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Niners reconnecting present with DeBartolo-era glory days

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Thirty years ago there was Joe Montana, Bill Walsh, "The Catch" and San Francisco's first Super Bowl appearance. There was Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., too, owner of the club and the man responsible for bringing Walsh to the 49ers and five Lombardi Trophies to the team's Santa Clara headquarters.

"You know something," DeBartolo said Wednesday, "I was with Joe and Dwight [Clark] recently, and we were all saying the same thing: 'Where did three decades go?' But I'll tell you something: What's going on with the team now is reminiscent of what happened to us then.

Eddie DeBartolo Jr. presented Niners icon Jerry Rice at Hall of Fame ceremonies Aug. 2, 2010. (US Presswire)  
Eddie DeBartolo Jr. presented Niners icon Jerry Rice at Hall of Fame ceremonies Aug. 2, 2010. (US Presswire)  
"Other than a few players from that '81 team like Ronnie Lott and Joe and others, I think this is a better football team. I don't know, I just think it's a team of destiny."

Naturally, DeBartolo is not unbiased. He owned the 49ers during their glory years, with San Francisco winning 10 or more games in each of 16 straight seasons, an NFL record. He was there for Montana. He was there for Steve Young. He was there for Jerry Rice. And he was there for five Super Bowl parades.

Now he returns to San Francisco for Sunday's NFC Championship Game, serving as honorary captain for the team he owned and adored. Nephew Jed York, the 49ers' president and DeBartolo's godson, earlier this week asked him to participate, and DeBartolo was quick to accept.

"I was humbled and honored," he said. "I actually have goose bumps now talking about it. I can't put it into words what this means to me."

It is easier to put into words what DeBartolo means to San Francisco. He put its football team on the map when the city needed something, anything, to embrace in the wake of the George Moscone and Harvey Milk tragedies and Jonestown massacre. He hired Walsh, who, in turn, drafted future Hall of Famers like Montana and Rice and turned the 49ers into the league's preeminent franchise for nearly two decades.

More than that, he made people in San Francisco care about the NFL again, and he made the NFL care about the 49ers. It wasn't just that the 49ers were good; it's that they were the bar against which others were measured. You couldn't ignore them, and, more times than not, you couldn't beat them, either.

From 1981 through 1997, all on DeBartolo's watch, the 49ers appeared in 10 NFC Championship Games and never lost a Super Bowl in which they appeared. Now, for the first time since DeBartolo left the club, San Francisco is on the brink of returning to the league championship game, and I can tell you one former owner who likes their chances.

"I've known about this team because I'm so close to Jed and talk to him so much," said DeBartolo. "With Jim Harbaugh, it's like déjà vu to what we were doing back in 1979. I see so many similarities between him and Bill. I think Jim probably wears his heart on his sleeve more than Bill did -- Bill liked to keep things inside -- but they're a lot alike.

"You can see how much better they got as the season went on, particularly with the offense and Alex Smith. I look at Jim Harbaugh and think he instilled in [Smith] the confidence to be a really, really good player."

Smith is the quarterback the 49ers made the first pick of the 2005 draft, choosing him over Cal's Aaron Rodgers, and he's the quarterback who -- until this season -- was such a bust the club felt obligated to draft Colin Kaepernick to supplant him. But Smith, who was re-signed to a one-year contract, played so effectively that Kaepernick never left the bench.

I don't know how that happened or who's responsible, but I know that without Smith and without Harbaugh the 49ers wouldn't be where they are today. I also know that you can't mention San Francisco's success without mentioning the man who, together with general manager Trent Baalke, hired Harbaugh and who runs the club ... and, yes, I'm talking about York.

You can draw a comparison with his uncle of 30 years ago, except that the 30-year-old York is not nearly as flamboyant or as public as the notorious and extraordinarily popular "Mr. D." But he is as successful ... at least this season, with the 49ers achieving the identical 13-3 record as their 1981 counterpart.

"The 49ers' story is phenomenal for the NFL," said DeBartolo, "and it says a lot about Jed. I'm so impressed with him. He does remind me of me at his age, but he's so much more equipped and able to deal with what he has to do. I didn't have a clue. I was impetuous and had to learn from Bill. Things just happened, and I often had to learn them from what I'd call osmosis.

"Jed is a talented young man and does things the right way. He knows how to handle things, but, at the same time, he does a great job of staying in the background. I think when his parents said, 'OK, you're the president, and we want you to run the team,' it was the smartest decision they made."

The smartest decision Jed York made was to repair a fissure between the 49ers and their past. For too many years, the franchise was disassociated with important figures like DeBartolo, and York's first move to correct it was to reach out to his uncle and honor him as the first inductee into the team's Hall of Fame.

That was smart. Inviting DeBartolo back this weekend is smarter. The message is clear: With Eddie back, can a Super Bowl be far behind?

"I spoke to Jed immediately after last weekend's game," said DeBartolo, "and I said, "How are you doing?' And he told me, 'Uncle Eddie, I've got to tell you something: If that game had gone into overtime I think I would've fainted.' I told him, 'Hey, that happens.'

"I remember being a nervous wreck, too, but I told him that he had to do something that, until maybe 1994 [the 49ers' last Super Bowl], I never did, and that's to take hold of the moment and enjoy it. Because it's going to be with you the rest of your life."

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