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DeBartolo Still Has Football in His Sights

Former owner of 49ers, who left team under a dark cloud, has thought of returning to NFL.

August 31, 2004|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

He is a five-time Super Bowl champion and a confessed felon, a beloved team owner who built the San Francisco 49ers into a crown-jewel NFL franchise, then handed them over to his sister in one of the darkest periods of his life.

Now, a decade after his team made its last Super Bowl appearance, Eddie DeBartolo is giving thought to getting back in the game. Last year, when Malcolm Glazer considered buying the Dodgers -- a move that would have required him to sell the Tampa Bay Buccaneers because of NFL cross-ownership rules -- DeBartolo, who lives in Tampa, Fla., made an inquiry about buying the Buccaneers.

"I have some very substantial good friends in Tampa that wanted to join me in a purchase," DeBartolo said in a recent interview with The Times. "At the time, they wanted me to be the managing general partner. It never came about and it's probably best. Obviously, they've won a Super Bowl, Jonny Gruden's there, and they have no intentions of selling."

DeBartolo, 57, has essentially been out of football since 1997, when federal authorities notified him that he could be indicted on criminal charges in connection with a gambling investigation in Louisiana. He pleaded guilty in October 1998 to a felony charge of failing to report that Louisiana's former governor, Edwin Edwards, had extorted money from him to win a casino license. The NFL then fined DeBartolo $1 million and suspended him for the 1999 season.

But DeBartolo wasn't around as an owner to serve that suspension. In April 1999, he was sued for $94 million by the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp., the family company run by his sister, Denise DeBartolo York. DeBartolo countersued. When the haggling was done, Denise wound up with the team -- now run by her husband, John York -- and Eddie had the real estate end of the corporation, a development company with holdings of close to $1 billion.

"Obviously the incident in Louisiana is something that happened. It's over," DeBartolo said. "I think what I did in San Francisco is totally separate. They can't even be connected. But sometimes I sit back, and the situation was very tough on me, my family, everybody."

DeBartolo said he was given the choice of taking the team or the real estate company, and decided to give up his passion so he could spend more time with his family and recover from all the "ups and downs" of more than two decades of ownership.

"It came down to a point where Denise and I had to make a decision," he said. "I didn't give it more than a 15-minute thought process."

Six months earlier, he'd called the trial in Louisiana "a little piece of hell," and vowed one day to return as owner of the 49ers. He now looks at the experience as a painful but necessary life lesson, and says he cannot envision ever owning the team again.

"Sometimes there's a blessing in disguise," he said. "Maybe it was time [to leave]. I'll never forget what Joe Montana said to me. We were riding in the car in Canton when he was being inducted [into the Pro Football Hall of Fame]. We were just talking about football and him. He said, 'You have to be like me. Put football in the rear-view mirror.' And he was right. You really savor all the things that happened -- the bad games, the good games, the relationships. But, you know, maybe it was time."

It's rare that DeBartolo speaks publicly about his last years as team owner. He said he had given fewer than five extensive interviews since 1997, and his longtime attorney, Aubrey Harwell, was on the line during his hour-long interview with The Times.

DeBartolo has a satellite dish and still watches every 49er game, but he feels no real connection to the franchise that he ran for 23 seasons. He still owns a luxury box at Candlestick Park and some seats in the stands, but the only time he has been to a San Francisco home game in recent years was in November, when the team retired Ronnie Lott's number.

"There were people at the time who were concerned about the kind of response Eddie might get at that game," Harwell said. "When he walked out there, the crowd started chanting, 'Eddie! Eddie! Eddie!' It was wild. That pretty much was a litmus test of how the fans feel about him."

At least one NFL owner, Dallas' Jerry Jones, said he would welcome DeBartolo back into the league if he ever wanted to return.

"I know from my perspective that I would embrace him," Jones said. "I would encourage others to do the same thing. He just really did everything that he could possibly do to win. It was no holds barred. You say, 'Surely everybody wants to win.' And they do. But he used everything that he could to make that team successful, and, consequently, he's got five Super Bowls to show for it."

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