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The speech by Eddie DeBartolo Jr. during the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction lasted 27 minutes, but he waited what probably felt like an eternity to be there. It was a moment that could have focused on DeBartolo, the greatest owner in San Francisco 49ers history and arguably the greatest owner in all of sports history, but he would not allow that. Instead, his speech focused outward on the people around him that touched his life and made a difference to him – the people that he felt were responsible for his legacy. Not just his coaches, staff, and players, but his family as well.
The man who spent lavishly on his players and spared no expense on the team that he loved so much gave an eloquent and gracious speech on Saturday night.
"I'm so short I had to get on a box," joked DeBartolo in the opening moments. "To share this stage with these amazing gentlemen behind me today is more than humbling," he continued. "We all may be wearing the same jackets, but they have shoes that I could never, ever fill."
Edward J. DeBartolo's Hall of Fame speech
He went on to thank the Pro Football Hall of Fame staff, the city of Canton, and the 49ers Faithful in attendance. He would also mention all of those who worked for him throughout his ownership of the franchise. "I stand here today for the equipment managers and the groundskeepers and the laundry crew who worked hard every day," said DeBartolo. "I stand here for the executive assistants, the PR team, and the interns who work through the weekends. I stand here for the scouts and the bus drivers, and the cooks and the schedulers and the dog vendors and the community reps who might never, ever see their name in lights, but who are every bit as important to building a winning football franchise as the players we root for on Sunday."
"I came here to Canton about a year after the Hall opened," shared DeBartolo. "It had just two rooms then, but as I looked around at the names, George Halas, Art Rooney, Tim Mara, I thought it was one of the most amazing places on earth. It is beyond my wildest dreams that my name will now be alongside theirs."
RELATED Transcript: Eddie DeBartolo speaks at Pro Football Hall of Fame induction
"For me, one of the biggest honors today is joining my guys, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, Charles Haley, Freddy Dean, Steve Young, and of course the great Bill Walsh," said DeBartolo.
"If there is one secret to the success of the 49ers, it is this: We did not see players as simply players," said DeBartolo. "We saw them as men. We saw them as sons, husbands, fathers, brothers, with families and responsibilities."
DeBartolo's speech was full of fascinating stories. For example, the fact that DeBartolo and Bill Walsh gave Blair Buswell, who has made over 80 busts for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, his opportunity to do so. 34 years later, Buswell would be making the bust of the man who made his career possible.
He shared the story of the longest day of his life. The day of the 1989 earthquake during the World Series, when he worried about the safety of his two daughters Lisa, who presented him on Saturday, and Tiffanie. Dwight Clark would later be the one to call DeBartolo to inform him that his daughters were safe. "To me, that was the greatest catch of Dwight Clark's career," said DeBartolo.
He shared the story of drafting Joe Montana. "It was the third round of the 1979 draft, and I remember standing outside our makeshift office in Redwood City, California. Bill came out and said, 'there is this kid from Notre Dame on the board. Should we take a shot with him in the third round?' Having graduated from South Bend I said, how can you go wrong with somebody from Notre Dame?
"So we drafted Joe Montana, and he came out the next day. I looked at him and almost fell over. He was a kid. He had a big Fu Manchu mustache. He looked like he weighed about 170 pounds. He was listed at 6'2", and he didn't look an inch past 6 foot. I said: Oh, dear God."
Montana would go on to win DeBartolo and the 49ers four Super Bowl championships. It all started with one of the most famous plays in NFL history – "The Catch." It was the play that matured the 49ers into a championship team.
"People always ask me what I remember about the catch," said DeBartolo. "There was about a minute left and we were driving. I wanted to be on the field with the guys, so I went through the tunnel and out of the dugout. I was trying to see what was happening, but I was behind the biggest horse that you could ever imagine, with the police officer on him about 12 feet above me. Then I heard the screams of the crowd and looked up to the officer. He put his thumb up and winked and said, Clark, touchdown. That's how I found out. At our moment of glory, I was literally blocked by a horse's ass."
DeBartolo revealed that the goalpost that Clark caught the ball under is installed in his backyard in Montana. It was moved there before Candlestick Park was demolished.
DeBartolo also revealed the nickname "Fifi." It was what the players called then-rookie Jerry Rice because of his tall haircut. Amusingly, Rice stood within the audience with a look of surprise that the story was being shared. "Do you know why Jerry looked so pretty on the field all the time? Because the man hated to be wet," DeBartolo continued. "He'd go into the locker room and change his uniform two or three times a game." Again, Rice stood up in disbelief.
DeBartolo cared so much about his players, that he would meet them in the locker room or ride with them in the ambulance to the hospital if they got injured during a game. "When Jeff Fuller lost the use of his arm making a tackle in 1989, I felt an obligation to make sure that he and his family were taken care of for the rest of their lives," said DeBartolo.
He also shared the story of a note that he received from the late Bill Walsh. It was a note that he received after learning of his selection into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "I wish Bill Walsh could be here today. I miss him every single day," said DeBartolo. "At the very end, I was with him at Stanford hospital, it meant so much to have those last few hours together, laughing and sharing old memories.
"He told me that even though he wouldn't be there to see it, that he believed I would make it to this hall one day. I know that he told his good friend Dr. Harry Edwards the same thing. Just before he died in 2007, Bill was thinking about every detail just like when he was coaching. About a week after I was selected as part of the Class of 2016, I received a package in the mail from Bill's son, Greg. It was a small 49ers helmet with Bill's autograph and a note Bill wrote that said: I knew it was just a matter of time. Congratulations on your election. Love, Bill."