SI Vault
Rick Reilly
September 10, 1990
To Eddie DeBartolo Jr., the most generous owner in sports, nothing is too good for a San Francisco 49er
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September 10, 1990

The Hand That Feeds Them

To Eddie DeBartolo Jr., the most generous owner in sports, nothing is too good for a San Francisco 49er

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The man isn't so tough. Take popcorn. Popcorn scares him to death. When his three daughters were young and they begged for popcorn, he would grunt and whip up a batch, then spend an hour prying each little kernel from each little piece so the girls wouldn't choke. "You read about that kind of thing all the time," he would say. Balloons petrified him too. The girls would come home from a store with free balloons, and he would nearly faint from worry. "They could inhale them!" he would say. So he would holler "Look at that!" and pop the balloons with a pin. And hard candy? Not in his house. "You know how dangerous that can be?" he would say. At dinner he would stare at his girls during every bite, worried that they hadn't cut their meat small enough.

Not that he has gotten any better. When he couldn't find his oldest daughter, Lisa, now 20, the day of the San Francisco earthquake last year, he nearly squeezed the innards out of his cordless phone. The fact that she was eventually found, perfectly safe, hasn't kept him from stewing about it. "Do you know she was on the Bay Bridge 15 minutes before it collapsed? She could've been killed!" Then he knocks on wood.

There is not enough wood in the world for Eddie DeBartolo Jr. to knock. The best owner in pro sports may stand only 5'7", but his supply of worry runs from here to the moon. When one of his San Francisco 49ers is injured in a road game and has to stay behind for treatment, DeBartolo sends his private jet for the player when he's ready to go home. "So he'll be more comfortable," DeBartolo says. When 49er safety Jeff Fuller severed nerves in his neck on a helmet-first tackle during a game with New England last October, DeBartolo immediately left his luxury box, followed the ambulance to the hospital, waited in Fuller's hospital room, watched Fuller cry, cried himself and eventually, under absolutely no legal obligation, arranged to pay Fuller—who still has no movement in his right arm—$100,000 a year for the rest of his life.

DeBartolo once called home twice a day from Europe just to check on Cleo, his Great Dane, who didn't happen to be sick. After seeing a CNN report in late '88 about Amber Garza, a one-year-old in Fort Myers, Fla., who was gravely ill and awaiting a liver transplant, DeBartolo sent $25,000 to the TLC Governor's Fund to help her or, if she died, other children in similar situations. When Garza died soon afterward, DeBartolo sent $1,558 to cover her funeral. Today, three years after his mother's death from lung cancer, DeBartolo still worries that he didn't do enough for her. "Every day you read about something else they're trying in Mexico or Japan or somewhere," he sighs. "You can't help but wonder if you've tried everything."

The man has fretted his way to the top. Is this player happy? Is he mad at me? Does he feel part of the team? Is his wife happy? "Thank god Eddie didn't have to cut guys," says Bill Walsh, the 49ers' ex-coach, "or they'd never have gotten cut." DeBartolo would have 1,311 guys on the taxi squad if the NFL would let him.

His largess is the largest in the league. When Niner fullback Harry Sydney and his wife, Nancy, had their third child, DeBartolo sent flowers two hours after the birth. "Two hours!" says Sydney. When linebacker Jim Fahnhorst's wife, Kim, delivered twins, DeBartolo's flowers weighed 70 pounds. Every time the 49ers win their division—and every Easter, too—every player and staff member gets two dozen long-stemmed red roses for his wife or mother or girlfriend. Last Christmas DeBartolo sent each wife or girlfriend a $500 Neiman-Marcus gift certificate. "When I signed, Eddie sent me a fruit basket," says new 49er nosetackle Fred Smerlas. "I spent 11 years in Buffalo, made five Pro Bowls, and I never got a fruit basket. In fact, I never even got a piece of fruit."

When the Niners won their third Super Bowl, in January '89, DeBartolo flew every player and office staffer and a guest to Youngstown, Ohio, DeBartolo's hometown, for two nights. He brought in the pastry chef from the Beverly Hills Hotel, the head chef from the Mayfair House hotel in Miami and four other chefs from across the country. They produced a gourmet dinner for 750, including freshly made pasta, smoked Norwegian salmon, imported lobster, Belgian endive salad and homemade chocolates—all served by more than 100 models brought from New York and elsewhere and trained as waitresses for the occasion. Singer Jeffrey Osborne entertained.

The night before the banquet, DeBartolo reserved his restaurant, Paonessa's, exclusively for his guests. The women found no prices on their menus. Come to think of it, neither did the men. Each night, the players came back to their rooms at the Holiday Inn, which DeBartolo also owns, to find a surprise: a portable CD player, a decanter of perfume, a bottle of cologne, Godiva chocolates in a cut-glass vase, a bottle of champagne, the inevitable fruit basket. This stuff will beat a mint on your pillow every time.

When the Niners won the Super Bowl again last January, DeBartolo had to top his considerable self—and did. He flew everybody to the Westin Kauai in Hawaii for a week of thankstaking. This time Huey Lewis entertained. The players got $600 to spend on meals, which, of course, were all free in the first place. "Then he decides that wasn't enough," says linebacker Matt Millen, "so he gives us $500 more."

Forty-niner coach George Seifert casually mentioned once that his fishing boat was in pretty bad shape. DeBartolo bought him a new boat. "If we win the Super Bowl again," says Seifert, "you can be sure I'll mention my small three-bedroom house."

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