Edward DeBartolo Jr. visited to the White House several times before Tuesday, but no visit was quite like this one.
DeBartolo, the former San Francisco 49ers owner and a longtime Hillsborough County resident, traveled to the nation’s capital before to be celebrate Super Bowl championships. On Tuesday, he was at the White House to receive a pardon for a gambling fraud conviction he received in 1998 from President Donald Trump.
Several former NFL players — including Buccaneers Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks and former 49ers standouts Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott and Charles Haley — gathered on the White House lawn to show their support of DeBartolo, whose 49ers teams won five Super Bowls in the 1980s. Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown was also in attendance. Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, who is married to DeBartolo’s daughter Nicole, was also there with his wife.
"He's the main reason why we won so many Super Bowls," Rice told reporters. "So today is a great day for him. I'm glad to be here and be a part of that. It's just something I will never forget. This man, he has done so much in the community, has done so much in NFL football."
The pardon comes 22 years after DeBartolo was caught in the middle of an FBI probe of corruption within Louisiana’s gambling industry that centered around then-Governor Edwin Edwards. He pleaded guilty to a felony charge of failing to report that Edwards had extorted $400,000 from him to secure a riverboat gambling license.
“By acceding to this demand, he violated the law and we had to hold him accountable,” lead prosecutor Jim Letten told the Tampa Bay Times in a 2018 story on Chronister.
DeBartolo’s guilty plea helped him avoid prison, but he was fined $1 million and served two years of probation in exchange for his testimony against Edwards. He was also suspended for a year by the NFL. After his suspension, he turned over controlling interest of the 49ers to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, in exchange for other family real estate assets.
Under DeBartolo’s ownership, the 49ers became one of the NFL’s most dominant teams through the 1980s and 1990s, winning five Super Bowls from 1981 to 1994. The 49ers of the 1980s became the winningest NFL team of any decade, and DeBartolo was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016.
The team, which advanced to the Super Bowl this past season before losing to the Kansas City Chiefs, is now run by DeBartolo’s nephew, Jed York.
The DeBartolo family made its fortune through real estate, specifically retail shopping malls. DeBartolo’s father, Edward Sr., built the first enclosed shopping mall in 1940 and an empire was born, eventually merging with Simon Property Group to make the largest public real estate company in North America.
Debartolo has lived in the Tampa area since 1999, headquartering here his holding company that specializes in real estate development.
He is the co-founder of the Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High School, along with Brooks, and owns Sacred Pepper, a popular upscale restaurant in Carrollwood. The DeBartolo Family Foundation, which provides scholarships and other assistance to those in need throughout Tampa Bay, was also formed nearly two decades ago.