NEW ORLEANS — Eighteen seasons have passed without the 49ers, a fixture of Super Bowls in the 1980s and '90s, winning the NFC Championship Game. But as the final seconds melted from the clock in San Francisco's 28-24 win over the Falcons two weeks ago in the conference title game, former owner Eddie DeBartolo stood in the middle of the winning locker room and was overcome by a rush of emotion.
A few minutes later, serving as an honorary team captain, DeBartolo presented the George Halas Trophy to his sister, Denise, and his nephew, 49ers CEO Jed York.
It was a reminder that a legacy of winning finally had been passed as well.
"It was just totally emotional," said DeBartolo, who for the second straight year is among the 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "I told people it was a totally exhausting, emotional day, and it seemed that 18 years went by like 18 minutes.
"You say to yourself, 'Where in the heck did those years go?' It was very emotional. I was very happy for them, and I was proud to be able to do it."
DeBartolo, 66, was a transcendent owner who won five Super Bowls with the 49ers, including four in nine years. The last Lombardi Trophy hoisted by the 49ers came in January 1995.
In 2000, after his one-year suspension from the NFL for involvement in attempting to acquire a riverboat casino license in Louisiana, DeBartolo decided to turn over operation of the team to Denise as a way to settle his father's estate.
But this week, with DeBartolo's former team playing the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII, images of the 49ers' glory days have been seen everywhere in New Orleans along with former players such as Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Steve Young.
As for his Hall of Fame nomination, "I'm beyond honored," DeBartolo said. "I had never thought during my tenure of ownership, even with the success we had with the Super Bowls, that I would even be considered. I'm totally dumbfounded. I'm just flabbergasted. It's just a great honor, just being mentioned with these people."
DeBartolo still enjoys Montana — not the quarterback, but the state where he owns a vacation home on a sprawling ranch. These days, he lives in Tampa and operates a holdings company and real estate division.
Even with the 49ers' recent success, it's hard to imagine they could ever duplicate the run of 16 consecutive seasons of 10 wins or more from 1981 to 1999 that they achieved under DeBartolo.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee has been slow to embrace contributors. First-time eligible players such as Warren Sapp, Larry Allen, Jonathan Ogden and Michael Strahan are strong candidates in today's voting.
That might leave only one spot to split among other players, owners such as DeBartolo and the late Art Modell (Ravens), as well as coach Bill Parcells.
The 46-member selection committee has shown a tendency to reward players first. But if DeBartolo gains entrance into the Hall of Fame, he will have trouble containing his emotions again.