Kiichiro Sato/Associated Press
Fred Dean on former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo: "He may be a little short in size, but believe me, he is as big as all of this."


CANTON, Ohio -- It did not take long for one of the central themes of the day to take hold: While the relationship between player and owner is not always the most publicized, it is one of the most profound bonds in professional football.

This became evident from the start of Saturday's Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremony as Patriots owner Bob Kraft was linebacker Andre Tippett's choice to present him.

In the time that Kraft went from being one of Tippett's biggest fans to being his employer, his affection for the Hall of Fame inductee only grew.

"I will never forget the first time I met Andre," said Kraft in his introductory speech, "It was on the field at the old stadium in 1985 and Andre was doing a photo shoot. He wasn't dressed in his Patriot uniform, he was wearing a white karate ghi with a black belt wrapped around his waist. Now, I have met a lot of football players over the years, but he's the only one I know who is a fifth-degree black belt."

And so the love affair between the club's greatest defensive player (and martial artist) and its greatest owner was born.

It has endured from the days Kraft sat in the Foxboro Stadium stands as a fan through his time sitting in the owner's box at Gillette Stadium.

Coincidentally, Kraft's stewardship of the team began the same year as Tippett's retirement.

Unwilling to let go of his football hero, Kraft offered Tippett a spot in the front office when he took over the team. To this day, Tippett still serves as the team's executive director of community affairs.

"Twenty-six years ago, Andre Tippett began giving fans of New England some great thrills and memories," Kraft said. "If you had told me then, while I was sitting on those cold metal benches at the old stadium with my four sons, that Andre and I would one day become friends, I wouldn't have believed it. I never could imagine that this Patriot fan would one day be asked by Andre Tippett to present him for enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This is truly the ultimate sports fan's dream."

That Tippett could share such a strong bond with an owner whom he did not play for shows just how deep his love is for Kraft and the New England Patriots.

"As Robert told you guys, he and I have shared so much personally and professionally. He and I share a common bond of loyalty and family ... Robert, thank you again for believing in me," Tippett remarked as he began his induction speech.

Tippett then proclaimed, "I am so proud to have been a Patriot for 26 years. I hope to be a Patriot for another 26 years."

The trend of players being presented by owners would continue with former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo stepping up to the podium to introduce San Francisco great Fred Dean.

DeBartolo did not even try to hide the championship debt he will forever owe to Dean.

"We wouldn't have won five (Super Bowls) if we had not won the first two and I assure you, we would not have won the first two if it wasn't for Fred Dean," DeBartolo said.

In fact, DeBartolo could not keep himself from calling Dean "the natural" throughout his speech.

For his part, Dean was just as complimentary of the man he calls "Eddie D."

At the dawn of a heartfelt speech in which Dean let the crowd see a far different side of him than the vicious pass rusher he was on the field, he thanked DeBartolo profusely.

He then took his admiration for DeBartolo a step further, using the platform of his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech to stump for DeBartolo's Hall of Fame candidacy.

"I hope to one day see him in this position of being enshrined. I say that because I know a man's heart. He's very supportive of my family and his generosity is beyond belief," explained Dean.

"He may be a little short in size, but believe me, he is as big as all of this."

The player-owner display persisted when soft-spoken offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman was announced as the fifth inductee.

Owner Pat Bowlen's Broncos traded for Zimmerman from the Vikings in 1993 and ushered in a sustained era of offensive firepower by acquiring the rock of the offensive line.

"There's no doubt in my mind that for five years he was the mainstay of our offensive line, and a main reason why we were able to go win our first Super Bowl in 1997," noted Bowlen.

In fact, it was Zimmerman who charted the team's success from the moment he entered Denver's locker room.

While Zimmerman may have avoided the media and shunned the spotlight, his leadership role with his linemates was unquestioned, at least not by Bowlen.

"One of the things Gary was very good at was inspiring his teammates," revealed Bowlen.

"When he arrived in Denver, he sat the other four offensive linemen down and said this is what we're going to do. We're going to work our tails off, we're never going to talk to the press and we're going to have our corner of the room."

And what followed was a corner of the room that became one of the best offensive lines in the game.

Zimmerman then came to the microphone and showed his appreciation for Bowlen's role in his career and success.

"I am truly honored to be presented by a man who has made such a huge impact on my life," he said. "It is a dream come true to play for an owner who is so committed to winning."

If there was ever a moment that demonstrated the concept of "behind every great player is often a great owner," this Hall of Fame induction ceremony was it.

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