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Fennelly: Eddie DeBartolo's Hall of Fame generosity benefits Tampa Bay

DeBartolo in his Avila home with the five Super Bowl trophies emblematic of the 49ers dynasty during the period he owned the team. He bought the 49ers in 1977 at age 30.
Published Aug. 1, 2016

Lisa DeBartolo, who on Saturday will present her father when his long wait ends and he's enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said the man is nervous. Nothing new there. But now it's the induction speech — his 19th and final draft. He has been practicing it. A lot.

"Oh, my god, he is a total worrier," Lisa said.

Eddie DeBartolo Jr. — Mr. D, Eddie D — one of the greatest, most generous sports owners of all time, as big a part of the San Francisco 49ers dynasty and those five Super Bowl wins as any player, still frets over everything.

Like when he's watching any of his three grandsons in the pool. He'll yell, "Keep an eye on those kids!" to his daughters. He can't help himself.

"Oh, my god, it's terrible," Eddie DeBartolo said.

"Everyone is a kid," Lisa said. "The real kids. His three dogs are kids. Anyone in his world is someone to watch over."

That world convenes later this week in Canton, Ohio, an hour's drive from Youngstown, his hometown. Hundreds will be at the party the night before the induction. Huey Lewis and Boyz II Men will perform. Celebrity chef Tyler Florence is handling the menu. Nobody does awesome like Eddie D.

But people aren't going for the food and music.

"We'll be there for Eddie," former 49ers offensive lineman Randy Cross said. "He's always there for us."

• • •

Edward John DeBartolo Jr., 69, moved to Tampa in late 1998. He's the richest man in town. DeBartolo is on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans. Estimated net worth: $3.4 billion. Malls, real estate, investments, empire.

"We had been coming to Tampa since the late '70s," DeBartolo said. "We'd done so much work down here, built a number of malls, made a number of friends. When I decided we were going to move, there was no question it was going to be Tampa. It was a natural."

DeBartolo lives in Avila with Candy, his high school sweetheart and wife of 48 years. And the family dogs, Bentley, Brewster and Missy, all of whom have their own seats on DeBartolo's jet when it wings toward Montana and the sprawling Candy Bar Ranch, named for Eddie D's bride. Every Fourth of July, Eddie throws a blowout for his world. Come one, come all. There are carnival rides and the kind of fireworks you usually see only over major cities. The musical act this year: John Fogerty. Nobody does awesome like Eddie D.

Tampa is home to the DeBartolo family company, DeBartolo Holdings LLC, which manages the family's businesses and investments. But there's more. There always is with Eddie D.

There's the DeBartolo Family Foundation, overseen by Lisa and her sister Nikki, which provides leadership and financial resources to organizations and individuals to help improve the community through scholarships, grants and support.

There's the foundation's annual all-star charity gala, chock full of 49ers (anything for Eddie D), movers, shakers and celebrities. In 13 years the gala has raised more than $13 million for programs the foundation supports.

There's Moffitt Cancer Center. DeBatolo sits on the board of directors. In 2012, through his sizable donation, Moffitt established the DeBartolo Family Personalized Medical Institute, dedicated to cancer care on an international scale.

There's Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High School, which opened in 2007, co-founded by Eddie D and Bucs Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks, "A" rated for seven consecutive years. DeBartolo has poured his money and resources into the school.

And if you're hungry, there's Sacred Pepper, a new restaurant in North Tampa. Contemporary American cuisine and Candy's pride and joy.

The DeBartolo family has donated more than $50 million to this community through the foundation or personal donations.

"He's captured the ultimate prize, whether it's business, sports, community," Derrick Brooks said. "And he's gone about it in a way that empowers others to share the journey."

Another thing about the Brooks DeBartolo school.

"Our goal is to have the best high school in the country," DeBartolo said.

Eddie D still likes to win.

• • •

Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young remembers the first time he met Eddie DeBartolo. It was 1987. Young had been traded from the dark side of the moon, the 2-14 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to the two-time world champion 49ers.

"Eddie gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek with that scratchy half-day beard," Young said. "He cupped my face in his hands. He said, 'Welcome to the family, Steve, you're going to be great.' "

"I'd never been kissed by a man until Eddie," said former 49ers tight end Dwight Clark, who pulled down a Joe Montana pass — "The Catch" — to launch the run that made DeBartolo the first (and only) NFL owner to win five Super Bowls. "We played so hard because we cared about each other. That atmosphere, that was totally an Eddie D thing."

