The final seconds of San Francisco's dramatic triumph over Dallas in the NFC title game were ticking off. Eddie DeBartolo, the 49ers' 35-year-old owner, was standing along the sidelines celebrating the victory when he was spotted by a group of fans.
They began chanting his name: "Eddie, Eddie, Eddie."
DeBartolo heard them and turned, smiling broadly.
"I love you," he shouted back, over and over. "I love you."
It was a moment that DeBartolo once doubted would ever occur.
Just three years ago, he was the owner of a faltering franchise. The local press referred to DeBartolo, the league's youngest owner, as a "twirp."
He was an absentee owner, the son of a very rich man who had transformed the DeBartolo Corporation from a small Youngstown, Ohio, construction business into a national conglomerate owning 98 companies with interests ranging from shopping centers to the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team. Estimated corporate worth: $750 million to $1 billion.
In the eyes of many San Francisco critics, it appeared the father had placated his son by spending $17 million to buy him football team.
It was the son's first chance to prove he could be successful on his own. And the son was botching the job.
"I was the villain, I was the guy in the black hat," said DeBartolo, a personable, energetic man.. "I knew I wasn't very popular and with good reason. I made some mistakes."
Now, on his own, DeBartolo has become a hero in San Francisco. In his fifth year of ownership, the 49ers are in their first Super Bowl after 36 years in the NFL.
"This is unbelievable," he said. "I just have a feeling of great elation. I know some owners have waited for years to experience what's happening to me."
DeBartolo hasn't contributed even one special play during the 49ers' season. But without some difficult front office decisions three years ago and without his willingness to spend money to obtain some key players this season, particularly defensive end Fred Dean and linebacker Jack Reynolds, the 49ers probably would not be in the Super Bowl Sunday.
"Eddie has done this himself, not his father," said John Pergine, the ex-Redskin linebacker who is a close family friend and went to school with DeBartolo at Notre Dame. "His father is a wonderful man and he loves him, but it's been hard for Eddie. He's always had to look up to his father and he had big shoes to fill. How could he ever do it?
"With the 49ers, he has proven something. I couldn't be happier for him. He's got all that money but he's no spoiled rich kid."
Only a year ago, the American League turned down Edward Sr.'s bid to buy the Chicago White Sox for $20 million. Among the major reasons: the absentee ownership issue and the family's race track ownership.
The DeBartolos couldn't prove it, but they were convinced there also were ethnic overtones to the rejection. And they blamed Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for influencing the league vote. "I would get into baseball if Bowie Kuhn would get out," Edward Sr. said this week.
Said his son: "They made a mistake about Chicago. We don't do anything unless it's first class. If my father had been allowed to buy the team, the White Sox would have been winners within a matter of time, just like the 49ers are. But if Bowie Kuhn is happy with mediocrity, that's his business. The National Football League had no problems with us. And I think we've shown that this so-called absentee ownership issue is a false one."
Eddie DeBartolo, not the family corporation, holds 90 percent of the stock. (The other 10 percent is split between Franklin Mieuli, owner of the Golden State Warriors, and Jane Morabito, widow of one of the former owners.)
"Eddie's done well," said his 72-year old father. "Eddie knows how to pick people. People who are in sports are a different type and he's been able to find good ones. The 49ers' success has brought the corporation more success. Our people meet with bankers, big developers and real estate people every day and all they want to talk about is the football team. Eddie's winning in football has been a tremendous thing for the organization."
The organization includes five hotels, four banks, 46 enclosed shopping malls and ownership of the Penguins, an indoor soccer team, the Pittsburgh Civic Center and those race tracks.
"Football is the entertainment business," Eddie said. "We thought it would be good p.r. for us. . . . But that has gone by the wayside. Now it's become so very, very personal."
In 1977, Eddie DeBartolo got a call from Oakland owner Al Davis, an old friend who knew of the family's desire to buy a team. Davis was trying to find an owner for the 49ers before Wayne Valley, a former Raider owner who was feuding with Davis, could purchase the San Francisco franchise from the widows of the teams' founders, the Morabito brothers.
