Those were the days when DeBartolo and Pergine would stay up late, plotting their brilliant careers on the dorm ceiling. "John, I'm gonna own a football team someday," DeBartolo once said.
Late-night dreams get forgotten in the morning. DeBartolo graduated in '68 and returned to his father's businesses. But something was not right. What challenge was there in taking over his father's work? It was like making the white pages or inheriting England. Even his father called him the Prince. "He was trying to find his own identity," says Candy, Eddie's wife and high-school sweetheart. "He had such big shoes to fill. It was always, 'This is Edward DeBartolo Senior's son.' Not, ' Eddie DeBartolo Junior.' "
Besides, what was there to do that his father wasn't already doing from 5:20 in the morning until eight at night? The mall game is knowing the right people at Sears and Nordstrom and J.C. Penney. "Back then, he wouldn't let anybody else handle the contacts," Eddie Jr. says. "He had them all. And you found yourself saying, 'I don't want to take anything away from him. Maybe there's something else I should be doing.' "
One morning in January 1977, a phone message arrived from Joe Thomas, rock-fisted builder of football franchises in Baltimore and Miami. He wanted to know if Eddie Sr. wanted to buy the San Francisco 49ers. Could you tell him I called? Not so fast, thought Eddie Jr.
Why football? "He'll probably kill me for saying this," says Candy. "But because of his size, he wasn't able to really play sports in high school. And yet he really loved football. He's strong as an ox, but not tall, so maybe that's why he got into ownership."
Days later Pergine picked up the phone to find his old roommate on the other end. "Remember the time I said I was going to buy a football team?" DeBartolo asked.
"So?" said Pergine, who had gone on to play pro ball (four years with the Rams, three with the Redskins).
"I just bought the San Francisco 49ers."
DeBartolo was 30.
Unfortunately, when he bought the team, DeBartolo installed Thomas as general manager. In two years, Thomas practically wrecked the franchise. He began by ordering all the pictures of former 49er greats taken down and burned. (A public relations assistant hid them in his basement instead.) Thomas told 49er legends like Hugh McElhenny and Y.A. Tittle that their days of special privileges were over. He abolished the kids' section at Candlestick Park, wiped out the cheer-leading group, even canceled the team Christmas card.