The chants of “Eddie D! Eddie D!” from the crowd outside the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium heralded the announcement that was made later inside.
Eddie DeBartolo Jr., who won five Super Bowls when he owned the 49ers but who has been a conspicuous missing piece from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, finally was voted in on Saturday. The news came at the NFL Honors show, which closed with 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin winning the Walter Payton Man of the Year award for his contributions off the field.
It was not an easy path to Canton, Ohio, for the popular former 49ers owner. DeBartolo, 69, had been a finalist on four other occasions but fallen short.
This time, however, everything seemed aligned.
The Super Bowl festivities this past week were held in the city in which he once was a de-facto prince. The titans of the sport, from Joe Montana to Ronnie Lott to Steve Young, pitched for their former owner throughout the week.
“I don’t know if anybody could ever write a better script,” said DeBartolo, who insisted the waiting on Saturday was harder than the buildup to any of his Super Bowls.
“It was terrible,” he said. “It was wonderful but terrible – the emotions (going) back and forth, back and forth.”
Perhaps most significant, DeBartolo was voted in under the recently created contributor category. That meant he wasn’t competing against any former players and facilitated his entrance into the Hall of Fame.
The others in the 2016 class who will be enshrined in August: Brett Favre, Marvin Harrison, Orlando Pace, Kevin Greene, Tony Dungy and senior members Ken Stabler and Dick Stanfel.
Stabler, the gunslinging former Raiders quarterback, died of colon cancer last year. After his death, Stabler’s brain was examined, and researchers recently revealed he had advanced stages of the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that has afflicted many ex-players.
It turned out to be a big night for the team hosting Super Bowl 50.
Boldin, whose Q81 foundation helps underprivileged children from South Florida to the Bay Area, was a finalist for the Man of the Year award last year. He said he appreciated that in recent years the NFL has made its humanitarian award one of the biggest moments of the honors show.
“It brings to light what the foundation does,” he said. “It gives you credibility. And I think it helps with people who are on the fence with partnering up with the foundation.”
Greene, who had 160 sacks – the most ever for a linebacker – over a 15-year career, spent one season, 1997, with the 49ers. Stanfel, who played guard for Detroit and Washington in the 1950s, was born in San Francisco. He also served as an assistant coach for the 49ers from 1971 to 1975. Stanfel passed away last year.
Wide receiver Terrell Owens, who spent the first eight years of his career with San Francisco, did not make the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Owens caught 592 passes and scored 83 touchdowns in eight seasons in San Francisco. But he also was blamed for the locker-room discord that ushered his exit from the team and he proved to be a difficult teammate in other cities where he played.
He is not expected to wait long for enshrinement. Owens is second only to Rice in career receiving yards and is sixth in receptions.
DeBartolo, meanwhile, pleaded guilty to failing to report an extortion attempt in 1998 in his effort to acquire a riverboat gambling license in Louisiana. The NFL suspended him for a year, and in 2000 he relinquished control of the team to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York. Her son, Jed York, is the team’s CEO and runs the organization.
Still, DeBartolo’s tenure with San Francisco set a precedent for how modern sports owners handle their teams.
His legendary largesse wasn’t only reflected in the amount of money he spent on the 49ers, which in the days before the salary cap made San Francisco the top destination for quality free agents. He also gave them his attention and affection, sending flowers to the hospital room when employees had children and sitting by their bedsides in their final moments as he did with former 49ers wide receiver Freddie Solomon, who became one of DeBartolo’s closest friends before his death in 2012.
DeBartolo said he must have heard from 75 players after the news slipped out Saturday and by 7 p.m. his phone battery had died.
“If it’s going to happen ... there’s no better place than where it all started,” he said.
DeBartolo presented former coach Bill Walsh during his 1993 Hall of Fame enshrinement. He has done the same for Montana, Rice, Fred Dean and, last summer, Charles Haley. DeBartolo said his eldest daughter, Lisa, would present him in Canton, which is 60 miles from his hometown, Youngstown, Ohio.