Soon the DeBartolos had made contact with another family friend, Joe Thomas, the former Baltimore and Miami executive who was looking for a new start in the NFL. It all seemed so easy. DeBartolo would buy the team, put Thomas, considered a front office genius, in charge and then tend to family business in Youngstown.
"That was my biggest mistake," DeBartolo said. "Joe was a qualified person but it just didn't work out. I can't have someone out there who is an island. I need communication. It got to a point where Joe wasn't returning my calls."
Thomas began by firing Coach Monte Clark, who had just guided the 49ers to their first winning season in five years.
By the spring of 1979, Thomas also had remade most of the roster, cut quarterback Jim Plunkett and worked a major trade for O.J. Simpson that stripped the 49ers of five high-round draft choices. After going through three coaches and compiling records of 5-9 and 2-14, DeBartolo fired Thomas and hired as general manager-coach Stanford's Bill Walsh, who had become a local sports hero.
"The roughest thing I've ever had to do was to fire Joe Thomas," DeBartolo said. "But Joe was isolating himself. Our image was terrible out there. It had to change. Bill Walsh was a logical choice. He was successful and visible. I could tell he was intense, personal and intelligent. He's the guy I wanted."
Paul Martha, the former star college player who serves as the 49ers' vice president and counsel, says DeBartolo has matured as an owner. "He didn't realize owning a team was going to turn out the way it did the first few years. It wasn't going to be so complicated. But he changed. He won't admit it, probably, but he has more control now. He's more on top of things, more aware of what is going on everywhere in the organization. Nothing is done now without his knowledge."
DeBartolo still isn't involved directly in the team's day-to-day operations. While he flies around the country in a private jet from his home in Youngstown, tending to DeBartolo Corporation business (he is president and chief administrative officer), Walsh and his assistants are given wide authority. The owner and coach talk at least once a week, but as Walsh put it: "There is no one watching everything I do. He has great confidence in me."
"I have to put faith in people," DeBartolo said. "I don't have to time to monitor everything . . . I serve as a support function in a finely tuned organization. Maybe it works because Bill and I have such a great relationship. If it had failed again, maybe I would have had to change my approach."
"He's smart enough," Mieuli once told an interviewer, "to let experts run his team."
Yet DeBartolo is convinced that this year proves his methods work. When the 49ers had a chance to obtain Dean from San Diego or sign free agent Hacksaw Reynolds from Los Angeles, DeBartolo pulled out his checkbook. The 49er payroll has never been higher, nor has the team been more successful.
No one has enjoyed this unexpected turnaround more than DeBartolo, a rabid fan. "He lives and dies during games," Pergine said. "If the 49ers lose, you can't talk to him for days."
DeBartolo never was a good athlete. He was too busy learning the family business, starting as a youngster working the most menial jobs. After graduating from Notre Dame in 1968, he spent time in different corporation departments before becoming president in 1979.
"Eddie is different from his father," said Martha. "Eddie is more laissez faire. His father is more dominating and more reserved. Other interests? Well, Eddie likes golf, but really between the 49ers and the family business, he doesn't have time for much else."
Pergine was amazed the first time he found out at Notre Dame that DeBartolo was a millionaire. It was just before Thanksgiving of their freshman year, when Pergine didn't have enough money to go home and DeBartolo invited him to Youngstown.
"We got to the airport and I started to buy a ticket," Pergine said. "Eddie asked me what I was doing and I told him, 'What do I do, walk?' He took me to the end of the concourse. There was his father, getting out of the company jet. I couldn't talk, I was so shocked.
"They are a proud family. They are self-made. But Eddie, he gets along with everybody. He's not stuck-up, he's one of the guys. I remember one time my father came to watch me play a game at Notre Dame and he lost his clothes on the bus. Eddie missed the game running around trying to find what happened to them. We are like brothers. He used to pick up after me when we were roommates, you know, just like my mother."
Pergine retired in 1975, two years before DeBartolo purchased the 49ers. The two often kid each other about the bad timing.
"I'm always asking him why he didn't buy the team five years earlier," said Pergine. "He laughs and tells me I was over the hill by then anyway.
"But I would have loved to play for him. He's a hell of a player's owner. That's one reason they've won this year. Eddie will do anything for that team. This is no fluke. They are going to win for a long, long time."