48 at the time, was considered by some too old to start a professional head coaching career. But not DeBartolo. While it took a couple years to develop a championship caliber team, the building blocks (starring Mr. Joe Montana) were evident. Fans become more engaged with the team, ticket sales soared, and success was around the corner.
After the bit of background, the show focused on DeBartolo’s greatest strength – treating his players like royalty. He spoiled them to death – we were treated to a montage of players calling DeBartolo, ‘first class.’ He got his players the best food, the best airplanes, the best hotels, and we saw footage of Bill Walsh reminding his players that they also had the best salaries. Former fullback and current 49ers running backs coach Tom Rathman said his wife called DeBartolo, “Santa Claus.” Several former players on the show suggested that San Francisco’s 18-game road winning streak from 1988-1990 was in large part due to DeBartolo’s generosity.
It was fabulous seeing so much footage of Bill Walsh, who passed away in 2007. And while DeBartolo was the one to introduce Walsh at his Hall of Fame enshrinement, “A Football Life” properly explained their intense relationship, which DeBartolo described simply as “a marriage.” When things were going well, they were bosom buddies. But DeBartolo demanded success out of Walsh, so on the rare occasions with bumps, the owner reacted naturally: try to fire the coach. Former President Carmen Policy, also a Youngstown native and another fixture of the 49ers’ glory era, said DeBartolo asked him to fire Walsh on seven different occasions. But DeBartolo would always simmer down and the two would be coalesce yet again.
One interesting anecdote from DeBartolo was how he experienced “The Catch.” As owners often do, he made his way down to the field for the remaining seconds. But there was a problem. He got stuck behind a policeman on a horse and couldn’t get by. Then Joe Montana and Dwight Clark made history, and while DeBartolo heard the crowd go crazy, as he put it “all I saw was a horse’s butt.”
The show also covered DeBartolo’s fall from grace in the 2000’s. DeBartolo plead guilty for failing to report a felony after, when falling on tough times financially, he tried to get a river gaming license from former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards, who in turn demanded $400,000. DeBartolo was banned from the league and turned the team over to his sister, while he continued to run the family business.
But the gist of DeBartolo’s “Football Life,” and what 49er fans now know so intimately, is how revered he was by his players. Even Steve Young, who had a first-hand look at the close relationship between DeBartolo and Joe Montana, loved his owner for giving him a chance even though it meant trading away the “Italian guy who went to Notre Dame.” DeBartolo has remained close with so many of these guys, even hosting a Vegas reunion for all five of Super Bowl teams a few years back. Not to anyone’s surprise, it was a first class weekend.
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