“I remember it was hot as hell.”
Michael Zagaris snapped the photograph in Miami on Sept. 28, 1986. The 49ers were warming up for an early-afternoon game against the Dolphins, and the temperature already had reached a sticky 85 degrees. Coach Bill Walsh walked onto the field for the pregame ritual, and owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. was beside him, as often was the case in those days. They were deep in conversation.
“And I just followed them through the canopy,” said Zagaris, the 49ers’ longtime team photographer. “I was walking behind them and snapped that shot. I didn’t think at the time it was going to be anything special.”
Of all the 49ers-era photos taken of DeBartolo – easily in the thousands – the one Zagaris captured that day is DeBartolo’s favorite. DeBartolo, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, has it in his office in his home in Montana.
“I see two friends walking together, confident that they’ve done everything possible to win the battle that day,” DeBartolo, 69, said of the shot. “These were the best of times for our 49er family, and when I look at this picture, I think about how much I miss Bill every single day.”
The image has an ethereal quality. You can’t see their faces. But it conveys both intimacy and staunchness. The shot essentially is of two men going to work.
DeBartolo hired Walsh in 1979, when the owner was 32 and the coach, already with a professorial-looking head of white hair, was 47. They became very close. They won three Super Bowls together and developed a bond that would withstand occasional shouting matches between two people with oversized personalities.
DeBartolo presented Walsh at the coach’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1993. DeBartolo said if Walsh, who died in 2007, was alive, he probably would have asked him to return the favor Saturday. That honor will go to DeBartolo’s eldest daughter, Lisa.
DeBartolo owned the 49ers from 1977 to 2000, and with players like Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Fred Dean and Charles Haley, the team won 13 division titles and five Super Bowls. DeBartolo presented each of those players for induction into the Hall of Fame.
DeBartolo spent lavishly on his players and staff. But he is entering the Hall of Fame because his ownership went well beyond his business skills.
Zagaris first became famous for his photographs of rock musicians – Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton and The Who were among his first subjects starting in the late 1960s – and he’s not the type who normally would be drawn to a sports executive.
But he estimates he may have taken as many as 4,000 photos of DeBartolo. The reason, he said, was DeBartolo clearly was as much a part of those successful teams as the quarterback or receiver or head coach.
“With him, he had a true compassion,” Zagaris said. “It wasn’t feigned; it wasn’t that he was there because the owner should be there. He … loved that team. He was a member of that team. And it kind of transcended him being the owner; he really connected with those guys. He cared about them. And he cared about Bill. It was a very passionate relationship.”
The postscript to DeBartolo’s favorite photo is that the 49ers beat the Dolphins 31-16 on that hot, humid day in 1986. Jeff Kemp – Montana was dealing with a back injury – threw two touchdown passes to Rice. Ronnie Lott had two of the 49ers’ four interceptions of Dan Marino, then a career high for the Dolphins quarterback.
Zagaris said DeBartolo never told him the 30-year-old image is his most beloved. But the photographer routinely received notes and cards from the owner thanking him for his photos.
“That was another thing he did,” Zagaris said. “He would always write personal notes. To everyone. No one does that. Not that many people did that back then. Nobody does it now.”
2016 Pro Football
Hall of Fame induction
When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
Where: Canton, Ohio
TV: NFL Network, ESPN
Class of 2016:
Owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.
Coach Tony Dungy
QB Brett Favre
DE-LB Kevin Greene
WR Marvin Harrison
T Orlando Pace
QB Ken Stabler
G Dick Stanfel