DeBartolo bought the 49ers in 1977. He was 30. His father, Edward Sr., had invented the enclosed mall, and with it a fortune. Included was a simple approach toward employees, the one the son brought to professional football.

"You just cared for everyone," Eddie Jr. said.

"I could say he was the first owner who saw the players as partners, but it went beyond that," Young said. "You were part of his family. He blew through all the red lights of everyone who was owning teams at the time. And we won championships on top of that. That was the beauty of what he built. It changed the league forever."

Nothing was too good for Eddie D's 49ers: wide-body planes, the best hotels, the best practice facility, the best player signings, the best everything. Super Bowl celebrations were conducted on a Roman scale. But that wasn't the thing.

It was Eddie D's human scale.

There's the story of former 49ers safety Jeff Fuller, who was left partially paralyzed, with a deadened arm, after a helmet-to-helmet collision in 1989. DeBartolo, under no legal obligation, contributed to an annuity that will pay Fuller $100,000 every year for the rest of his life. Stories like that are why Eddie D's guys still adore him, long after he stopped running the team.

DeBartolo wasn't perfect. In 1998, he pleaded guilty to a felony of failing to report a bribe by a government official, after then-Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards hit up DeBartolo to secure a casino license. The NFL suspended him for a year. Eventually he gave up owning the 49ers — his choice — to oversee the real estate end of the DeBartolo company. His sister, Denise, got the team. Eddie D stepped away.

"Why did I do it?" DeBartolo said. "I'd been there, done that. My choice was to take the corporation. I think the biggest reason was family and time. You just can't have the time to spend with family and friends when you're dealing 24 hours a day, seven days a week with football. And that's what it is now."

But he never stopped watching over his former players. Or anyone else in his world.

"A uniquely caring person," Young said. "Not without flaws. You can write about them. But there's so much more to the man's story. It's the humanity. If you have a true need that Eddie hears about, somebody in trouble, somebody in need, Eddie is there. Eddie is there."

• • •

Derrick Brooks needed a partner to make his high school come true. DeBartolo listened to Brooks for barely a handful of minutes before he came aboard.

"I still want to know why Mr. D decided that quick," Brooks said.

Here's a hint, maybe.

"He's one of the greatest guys I know," DeBartolo said of Brooks. "He reminds me so much of a dear friend who I miss so much: Freddie Solomon."

Eddie and Freddie.

"They were quite a pair," said Dee Solomon, Freddie's widow, Eddie's friend.

Freddie Solomon, a legend, a sensation on great University of Tampa football teams, a selfless receiver on DeBartolo's early 49ers teams, and a shining light for the thousands of lives he touched through working with children as community liaison for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. He called Eddie D "Unc," for uncle.

"He was my best friend," DeBartolo said.

"They were from such different backgrounds," Dee said. "But they both liked to make people happy. They both wanted everybody to be okay."

Freddie was diagnosed with colon and liver cancer in April 2011. Eddie sometimes drove Freddie to chemotherapy and sat with him. Or he'd swing by Freddie's home in Plant City. Dee smiles while picturing them: Freddie asleep on the couch, Eddie asleep in a chair.

"Buddies," Dee said.

Freddie died in February 2012. Eddie spoke at the funeral.

"He just poured his heart out," Dee said.

Freddie always wanted to see Eddie enshrined in Canton.

"It's going to be very tough not having him there," DeBartolo said.

Eddie D thought about it.

"He'll be there."

• • •

Eddie DeBartolo is on the phone from Montana, where he has been practicing his speech. Again. Sometimes he reads it aloud, with the dogs nearby.

"I wish one of them was giving the speech," DeBartolo joked.

"It's unreal. I'll be forever connected to the icons of the game. Every time I look at this speech, I think I'm going to faint."

Then he mentioned a recent phone conversation with Dwight Clark.

"He tells me Larry Roberts, who played defensive line for us, had both his legs amputated. It was diabetes. You just hear those things and it rips your guts out. Now the players have grown children and grandchildren. It's harder to keep track of everyone. I can only try."

Winning. Watching over.

That's the Eddie D story.

It's one for the Hall.

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